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

Calories Sat. Fat Total Fat. Sodium
Wendy’s: 1/4lb Single with Cheese 530 11 27 1,200
McDonald’s: Big Mac 540 10 29 1,040
Jack in the Box: Bonus Jack 540 13 33 1,062
Sonic: Cheeseburger 630 12 31 1,138
Carl’s Jr.: Famous Star with Cheese 660 13 39 1,240
Fatburger: “Fatburger” with American Cheese 660 12.5 36 1,410
Burger King: Whopper 670 11 40 980
In-N-Out: Double-Double with Onion 670 18 41 1,440

1/4 Pound Cheeseburger

Calories Sat. Fat Total Fat. Sodium
Wendy’s: Jr. Cheeseburger 270 5 11 690
Carl’s Jr.: Kid’s Cheeseburger 290 7 15 790
Burger King: Cheeseburger 300 6 14 710
McDonald’s: Cheeseburger 300 6 12 750
Sonic: Jr. Burger (comes without cheese) 313 5 15 611
Fatburger: “Baby Fat” (without cheese) 400 6 21 1,080
Jack in the Box: Hamburger Deluxe with Cheese 421 9 23 947
In-N-Out: Cheeseburger with Onion 480 10 27 1,000

Medium Fries

Calories Sat. Fat Total Fat. Sodium
Sonic 326 2 13 437
McDonald’s 380 2.5 19 270
Fatburger (“Skinny”) 390 3.5 15 730
In-N-Out Fries (one size) 400 5 18 245
Wendy’s 420 3.5 20 500
Carl’s Jr. 430 4 21 870
Burger King 440 4.5 22 670
Jack in the Box 443 2 20 809

Signature Burger PLUS Medium Fries

Calories Sat. Fat Total Fat. Sodium
McDonald’s 920 12.5 48 1,310
Wendy’s 950 14.5 47 1,700
Sonic 956 14 44 1,575
Jack in the Box 983 15 53 1,871
Fatburger 1,050 16 51 2,140
In-N-Out 1,070 23 59 1,685
Carl’s Jr. 1,090 17 60 2,110
Burger King 1,110 15.5 62 1,650

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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