Healthy Fast Food Not So Healthy

Reading time: 5 – 8 minutes

Have you ever wondered if those healthy fast food meals are really any better for you? McDonald’s has the Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait, Wendy’s offers Garden Sensations salads and at Burger King you can even get a veggie burger.

Yogurt, salad, veggie burger … these are all healthy foods.

However, new research suggests that healthy fast food meals have the same effect on your cardiovascular system as a burger, fries and a soda.

fast_food.jpgThe endothelium is a thin layer of cells that line the interior surface of blood vessels. Endothelial cells line the entire circulatory system, from small capillaries to veins and arteries to the heart. These cells are responsible for regulating blood flow and blood pressure through vasoconstriction and vasodilation.

High-fat meals have a negative effect on endothelial function, causing endothelial dysfunction, meaning there is less elasticity of blood vessels and reduced blood flow. Endothelial dysfunction is a marker for cardiovascular disease and can lead to atherosclerosis or high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Ten years ago, a study linked diet and endothelial dysfunction [1]. Twenty healthy men and women with normal levels of total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol were fed four randomly administered breakfasts: a high-fat meal consisting of Egg and Sausage McMuffins with fried hash browns, a low-fat meal, a high-fat meal after taking the antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E, and a low-fat meal with the same vitamin pretreatment. Ultrasound was then used to measure changes in blood vessel tone and blood flow in the brachial artery. The researchers found that decreased vasodilation occurred for up to 4 hours following the high-fat meal, while no significant changes were observed in blood vessel tone and brachial blood flow after the low-fat meal, the high-fat meal with vitamins or the low-fat meal with vitamin pretreatment. The study demonstrated the benefits of vitamins C and E, and the authors concluded that antioxidants help maintain normal endothelial function. Today, vitamin-rich side orders are prevalent throughout the fast food industry.

Researchers now have found that these presumably healthier alternatives to a burger and fries does not significantly differ with respect to their acute impairment of endothelial function [2]. Endothelial function, measured again using ultrasound, and cardiovascular disease risk markers were measured in 24 healthy volunteers who randomly received one of three fast food meals on three study days separated by 1 week:

  • Big Mac with regular side orders (french fries, ketchup and Sprite)
  • Vegetarian burger with regular side orders (french fries, ketchup and Sprite)
  • Vegetarian burger with vitamin-rich side orders (salad, balsamic dressing, yogurt with fruit and Minute Maid orange juice)

Unexpectedly, all three meals resulted in decreased endothelial function. In contrast to the study ten years ago, even consumption of the vegetarian burger with vitamin-rich side orders resulted in decreased vasodilation. The researchers suggest that the reduced endothelial function may be attributable, at least in part, to the increase in baseline arterial diameter following a meal.

Why the conflicting results? The vitamin pretreatment given in the study 10 years ago was extremely high – over 10 times (1000 mg) the recommended daily intake of vitamin C and over 50 times (800 IU) the recommended daily intake of vitamin E [3]. While a salad, yogurt and orange juice are good, healthy foods, they contain substantially lower levels of antioxidants.

These results come in the wake of another study finding that fast food branding makes children prefer happy meals [4]. NewScientist reported that:

… children in the study were twice as likely to prefer the McDonalds-branded carrots as the plain-packaged ones. This suggests that marketing savvy could perhaps convince youngsters to make healthful choices. Some companies have already begun experimenting with this tactic by using Mickey Mouse cartoons to sell sliced fruit and placing Curious George stickers on bananas.
Last month McDonalds announced it would shift its advertising targeted to children under the age of 13 to focus on the 375-calorie Happy Meal, which it says meets current dietary standards outlined by the government.

What does all this mean? It means that eating a side salad with your burger or adding carrots in your child’s happy meal can’t prevent the harmful affects of fast food on the vascular system. Eating healthy doesn’t mean an apple here and a carrot there, it means a complete change in the types of meals we eat.


  1. Plotnick et al. Effect of antioxidant vitamins on the transient impairment of endothelium-dependent brachial artery vasoactivity following a single high-fat meal. JAMA. 1997 Nov 26;278(20):1682-6.
    View abstract
  2. Rudolph et al. Acute effects of various fast-food meals on vascular function and cardiovascular disease risk markers: the Hamburg Burger Trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Aug;86(2):334-340.
    View abstract
  3. Dietary Reference Intakes: Vitamins. U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agriculture Library.
  4. Robinson et al. Effects of fast food branding on young children’s taste preferences. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007 Aug;161(8):792-7.
    View abstract
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.