Subway No Better Than McDonald’s if You’re an Idiot

Shockingly, there are high calorie items on the menu at Jared's favorite sandwich shop.


An incredibly stupid UCLA study finds that Subway sandwiches can be just as unhealthy as eating at McDonald’s.

NY Daily News (“Bad news, Subway fans: Your $5 footlong may be LESS healthy than a McDonald’s Big Mac”:

Subway has made a name for itself as the “healthy” fast food chain by touting its lean deli meat sandwiches packed with veggies as an alternative to greasy burgers and fries.

But many people consume just as much sugar, carbs, sodium and overall calories per meal at Subway as they do at its much-maligned competitor, McDonald’s, new research shows.

UCLA scientists sent a group of nearly 100 adolescents aged 12 to 21 to eat at McDonald’s and Subway restaurants, then collected their receipts to track what they ordered. Using the nutrition information available on each chain’s website, they calculated the nutritional value of what the kids purchased.

While meals at McDonalds averaged 1,038 calories, the Subway meals weren’t far behind at 955 calories each. And at 784 calories, the average Subway sandwich purchase came in even higher than those bought at McDonald’s, which averaged 582 calories.

The Institute of Medicine recommends 2,400 calories per day for adolescents, researchers noted.

“We found that there was no statistically significant difference between the two restaurants, and that participants ate too many calories at both,” public health scholar Dr. Lenard Lesser, who led the study, said in a statement.


Now, it’s possible that very stupid people think Subway sells magic sandwiches with super special slimming mayonnaise. But Subway never claimed that their sandwiches make you slim, merely that you can lose weight by eating selected Subway sandwiches.

Because there’s a shop half a block from my office and I can get out of there quickly with an edible lunch at a reasonable price, I eat at Subway three or four times a month. Because I don’t like most of the things people put on sandwiches, I typically order a footlong meatball marina sub. It has, however, never occurred to me that this is a “light” lunch. (Indeed, it has nearly 1000 calories.) Certainly, Jared never ate those in his promos.

But Subway has, right there on the menu, a who slew of “Fresh Fit Choices.” These consist mostly of chicken and turkey sandwiches. Six inches, not footlong. Without cheese, mayo, or other fattening ingredients.

Now, Subway also sells potato chips and cookies. Ordering from the Fresh Fit menu and also getting a bag of chips and three cookies will also not set you down Jared’s path.

Also: even if you stick to the lighter fare, you probably shouldn’t eat three sandwiches a day every day.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    When ever I go to Subway, I always order a Veggie Delight and when they ask what I want on it I always say “Everything.” I have absolutely zero idea of the caloric count (and really don’t care) but that is with mayo and mustard and whatever other condiments they have. More often than not I will order the chips but I never get a soda. That is the real calorie booster anyway. Just water for me.

    I rather suspect that beats a McD meal as the the soda and french fries are real killers. (given a choice, I go to Burger King or Lions Choice which I am quite sure are no better than McD)

  2. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Frankly, a Double Whopper with no cheese or mayo is probably an excellent choice, on par with a Subway chicken sandwich. It’s the cheese and other fatty toppings that boost the calorie count through the roof.

  3. Just Me says:

    Mayo, cheese and all the carbs in the bread are where the calories come from.

    I will get a footlong with mustard-no mayo-but provolone cheese.

    I eat 6 inches and save the other half for another meal.

    I prefer a sub to a burger, but admit subway isn’t my favorite sandwich shop (if I could afford it I would eat at Panera for all sandwich lunches-but like subway the toppings and cheeses can add calories.

  4. KariQ says:

    @James Joyner:

    You’re right that they are pretty close:

    Double whopper, no cheese but with mayo is 830 calories, 1040 mg sodium. Hold the mayo it’s 670 calories and 900 mg sodium.
    Footlong oven-roasted chicken sandwich, no cheese is 640 calories, 1220 mg sodium.

    Of course, the killer here is the sodium in both. It’s nearly impossible to get a fast food item that isn’t very high in sodium, which is far worse for you than saturated fats ever could be.

  5. steve s says:

    scientifically illiterate or lazy journalist:

    Subway’s footlong Big Philly Cheesesteak, for example, clocks in around 1,000 calories and 2560g sodium — roughly double what’s in the McDonald’s Big Mac, which has 550 calories and 970g sodium.

    if you tried to eat 970g of sodium you’d be dead about halfway through the attempt.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @steve s: Ha. I’d chalk it up to a typo if they hadn’t done it twice.

