The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in collaboration with Tufts University, investigated meals served in fast food chains between 1996 and 2013 and found that offerings have changed little in 17 years in terms of saturated fat, salt and calories.

Led by Alice Lichtenstein, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory director at the USDA, researchers looked into nutrition levels for four popular menu items: regular cola, cheeseburgers, fries and grilled chicken sandwiches. Overall, 27 items were included in the study, like fries and cola beverages in three sizes and 2- and 4-ounce cheeseburgers.

While levels of saturated fat and salt and numbers of calories more or less stayed the same from 1996 to 2013, the researchers noted two positive trends: that trans-fat levels in French fries have dropped over time and that portion sizes have remained generally the same through the years.

The improvement in trans-fat levels in fries is mainly attributed to changing the type of frying fat used and legislative efforts related to improving nutrition in states.

Researchers pointed out that the real danger from fast food comes when items are ordered together. Say, someone orders a large cheeseburger meal, which includes a regular cola beverage and some fries. That meal is equivalent to anywhere between 1,144 and 1,757 calories.

Nutritionists recommend an intake of about 2,000 calories per day for most people, so a large cheeseburger meal can easily account for up to 80 percent of the total caloric requirement of a person for the day! Not to mention that the level of salt in a cheeseburger meal is about 91 percent already of the recommended daily intake for sodium which is 2,300 mg for adults.

Researchers also noted that there was a wide variance among fast food chains, where orders of small fries can differ by 110 calories and 320 mg of salt. The difference may appear small but just a discrepancy of 100 calories a day can lead to dropping about 10 pounds of weight in a year.

"Restaurants can help consumers by downsizing portion sizes and reformulating their food to contain less of these over-consumed nutrients. This can be done, gradually, by cutting the amount of sodium, and using leaner cuts of meat and reduced-fat cheese," said Lichtenstein.

The study was published in Preventing Chronic Disease, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal. Aside from Lichtenstein, other authors include: Christine Gary, MS; Jamie Fierstein, MS; Susan Roberts, Ph.D; and Lorien Urban, Ph.D.

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