Fast Food Burgers & Fries Compared

Big Mac

Instead of analyzing one specific restaurant on this particular Menu Monday, I thought it might be fun to make some apples-to-apples burgers-to-burgers comparisons of a few popular fast food chains.

I’m not encouraging you to visit any of these establishments — since only a trivial few of their offerings (none of which are mentioned here) might be worthy of a green check-mark at all — but I do think it’s interesting to see which chains are “better” and which are “worse” when it comes to some standard American fast-fare.

McDonald’s is the restaurant most often vilified when we’re talking about fast food — and with good reason: They pretty much invented it, and are the biggest player by a huge margin. They have more locations than Burger King, Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr., Jack in the Box, Fatburger, Sonic, and In-N-Out — combined.* (They also employ over 1.5 million people worldwide!)

So how does Mickey D’s compare to some of the other chains? The answer might surprise you.

To keep it simple, I’ve picked two options for each of the major chains — their “signature” burger and whatever is the closest I can find to a “regular” cheeseburger.  I’m also including a medium order of fries, so we can see how they stack up.  Frankly, I have no idea what the most popular menu items actually are, but I figure the Big Mac and Whopper (and similar) have to be near the top of the list, so it makes sense to compare them rather than some of the other (even larger) options.

I wouldn’t consider any of these items healthful (unless you’re suffering from kwashiorkor, which, if you’re reading this, I can just about guarantee that you’re not), and in fact this post could easily be read as an indictment of the entire fast food industry.

Nevertheless, there are some significant differences between the chains.  Some cheeseburgers, for example, can be nearly double the calories of others (In-N-Out vs. Wendy’s), and the sodium in the fries can vary by up to three times (Carl’s Jr. vs. McDonald’s).

The lists below are sorted by calories, and in each column the lowest numbers are green and the highest are red.

Signature Burgers

CaloriesSat. FatTotal Fat.Sodium
Wendy’s: 1/4lb Single with Cheese53011271,200
McDonald’s: Big Mac54010291,040
Jack in the Box: Bonus Jack54013331,062
Sonic: Cheeseburger63012311,138
Carl’s Jr.: Famous Star with Cheese66013391,240
Fatburger: “Fatburger” with American Cheese66012.5361,410
Burger King: Whopper6701140980
In-N-Out: Double-Double with Onion67018411,440

1/4 Pound Cheeseburger

CaloriesSat. FatTotal Fat.Sodium
Wendy’s: Jr. Cheeseburger270511690
Carl’s Jr.: Kid’s Cheeseburger290715790
Burger King: Cheeseburger300614710
McDonald’s: Cheeseburger300612750
Sonic: Jr. Burger (comes without cheese)313515611
Fatburger: “Baby Fat” (without cheese)4006211,080
Jack in the Box: Hamburger Deluxe with Cheese421923947
In-N-Out: Cheeseburger with Onion48010271,000

Medium Fries

CaloriesSat. FatTotal Fat.Sodium
Sonic326213437
McDonald’s3802.519270
Fatburger (“Skinny”)3903.515730
In-N-Out Fries (one size)400518245
Wendy’s4203.520500
Carl’s Jr.430421870
Burger King4404.522670
Jack in the Box443220809

Signature Burger PLUS Medium Fries

CaloriesSat. FatTotal Fat.Sodium
McDonald’s92012.5481,310
Wendy’s95014.5471,700
Sonic95614441,575
Jack in the Box98315531,871
Fatburger1,05016512,140
In-N-Out1,07023591,685
Carl’s Jr.1,09017602,110
Burger King1,11015.5621,650

Conclusions

Although it’s not entirely consistent – and I must reiterate that these aren’t the only options at each chain – I think it’s noteworthy that McDonald’s is near the top of the list in all three categories. If you were to order a Big Mac and Medium Fries, you’d actually do better than a similar order at any of the other chains.

Sadly, In-N-Out performs poorly for both burgers, though their fries are the lowest in sodium which helps them a bit in the final tally.  Burger King may have the most calories (their sandwiches are some of the biggest), but Fatburger and Carl’s Jr. are the only ones over 2,000 mg of sodium (taking it from “too much” to “way too much.”).

One final disclaimer: This is an intellectual exercise — I’m not recommending that you eat any of these food products. Calorie intake should be around 1,500 to 2,500 (depending on your needs), saturated fat should be under 20-25 grams per day, and sodium should be under 2,400 milligrams. Those are totals for your the entire day, so I find it hard to see how any of these can be part of a healthful diet. McSigh.

Menu Mondays are my recommendations for the most healthful options at chain restaurants. Although it may be tough to find “perfect” options when eating out, it’s important to choose “better” whenever possible, and I hope these guides will help make that easier for you.

* McDonald’s has 31,000+ locations, Burger King: 12,000+, Wendy’s: about 6,700, Sonic: 3,000, Jack in the Box: 2,100, Carl’s Jr.: 1,100, In-N-Out: 140, Fatburger: 102.

Image by SnaPsi.

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20 Comments on "Fast Food Burgers & Fries Compared"

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Amanda
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Amanda
December 6, 2010 9:52 am

So sad about In n Out, in Cali we tend to snub fast food more than other places I have lived, but In N Out is like this exception everyone makes, and somehow we like to think it is healthier, at least than McDonalds 🙁

Michelle
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Michelle
December 6, 2010 11:04 am

Interesting to see that all of the burger + fries combos are over 1 mg of sodium, and some over 2 mg! No surprise that one would order a soda to wash that down!

