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Healthy fast food? McDonald's kale salad has more calories than a Double Big Mac

Fast food chain has tossed healthy kale into some menu items

McDonald's burger kale salad

When you add the accompanying dressing to the crispy chicken Caesar salad with kale, it has more calories, salt, and fat than a Double Big Mac.

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In a quest to reinvent its image, McDonald's is on a health kick. But some of its nutrient-enhanced meals are actually comparable to junk food, say some health experts.

One of new kale salads has more calories, fat and sodium than a Double Big Mac.

Kale, a leafy green vegetable chock-full of vitamins, has become a trendy superfood. In Canada, the global fast food chain recently tossed the green into a breakfast wrap and a line of salads.

McDonald's boasts on its site that the "Keep Calm, Caesar On" chicken salad contains "real parmesan petals" and "a nutrient-rich lettuce blend with baby kale."

But once you plop the accompanying Asiago Caesar dressing on the "crispy chicken" version, the salad's nutritional profile doesn't look so good. According to McDonald's own numbers, the salad tops up at 730 calories, 53 grams of fat, and 1,400 milligrams of salt.

"Health-wise, I think it's fat and sodium overload," says Toronto registered dietitian, Shauna Lindzon.

mcdonalds big mac salad

It's hard to believe, but the Double Big Mac may be a healthier option than McDonald's Caesar salad on a number of fronts. (Philip Street/CBC)

You'd have to chow down three traditional McDonald's hamburgers to consume about the same number of calories.

A Double Big Mac actually has fewer calories and much less fat, although it does contain slightly more saturated fat. At 1,400 milligrams, the Caesar salad's salt content also beats the burger's.

Health Canada recommends adults should not exceed 2,300 milligrams of salt daily and ideally aim for 1,500 milligrams.

"By eating that salad, you're getting your sodium for the day," said Lindzon. Average adult women would also be getting about one third their recommended daily calories.

McDonald's kale kick

McDonald's made headlines last year when it announced it would be adding kale to menu items. The news came on the heels of lagging sales and a declaration by new CEO Steve Easterbrook that he planned to turn the chain into a "modern, progressive burger company."

Obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says the chain is trying to appeal to consumers' need to "feel like they're not making such terrible choices." He adds, "Words like 'kale' can help do that."

But the Ottawa doctor says there's not much difference between a salad and a burger when both have similar salt and calorie content.

Lindzon applauds McDonald's for adding more vegetables to its meals. But the consulting dietitian says consumers still need to be aware of what they're eating.

"Putting kale into the menu doesn't mean you're getting a healthy choice," she says.

Count calories carefully

Even McDonald's lightest chicken kale salad is not a nutritional winner for Lindzon.

McDonald's greek salad kale

McDonald's I'm Greek-ing Out salad with kale. (McDonald's)

Combined with the Greek Feta Dressing, the "I'm Greek-ing Out" salad with grilled chicken amounts to: 420 calories, 26 grams of fat, and 1,080 milligrams of sodium. That's almost the same calorie, fat and salt content as a Double Cheeseburger.

To make it healthier, Lindzon recommends using only half the dressing to cut calories and fat and removing the feta to cut down on salt.

McDonald's says customers can modify many menu items to make them healthier. "[They] have the choice to have a salad with or without dressing, select a burger without the bun, choose their chicken protein crispy or grilled," said spokesperson Adam Grachnik in an email to CBC News.

He added customers can find nutritional information online including calorie, fat, and salt content for all menu items.

CBC News had to do some searching online to crunch the numbers for salads. Nutritional information for the kale salads excludes the dressing they're served with. We found the dressings in a separate category under "condiments."

Nutritious oatmeal?

CBC News also scoped out the nutritional profile for McDonald's Fruit and Maple Oatmeal with maple brown sugar. It's advertised on the company's site as "nutritious made delicious!"

The hot cereal does offer 5 grams of fibre. But, it also contains 33 grams of sugar. 

McDonald's oatmeal

McDonald's Fruit and Maple Oatmeal with maple brown sugar. (McDonald's)

Lindzon notes some of the sugar comes from fruit such as apples and dried cranberries. But she points out a can of Coke has close to the same total amount of sugar — 39 grams in a roughly 473 ml can.

"It's like drinking a can of pop's worth of sugar at breakfast," she says.

Grachnik, the McDonald's spokesman, noted that customers can eat the oatmeal without the brown sugar.

"Eating at McDonald's can fit into a balanced lifestyle," he said. Grachnik added that menu items can be customized. "You just have to ask the crew to reduce sodium, fat or calories to best suit the customers' needs," he stated.

Dr. Freedhoff says customers would be even better served if Canada adopted new U.S. rules where chain restaurants must list calorie content right on its menus by December.

One province, Ontario, has passed a bill that will force chain restaurants to do the same — but the law won't be in effect until 2017. 

Dr. Freedhoff adds that no amount of public information can make up for the fact that restaurants typically don't serve up health food.

"There really aren't many safe things to order at any restaurant," he says. "If you want to learn how to eat healthy, eat out less often [and] learn how to cook."

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