NEW YORK — If you’re trying to watch calories while paying less than $5 for your meal at a fast-food restaurant, sticking to the value menu might not be a bad idea.
Fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are trumpeting pricier, premium offerings to shed their image as purveyors of greasy junk food and convince customers to spend a few extra bucks.
These “premium” products tend to have a relatively healthier glow. They’re more expensive, so people assume they’re made with higher-quality ingredients, thus making them healthier. The assumption is that the cheapest (value menu) foods are low quality and, by extension, not as good for you.
But the fact is that “premium” items can come with lots of calories. With that in mind, here are a few points for when deciding what to get at a fast-food chain:
Premium doesn’t mean healthy
Items on value menus aren’t as fattening simply because they tend to be more basic. Trading up means you get more calories in the form of more meat, cheese or extras such as bacon.
Take McDonald’s; all three sandwiches on the Dollar Menu have less than 400 calories. By contrast, five out of six of the new premium chicken wraps come in at more than 400; the chicken & bacon wrap is 620 calories if you opt for the “crispy” version, which means deep-fried. That’s more than a 550-calorie Big Mac. Yet there’s something about a wrap that makes people feel they’re being virtuous.
The story isn’t that different at other chains.
Four out of five of the sandwiches on the value menu at Wendy’s have less than 400 calories, with a junior cheeseburger being the lowest-calorie option at 290 calories (for 99 cents). Nixing french fries can save a buck or so, while dramatically reducing calories.
Even adding an order of value menu fries to your junior cheeseburger would still only bring your meal to about $2 and 510 calories. Adding a diet soda tacks on 99 cents to your receipt and zero calories.
By contrast, consider the new premium offerings from Wendy’s: the new Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger clocks in at 680 calories. The suggested price is $4.69.
The same theory applies on a larger scale; just because you’re eating at a place with a spiffier image doesn’t mean you’re on track to a smaller waist.
Building your own order
Fast-food chains employ a variety of methods to bypass your good intentions and get you to spend more.
Subway, which positions itself as a fresh, healthy alternative, isn’t exempt. The potato chips it sells, for example, aren’t just on a rack off to the side, but also line the counter that people walk alongside to order.
The strategic placement is intended to boost the chances you’ll grab a bag while you’re dictating what you want on your sub. Once you get to the register, a shelf of cookies beckons.
The classic example of this is the combo meal, which makes it easier for you to order quickly while also helping you spend and eat a little more.
For example, the Whopper meal at Burger King is 970 calories – assuming you opt for small french fries and a Diet Coke, which doesn’t have any calories. Upgrade to large fries and you’re at 1,130 calories.
By contrast, order a bacon burger and small fries from the value menu and your meal would be 560 calories.
After reporting its latest quarterly results, McDonald’s also noted it would employ more “suggestive selling strategies” at the register to encourage people to try new products or add-ons, although it didn’t provide any details on what this would entail.
To combat such tactics, check out the nutrition information on restaurant websites ahead of time to decide what you want.