What’s the best place to rack up on empty calories? McDonald’s may often be the first fast food restaurant people imagine, thanks to its reputation of being the king of all fast — and unhealthy — food. But a new study claims that other chain restaurants, which are often sit-down and considered slightly “classier” than McDonald’s or Burger King, are actually worse.

Recently, a high school science teacher proved that it’s possible to lose weight while on a McDonald’s diet, simply by watching his portion sizes and keeping to a limited amount of calories. Researchers from Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania wanted to explore this idea more, with a different angle. Is it possible to eat more healthily at McDonald’s than at Olive Garden, T.G.I. Friday’s, or Red Lobster? The researchers believe the answer is yes.

The federal recommended daily calorie intake is about 2,000 calories for adults, and 1,400 for children. The study’s authors found that an adult entrée, side dish, and shared appetizer at sit-down chains amounted to nearly 1,500 calories total, with around 28 grams of saturated fat, and 3,312 milligrams of sodium. On top of that, if soda or dessert was added to the meal, the total amount went well over 2,000 calories — thus becoming heaps more than what a normal meal, usually between 500 and 600 calories, should look like.

Likewise, the researchers found that these full-service chain restaurants exceeded the recommended sodium levels by 153 percent. “Consumers tend to view full-service restaurants as superior in quality and healthfulness compared with quick service restaurants,” the authors wrote. “However, a few studies contrasted nutritional values by restaurant types and found much higher calories and nutrients at full-service restaurants.”

"One Step Forward, One Step Back"

In recent months, McDonald’s has been taking steps to reduce its reputation for fatty meals, and even provides each item with a calorie number. McDonald’s devotes a page to “Favorites Under 400,” or meal items such as six-piece Chicken McNuggets or the Grilled Chicken Sandwich that are all under 400 calories. Other restaurants have attempted to scale back the monstrously high levels of sodium that’s pumped into their meals. Olive Garden keeps track of its caloric levels on its website as well, offering consumers drop-down menus that show how much saturated fat, sodium, protein, and fiber is in their food.

However, this doesn’t mean that these fast food restaurants are getting healthier. A study completed in 2013 reviewed over 26,000 menu entrées throughout 213 U.S. chain restaurants. The authors of the study found that the menus did not get healthier over time. “Across the restaurant industry, we see a pattern of one step forward, one step back,” Helen Wu, a policy and research analyst at the Institute for Population Health Improvement at UC Davis Health System, said in a press release about the study. “Restaurants make changes to their menus regularly, but they may make both healthy and unhealthy changes simultaneously. This study provides objective evidence that overall, we did not see a new wave of healthier entrées come in to replace less healthy ones.”

Wu believes that a national menu labeling law could assist in forcing restaurants to look more closely at what they offer in a typical meal. “The implementation of a national menu labeling law could be an important strategy to accelerate progress on menu nutrition in restaurants by encouraging more substantial menu nutrition changes,” she said.

Source: Jervis A, Glanz K, Bellitz S, et al. Nutritional Value of Meals at Full-service Restaurant Chains. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2013.