How do full-service and fast-food chains stack up on the health front?

Analysis by MCA of attitudes to healthy eating has found which operators consumers think are offering the best options, while a new study claims restaurant and pub dishes are unhealthier than fast food.

13 December 2018
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  • According to MCA research, 29% of consumers view Yo Sushi as offering the healthiest options on the high street. Wagamama had the second best nutritional reputation (19%), followed by Nando’s (17%).
  • When asked what they would most like to see pubs and restaurants doing to help healthy eating, 43% of consumers said promotional offers around healthier items and 36% said expanded choices. Almost a third called for calorie labelling on all items of the menu.
  • In terms of consumer satisfaction with healthy eating choices, supermarkets were the best-regarded channel, at 74%.
  • Branded pubs and restaurants were deemed satisfactory in terms of healthy eating by 43% of people, compared to 39% for branded cafes and 31% for branded fast-food outlets.
  • Breakfast is when consumers tend to eat healthiest (40%), while lunch is when they are least healthy (23%).
  • Not surprisingly, consumers said they ate most healthily in the earlier part of the week, particularly Monday (54%), with these intentions dropping off by Friday (16%).
  • Over the last six months, 28% said they were either more open to, or were eating more, meat-free meals.
  • The government was the most valued source for advice on healthy eating – but 48% said the government should not intervene when it comes to influencing what food people consume.


Consumer perception of which operators are healthier appears to conflict with the reality. Recent research published in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) showed that full-service restaurant chains tend to offer unhealthier mains than fast-food outlets. Overall, there are excessive calories in popular dishes from both, with only a minority meeting the public health recommendations of no more than 600 calories.

The study from the University of Liverpool sampled main meals from 21 full-service pubs and restaurant chains and six fast-food chains, focussing on brands with 50 or more sites.

It found an average of 751 calories in mains served by fast-food chains and 1,033 calories in those served by full-service restaurant chains. It also revealed that 89% of full-service dishes and 83% of fast-food dishes were over the advisory limit. Overall, across the meals from major eating-out chains, the mean energy content of mains was 977 calories, though 47% were “excessive” in energy content – meaning they were more than 1,000 calories.

Full-service chains also tended to serve more highly calorific main meals and provide fewer main meals meeting public health recommendations for energy consumption, the study said.

The authors admitted the reasons for the divergence were not clear, but multiple factors were likely to be involved, including the type of food sold, while decisions about portion size, energy density of ingredients and cooking methods were also likely to explain differences in meal energy content between full-service and fast-food restaurants.

“A further explanation is that the negative press received by the fast-food sector because of poor nutritional quality of products may have caused restaurant chains in this sector to offer more lower-energy meal options or reformulate existing products to reduce energy content, whereas the full-service restaurant sector does not seem to have experienced similar pressures,” the study added.

The full-service chains included in the study were All Bar One, Ask Italian, Bill’s, Chef and Brewer, Ember Inns, Flaming Grill, Harvester, Hungry Horse, JD Wetherspoon, Nando’s, Old English Inns, PizzaExpress, Pizza Hut, Sizzling Pubs, Slug and Lettuce, Stone House, Table Table, Toby Carvery, Vintage Inns, Wagamama and Zizzi.

The fast-food chains investigated were Burger King, KFC, Leon, McDonald’s, Subway and Wimpy.

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