Laya
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December 6, 2010 11:09 am

Honestly, I’d like to see a post about the “sit down fast food” type places – Boston Market, TGI Friday’s, Chili’s, etc.

Personally, if fast food is my only choice (and unfortunately, sometimes it is) my place of choice is Chick-Fil-A. I can get a guaranteed fresh salad (since other fast food salads are very hit and miss) and one of two low fat dressing choices and come away satisfied, while my friends indulge in the fried offerings and full fat milkshakes. Plus sugar free lemonade (if you don’t mind Splenda, that is)!

Charles
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Charles
August 3, 2012 3:34 pm
Hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but Chick-fil-A is NOT a healthy food. Here are the ridiculous amount of ingrediens in a chicken sandwich: Chick-fil-A® Chicken Sandwich Chicken (100% natural whole breast filet, seasoning [salt, monosodium glutamate, sugar, spices, paprika], seasoned coater [enriched bleached flour {bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid}, sugar, salt, monosodium glutamate, nonfat milk, leavening {baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate}, spice, soybean oil, color {paprika}], milk wash [water, whole powdered egg and nonfat milk solids], peanut oil [fully refined peanut oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness and dimethylpolysiloxane an anti-foaming agent added]), bun (enriched flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate {Vitamin B1}, riboflavin {Vitamin B2}, folic acid], water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, contains 2% or less of each of the following: liquid yeast, soybean oil, nonfat milk, salt, wheat… Read more »
Derek @ Sac-Town Health
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December 6, 2010 5:09 pm

It’s not a big surprise about the sodium. I don’t understand why there is so much salt on everything. If you go a month without eating fast food, then you can hardly eat it at all because it tastes so salty. Not only would it be healthier with less, but it would taste better also.

Kristy
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Kristy
December 7, 2010 9:53 am

It’s grea to see these stats all put together in one place. I don’t eat beef, but the fry comparison alone is enough to re-remind me why I don’t like to stop at fast food resterants when I’m traveling.

Another vote for Chick-Fil-A comparisons, both healthy and unhealthy. I can eat healthier there, but if I’m going to splurge on something fried, Chick-Fil-A is always my choice. I heard there 8 piece chicken nuggests is one of the lowest calorie fast food fixes?

Danielle
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Danielle
January 30, 2012 1:52 pm

unfort. I cant include Chick Fil A in any of my choice due to their moral and ethical view points, so wont eat there out of principal. No matter how good their food is 🙁

Kitty Ball
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Kitty Ball
October 1, 2013 5:51 pm

This is about comparing fast food not about one companys stand on moral issues.

Jacqueline Gonzales
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September 26, 2011 1:48 pm

I realize I’m way late on this but what about a post comparing salads or other “healthier” options at the fast food places? As a recovering fast food addict, I’ve switched to healthier options at many places (like Wendy’s signature salads or McDonald’s Oatmeal). How do these stack up compared to each other?

Pedro
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Pedro
February 1, 2012 12:22 pm

This is article is stupid. Do you people honestly think that McDonald’s is healthier than In-n-Out? In-n-out might have more calories, but at least they use fresher ingredients than any other big chain. Also, you are not require to eat a double double, you can just settle for a cheeseburger. In-n-out uses fresh ingredients and I am sure it is the healthiest fast food option. McDonald’s uses “pink slime” in their meat…enough said.

Bet
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Bet
February 15, 2012 12:49 am

Besides fat and sodium, chemicals should be taken into factor too. McDonald lettuce is said to be sprayed with 13 chemicals to keep it green and crispy and their patties are questionable as well. Sadly they seem to be cutting quality with their foods but pouring money into their marketing campaigns. Not a fan, never will be again.

Cris
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Cris
March 6, 2013 11:03 pm

I can read these blogs all day!! Great info!! Keep them coming :).

Amber
Guest
October 1, 2013 5:09 am

Ok so, my husband and I own a little burger place in Spring, Texas and we do EVERYTHING fresh, (even our buns which are wheat based) never frozen and we get most of our produce from local growers or markets. How do we make it even better? We would love to offer organic but that isn’t always possible given the seasons change and some things don’t have a good quality when it’s not in season. We have been thinking about buying land and growing our own produce but that takes way more man power and money than we have for now. Any advice?

Sheila Trassare
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Sheila Trassare
September 2, 2014 12:26 am
I bounced over here from 100 days of real food website as I typically will click on links/sites they recommend for more ideas. This entire article discredits your entire mantra of eating unprocessed foods. This article simply stated the caloric intake of said burger and fries, saturated fat, sodium and total fat. WHERE in this article does it talk about WHAT each burger is made of. Which one is MORE processed than the other? Isn’t that the whole premise of your blog? To NOT eat processed foods, and to help us decide WHICH is the least processed? Even though it may have the most calories, eating something that is more a whole food than one that is highly processed is a FAR better choice isn’t it? This is exactly the whole confusion of whole wheat or whole grain. Please PLEASE don’t mislead more people if your mantra is to cut… Read more »
Sladeka
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Sladeka
January 31, 2015 1:51 pm

Having worked in the industry, the other thing to watch out for when eating at these places is the various preservatives and processes they put their food through in order for it to look good/taste good, etc. Which is why the greens often have been washed to keep them looking fresh, salt is added to make cheaper cuts of beef taste savory
BUT
what many do not know is all of the national chains put their fries through a process referred to as a SPRAY-TAN. I am not sure if regional players such as In-N-Out or Shake Shack do this, but the big ones, from McDonalds to Wendy, spray their fries with a solution so they look evenly browned.

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