  7. Spartacus says:

    James wrote:

    Now, it’s possible that very stupid people think Subway sells magic sandwiches with super special slimming mayonnaise. But Subway never claimed that their sandwiches make you slim, merely that you can lose weight by eating selected Subway sandwiches.

    Are you really surprised that a company that has developed an entire marketing plan on the notion that its food is healthy and can be part of a weight-loss diet has convinced many people that its food is healthy and can be part of a weight-loss diet?

    Notwithstanding the fact that Subway discloses the stats on its items, most people probably believe they’re eating a healthier meal by selecting Subway over McDonald’s. If they didn’t think this, they’d opt for the better tasting Big Mac and fries.

  8. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Spartacus: I think Subway is pretty upfront about which sandwiches fall under the Light Fare (or whatever they call it). But then again I am weird – I will usually turn a 12-inch oven roasted chicken breast with tons of veggies, mustard, and provolone into two different meals, and add in my own cut veggies and a piece of fruit or a couple of peppermint patty minis.

  9. Spartacus says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:
    I agree with you that Subway discloses all of the relevant data, but the fact that its marketing campaign is focused on the healthier items explains why people have the impression that eating at Subway is healthier than eating at McDonald’s. I suspect that Subway will lose customers if the results of this study become widely known.

  10. anjin-san says:

    a Double Whopper with no cheese or mayo is probably an excellent choice

    Ummm. There is probably nothing available at BK that is “an excellent choice” if you really care about your health.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: I’m not saying it’s an ideal meal. But, within the confines of fast food—people looking to get something relatively tasty, cheap, and fast–there are reasonably good choices at any of the chains. They also have salads, I think, but I’m not a salad guy.

  12. Stonetools says:

    If you want to eat healthy, don’t eat at a fast food restaurant.
    There, that was easy.

  13. john personna says:

    I had a tremendous Bahn Mi Ga for $2.50 yesterday … I followed it up with a $5.00 Haagen Dazs but that was unusual.

    Still, the sandwich itself was not bad for fast food.

  14. G.A.Phillips says:

    I like the BLT with extra bacon 🙂

  15. roger says:

    Reminds me of a trip to a taco joint years ago on “Soft Shell Saturday”. One of the guys ordered something like ten tacos with all the toppings and a Diet Coke.

    “Hey, umm, so you ordered ten tacos?”
    “Yeah, I’m really hungry.”
    “Sour cream and the works.”
    “What’s with the Diet Coke?”
    “Oh, watching my weight.”
    “Figured you would say that..OK.”

  16. Franklin says:


    sodium, which is far worse for you than saturated fats ever could be.

    Totally disagree, but I guess it depends on exactly what amount of each you’re talking about.

  17. john personna says:

    My understanding is that someone with good kidneys, who drinks plenty of water, has no sodium worries.

    (After summer exertion sodium is a vital nutrient.)

  18. KariQ says:


    The link between saturated fats and health risks is not as clear cut as we used to think. Excessive amounts may be unhealthy, but even that’s not as clear as it was once believed:

    More recently, several studies seemed to suggest that eating diets high in saturated fat did not raise the risk of heart disease—a finding that ran counter to decades of dietary advice. (21,22) One highly-publicized report analyzed the findings of 21 studies that followed 350,000 people for up to 23 years. Investigators looked at the relationship between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Their controversial conclusion: “There is insufficient evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to conclude that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD.”(21)

    Sodium, on the other hand, beyond around 2000 mg, is definitely bad for you and cutting down on it is definitely good for you:

    The body of research accumulated over the last two decades has answered all but the most recalcitrant critics. (3) The landmark DASH-Sodium study, a randomized controlled trial, demonstrated the benefits of a low-sodium diet. (4, 5) A later trial, conducted among nearly 2,000 elderly Taiwanese men, showed that lowering dietary sodium and increasing potassium led to a 41 percent decrease in cardiovascular deaths. (6) The 10-year follow-up of participants in the Trials of Hypertension Prevention demonstrated a 30 percent reduction in heart attacks, stroke, and other cardiovascular events among those in the lower sodium group. (7)

    The data today are compelling enough to have sparked action on salt reduction around the world.

  19. Taylor Wilkerson says:

    Look my parents own a subway and obviously I’m going to defend it. Yes Subway may have subs that are high in fat but we only said selected subs are healthy. Not all foods like our cookies are going to help your weight plan so there you go. McDonald’s grease their foods a lot more then subway does. We also tell you how much calories each sub has before you set you order because its on the menu. Salads are another option we serve which is high in healthy source of food! Does McDonald’s sell salads? I didn’t think so and if they do watch that be high in grease too!

