Subway or McDonald's--Which is Healthier?

Blog Post

The Cooper Institute
The Cooper Team
May 30, 2013

I am sure you probably responded Subway. And why wouldn’t you? That is probably the main message promoted any time you see an advertisement for their sub sandwiches. But is it really true?

A recent study decided to assess if adolescents ages 12 to 21, purchased foods that had fewer total calories at a restaurant marketed as “healthy” compared to one of it’s competitors. The “healthy” chain studied was Subway and the competitor, McDonald’s. The 97 adolescents in the study purchased an average of 1,038 calories from McDonald’s and 955 calories from Subway. The difference was not statistically significant meaning that, in terms of calories, there was no difference between the two restaurants. Interesting when you consider part of Subway’s messaging is to choose their foods to aid in weight management and weight loss. Oh and for reference, the average recommendation for total calorie intake for the whole day for an adolescent is approximately 2,400 calories. This means that this one meal contributed a little more than 40% to their total calorie need for the day.

In addition to total calories, the researchers also looked at the breakdown of where the calories were coming from and what the meal was made of and they did see some differences:

  • The sandwich purchased at Subway averaged 784 calories while at McDonald’s it was 572 calories
  • Drink calories averaged 61 calories at Subway and 151 at McDonald’s
  • Side items contributed an average of 35 calories at Subway compared with 201 at McDonald’s
  • The total meal contained an average of 36 grams of sugar at Subway and 54 grams at McDonald’s
  • The total meal contained an average of 41 grams of protein at Subway and 32 grams at McDonald’s
  • Sodium intake averaged 2,149 mg at Subway and 1,829 mg at McDonald’s (FYI: Total recommendation for the day is not to exceed 2,300 mg for healthy individuals.)

The sides (fries, potatoes chips) and drinks contributed more calories at McDonald’s while the sandwich itself, more at Subway. Looking at the overall meal, the Subway meal in terms of protein and sugar was slightly healthier than McDonald’s and provided more vegetables, however it was higher in sodium. Remember both meals contributed the same total number of calories but on top of that, it was a large amount of calories. While healthier foods have a tremendous impact on our health and are important for disease prevention, when talking about weight maintenance and weight loss, total calories are more significant and there is a high likelihood that consuming these meals would lead to an overconsumption of calories for the day.

There are things that we can do if we enjoy consuming these foods or if we have to out of necessity or convenience. At McDonald’s, this research shows we can cut a significant amount of calories by decreasing  the portion size of our sides and drinks,  or better yet, eliminate them completely.  At Subway we can choose smaller size subs, request for less meat etc. and then pack in the veggies that are offered as toppings.

And of course always be an informed consumer. Both of these chains post their nutritional information in their stores and on their websites.


Lesser LI, Kayekjian K, Velasquez P, Tseng C, Brook R, Cohen DA. Adolescent purchasing behavior at McDonald's and Subway (2013). J Adolescent Health. DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.02.014


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