How has fast food changed over the past 30 years

by | Diet and Weightloss, Healthy Living

Fast food has remained a popular food choice for decades. Yet despite the push for having healthier options on the menu, over the last 30 years, the quality of fast food has been declining while the portion size has grown.

Fast food restaurants are on the rise around the world. In Australia, the average person eats fast food nearly every week.

Fast food cannot be blamed entirely for the rise in obesity rates over the last several decades, but it certainly has a role to play especially when combined with the pervasive marketing and sponsorship arrangements of the big multinational brands.

How often a person eats takeaway food is linked to higher body weights and more likelihood of conditions such as high blood pressure and insulin resistance. Another factor is the growing portion sizes of fast food. Larger portions mean more kilojoules, salt and sugar that for most people, they simply don’t need.

Just how much fast food portion size has grown over the years was the topic of a new study in the United States. The research team examined changes in portion size, energy and micronutrients in 10 popular fast-food restaurants over 30 years from 1986 to 2016.

The first finding was the growth in the sheer number of options to choose from with over a tripling in the number of entrees, desserts, and side dishes available to order.

The energy (kilojoules) per serve in each of the food categories increased significantly with desserts adding an extra 260 kilojoules and entrees an additional 126 kilojoules. The sodium content of the foods also saw a spike up. Calcium content of desserts increased, though this can be explained by many being dairy-based, so larger portions means more calcium.

Large serving sizes appeal to a consumer’s ‘sense of value,’ which is great if looking for a bargain in washing powder for example. But in an environment that has strong drivers to promote weight gain, such ‘value for money’ behaviour seeking when it comes to food is to most people’s detriment.

It’s been estimated that reducing exposure to larger serving sizes could reduce daily energy intake by between 12 and 16 per cent for an adult. In the face of the growing overweight and obesity problem, these are not numbers to be trifled with.


This study offers an explanation for how fast food may have helped fuel the growing obesity problem. Changes in the food environment – especially what people outside of the home eat – requires a multi-pronged approach that needs to look at food quality, quantity and how it is promoted.