When McDonald’s sales dipped by 2.6 percent in 2015, experts attributed part of it to the rise of casual chain restaurants, like Chipotle and Panera, which promise meals with a better nutritional value and GMO-free ingredients. Many dieters think they can keep their calorie intake down by skipping McDonald’s or Burger King and heading straight to Panera, but are they right?

Researchers from the University of South Carolina have concluded an exhaustive review of more than 50 fast food and fast casual restaurants to decide which has higher calorie counts per meal. Their results show that fast casual restaurants actually have more calories per meal compared to traditional fast food establishments.

"We were surprised that there were higher calories at fast casual restaurants, but one of the main takeaways from the paper is that there are a lot of high-calorie options at both kinds of restaurants," said Danielle Schoffman, the study’s lead researcher, in a statement.

Schoffman and her colleagues examined menus from 34 fast food and 28 fast casual restaurants. Calorie count was the only nutritional value the research team focused on. Schoffman came up for the idea of the study after a similar study in which she encouraged families to reduce their fast food consumption. The common question she kept getting was “Does Chipotle or Panera count as fast food?”

While fast food entrees contained, on average, 561 calories, entrees from fast casual restaurants averaged 760 calories. Fast casual restaurants also had a higher number of entrees that exceeded 640 calories. The research team now plans to conduct further research on other markers of a quality diet, such as sodium and fiber levels.

"There has been such growth in this fast casual industry," said researcher Brie Turner-McGrievy. "We wanted to see if these fast casual restaurants would be a better choice for people who are watching their calorie intake. Are people who are looking to lose weight and cut calories better off going to Chipotle or Burger King?"

Whether it’s Panera, McDonald’s, or Olive Garden, we get exactly what we pay for with food cooked outside of our own kitchen. Researchers from Tufts University examined 364 different restaurant meals in Boston, San Francisco, and Little Rock, Ark., between 2011 and 2014. Their findings revealed that an alarming 92 percent of restaurant meals exceed the calorie recommendation for a single meal.

"A burger on a white bun may have fewer calories, but when you're talking about cancer prevention or other chronic diseases, you have to look beyond calories," Turner-McGrievy added. "We don't want the message to be, 'Go eat hamburgers and don't eat guacamole and beans and brown rice.'"

It’s up to us to order what we want on the drive-through line. Thanks to calorie count and sodium warnings, we know which foods will have a better impact on our health, and evidence shows that that awareness has trickled down to the younger generation: fast food consumption among children has dropped significantly, which is good sign for the health of future generations.

Source: Dahl A, Turner-McGrievy G, Schoffman D, et al. The Fast-Casual Conundrum: Fast-Casual Restaurant Entrées Are Higher in Calories than Fast Food. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics . 2016.