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A burger and fries are served at a Five Guys location in Vancouver. Fast-casual restaurants, such as Five Guys, Panera Bread, Chipotle and Panda Express, tend to be perceived as healthier alternatives to traditional fast food restaurants. But a study published this month suggests otherwise.LAURA LEYSHON/The Globe and Mail

If you're looking for a meal that's easier on your waistline, you might be better off dining at McDonald's than Chipotle.

According to a new study from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, entrees at so-called fast-casual restaurants pile on 200 more calories than those at fast-food eateries.

Fast-casual restaurants are a hybrid of fast-food and casual-dining restaurants. They provide counter service and offer more customized and freshly prepared foods than traditional fast-food restaurants.

Perceived as healthier alternatives, fast-casual restaurants are growing in popularity and include such chains as Panera Bread, Chipotle, Panda Express and Five Guys. South of the border, there are plenty more to choose from, including Baja Fresh, Smashburger and Boston Market.

For the study, published this month in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers compared the calorie content of almost 3,200 main meals (entrees, burgers, sandwiches and salads) from 34 fast-food and 28 fast-casual restaurants. (Children's menu items and half or mini entrees were excluded.)

The findings: On average, fast-casual entrees had 200 more calories than fast-food entrees, with the average fast-casual main weighing in at 753 calories versus 550 for traditional fast-food fare. What's more, a greater proportion of fast-casual meals surpassed the overall median of 640 calories.

The culprit? Hefty portion sizes and being able to customize meals with caloric add-ons such as sour cream, cheese, guacamole and chips.

More food means more sodium, too. Consider that Chipotle's burrito with chicken, brown rice, black beans, vegetable salsa, cheese and guacamole serves up 1,185 calories and almost two days' worth of sodium – 2,740 milligrams. Ouch.

A McDonald's Big Mac, on the other hand, has 520 calories and 950 mg of sodium; similarly, Burger King's Spicy Big Fish sandwich contains 540 calories and 990 mg of sodium.

To be fair, if you order fries with your fast-food burger or fish sandwich, which many people do, the calorie count of your meal will rise by about 350 calories. (The researchers included side items such as French fries only if they automatically came with the entree.)

Still, order a hamburger (no cheese) and regular-sized fries at Five Guys and you're in for 1,653 calories – 700 from the burger, 953 from the fries.

It's not just burritos and tacos that rack up the calories (and sodium). Panera Bread's Napa Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich provides 700 calories and 1,140 mg of sodium.

Worse, the company's Italian Combo Sandwich manages to pack in 1,000 calories and 2,810 mg of sodium.

Keep in mind, though, this study compared the calorie content of menu items available in 2014. Over the past two years, many fast-casual (and fast-food) restaurants may have increased the number of calorie-conscious items on their menus.

There's more to consider than calories, too. Menu items at fast-casual places are often more nutrient-dense than lower-calorie fast-food fare.

A burrito filled with beans, vegetables and avocado certainly serves up more fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy fats than a burger on a white bun or deep-fried chicken nuggets.

Chipotle's Burrito Bowl, with beans and vegetables, delivers 20 grams of fibre along with half a day's worth of vitamin A and 6 mg of iron, a third of a day's worth for women 19 to 50. Not to mention 20 mg of immune system-enhancing vitamin C.

Even a panino at Panera Bread that includes tomato, greens and other vegetables offers decent amounts of fibre and vitamins A and C.

Bottom line: You need to look at both calories and nutritional value when dining out.

A healthy-sounding menu item made from fresh, wholesome ingredients can deliver far more calories than you realize – and need. And just because a meal is lower in calories doesn't mean it's a healthier choice.

Seven ways to healthier fast-food fare

Whether it's at a fast-casual or fast-food restaurant, practise the following to maximize nutrition while preventing calorie and sodium overload.

Think small

If you're controlling calories, share a meal or take half of it home for lunch the next day. Or order a half-size or snack-size menu option with a side salad or cup of vegetable soup. If you order a half-sandwich at Panera Bread, for example, you'll save at least 300 calories. That's considerable.

Downsize carbs, even healthy ones

The whole-grain tortilla and beans in burritos supply plenty of energizing carbohydrates. Skip the rice at Chipotle and you'll save 210 calories. At Mucho Burrito, you'll cut 100 calories. Or forget the tortilla and order a burrito bowl made with brown rice and beans.

Load up on vegetables

To boost a meal's filling factor and nutrient profile, add extra vegetables. Order burritos and tacos with sautéed or fajita-style vegetables (a bulky replacement for rice) as well as lettuce.

Limit fatty toppings

On salads, choose one high-calorie topping – be it bacon bits, cheese, sour cream, croutons or crispy noodles. Much better, though, order salads with heart-healthy fats such as nuts and avocado. Order a half-portion of dressing or use only half the package. On burritos and tacos, choose guacamole, sour cream or cheese. My vote goes to avocado, a flavourful source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

Boost flavour

Substitute fatty add-ons with flavourful and antioxidant-rich ingredients such as cilantro, basil leaves, arugula, onions, salsa and mustard.

Choose smart sides

Swap fries or onion rings for a garden salad. At Panera Bread, choose fruit over a (white) baguette or potato chips.

Plan your order

If you regularly eat meals from quick-serve restaurants, do your research by consulting the restaurant's online menu and nutrition guide.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.

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