  20. Franklin says:

    @KariQ: I probably shouldn’t have said I ‘totally’ disagree. I’m actually partly on your side here … but I think the biggest problem is added sugar and artificial sweeteners, not fat or salt. The link between fat and disease is tenuous, and gets even weaker when you try to link it to actual rates of death. Excess salt can largely be counteracted by getting enough potassium and exercising regularly.

  21. john personna says:


    Today is not a good day for salt busters:

    No Benefit Seen in Sharp Limits on Salt in Diet

  22. KariQ says:

    @john personna:

    I don’t think there’s a fundamental contradiction between the story you link to and what I said. The story you linked found no benefit to reducing sodium below 2,300 mg. I said that level of sodium in excessive about 2,000 mg of sodium are the problem. The article also mentioned that 2,300 mg was set as a limit because “that was the highest sodium levels could go before blood pressure began inching up.” Sounds to me like the article says essentially the same thing that I did.

    Of course there are variations with individuals on this as there is with any diet advice. My body has convinced me that I need 2,000 mg of sodium myself – I get strong, persistent salt cravings if I go below that. I don’t even want to think what I would do at 1,500 mg on a hot, sunny day when I was active and sweating a lot.

    But if you eat fast food, you’re always going to get lots of sodium, far more than you need, and it’s good to avoid excess amounts.


    I agree that simple carbs like sugar are a big problem.

    While I agree that potassium can offset high levels of sodium, getting enough potassium, in my experience, is actually pretty difficult. The recommended intake for potassium for an adult is 4700 mg per day (4.7g). A banana has 540 mg. A sweet potato (with skin) has about the same. These are two of the foods generally recommended as a way to get more potassium into your diet, and it would take 8 servings to reach the recommended level. A baked potato with skin is probably the best source of potassium, around 800-900 mg. But getting the potassium you need without excessive calories is quite challenging, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.

    (Just as a caution: Don’t take a potassium supplement to increase your potassium levels. Too much potassium can cause serious health problems.)

  23. john personna says:


    Well FWIW,

    One 2008 study the committee examined, for example, randomly assigned 232 Italian patients with aggressively treated moderate to severe congestive heart failure to consume either 2,760 or 1,840 milligrams of sodium a day, but otherwise to consume the same diet. Those consuming the lower level of sodium had more than three times the number of hospital readmissions — 30 as compared with 9 in the higher-salt group —and more than twice as many deaths — 15 as compared with 6 in the higher-salt group.

  24. KariQ says:

    @john personna:

    Yes, one study. Of 232 people. Who already have congestive heart failure. Making dietary decisions based on a single study with a very small subject pool is not really a good way to go. Add in an underlying condition of varying severity, and the study isn’t particularly useful. I did notice that in reviewing the article, but really, there were just too many questions to take the study seriously, especially when compared to the larger, more comprehensive studies show improved health with lower sodium diets.

  25. john personna says:


    Actually they had another study that might define a sweet spot:

    Another study, published in 2011, followed 28,800 subjects with high blood pressure ages 55 and older for 4.7 years and analyzed their sodium consumption by urinalysis. The researchers reported that the risks of heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure and death from heart disease increased significantly for those consuming more than 7,000 milligrams of sodium a day and for those consuming fewer than 3,000 milligrams of sodium a day.

  26. Franklin says:


    The recommended intake for potassium for an adult is 4700 mg per day (4.7g). A banana has 540 mg. … A baked potato with skin is probably the best source of potassium, around 800-900 mg.

    That’s a good point and I’ve probably overlooked how difficult that is.

  27. KariQ says:

    @john personna:

    That study was interesting. I’d like to see if it could be replicated and if an explanation for why mortality rates would increase below 3000 when we know that blood pressure increases at 2300. Oh, and who funded that study? Was it the salt industry? (I don’t know that they did, but if so, then it would certainly put the whole thing into question.

    If those results were to hold up in further studies, then certainly the whole notion of what’s a safe level of sodium intake would have to be revised.

  28. John Carr says:

    I’ve cut white bread out of my diet due to the carbohydrate intake, I agree with this article as it is questionable on the amount of calories compared to something like McDonalds, I do agree that there’s healthier choices.
    When I eat subway I usually opt for a wrap to avoid the foot long length of white bread carb overload 🙂