FOODFIGHT: Is a McDonald’s Big Mac Healthier Than a Chipotle Burrito?


This is a guest blog post by Mariana Cotlear.

Is a McDonald’s Big Mac better for you than a Chipotle Burrito?  So claims James McWilliams in a recent article in The Atlantic.

His straight nutritional comparison of the above mentioned menu items leads him to this conclusion: Despite Chipotle’s sustainable and natural image, they are actually selling food that is worse than what we find in the most vilified of fast food chains.  What’s more, he continues, this calls into question the credibility of all food movements (sustainable/local/organic) which also claim to be better for our health.  In fact, the virtuous origins of certain victuals are a veil: they are actually just shielding foods that are really bad for you.  Foods that are “attacking” your body, in fact!

McWilliams writes:

How an organization known for promoting responsible food choices can get away with serving a signature meal that exceeds our daily sodium allowance—while the avatar of industrial food actually offers a counterpart that’s not quite as bad for you—is a situation that makes me wonder: could the rhetoric of food sustainability be distracting us a darker reality? Put differently, does Chipotle’s admirable decisions to support small farms when feasible, source all its pork locally from welfare-approved operations, and buy half of its beef hormone-free exonerate their barbell of a burrito from attacking our bodies with obscene levels of cholesterol, saturated fat, and salt?

Given McWilliam’s freely incendiary prose, it’s unsurprising that his article elicits a strong reaction from those of us who don’t think that a meal that contains real, recognizable food items, (including a good deal of fresh vegetables, legumes, and meat that is sustainably produced) is comparable to the industrial creation that is the Big Mac, which, when broken down, looks a lot like the Twinkie.  McWilliams’ first mistake is the same as that of the nutritionists:  He evaluates the nutritional merits of these foods based on their “stats” alone rather than on the big picture.

But I actually do find the premise of this article interesting, so I’ll put my visceral reaction aside in order to examine some of his other methodological flaws.

McWilliams’ verdict (that the Big Mac is better for you than the burrito) is based on the following nutritional comparison:

• The burrito has 31 grams of fat, 11 grams of which are saturated. The Big Mac has 30 grams of fat, 10 of which are saturated (and 1.5 of which are trans-fat).
• The burrito has 105 milligrams of cholesterol; the Big Mac has 80 milligrams.
• The burrito has 2600 mg of sodium (108 percent of your daily allowance!); the Big Mac has 1010 mg (47 percent).
• The burrito has 102 grams of carbs; the Big Mac has 47 grams.

A couple of factors lean in the burrito’s direction:

• The burrito has 54 grams of protein while the Big Mac has 25 grams.
• The burrito totally flushes the Big Mac when it comes to fiber: 68 percent of a person’s recommended daily allowance to 12 percent.

But does it even make sense to compare a McDonalds’ Big Mac and a Chipotle burrito, even solely on their stats?   I don’t think so.

For starters, while a Chipotle burrito is a meal in and of itself, a Big Mac isn’t.  A Chipotle burrito is over three times the size of a BigMac. (The burrito weighs 25.6 oz, compared to the burger’s 7.6 oz.) Obviously, the burrito is a lot more food.  So much so that I rarely find a dining partner that finishes a whole burrito in one sitting.  It’s very common to cut the thing in half and make two meals out of it (I do this myself).  So there’s a logical problem with this comparison: people aren’t eating the entire burrito at once.

The Big Mac, on the other hand, is unlikely to fill you up on its own.  You’ll eat the whole burger while munching on some large fries and sipping on a large soda.  And maybe you’ll grab a McFlurry or an Apple Pie to wash it down.

Secondly, Chipotle allows customers to completely customize its offering of burrito fillings in order to suit their tastes and preferences.  The burrito that McWilliams chose to examine was the “loaded” version: carnitas (pork) with rice, veggies, cheese, guacamole, and salsa.

But there are plenty of ways to make your Chipotle meal much healthier than that.  A burrito bol, for example (which omits the flour tortilla wrap), made up of the carnitas, rice, black beans, grilled peppers and onions, corn salsa, tomato salsa, cheese, and extra lettuce is 665 calories, with 23 grams of fat. That’s pretty respectable for a meal.

If you go the vegetarian route and also leave off the cheese (as I usually do), the same burrito bol is only 375 calories with 6 grams of fat. This dish still contains rice, black beans, grilled peppers and onions, corn and tomato salsa and lettuce.  Plenty of proteins and grains to make up a whole, filling meal, and lots and lots of vegetables.

This is real food.  This is food that doesn’t make you feel sick after eating it.  This is food that actually fills you up and doesn’t produce a sugar spike which will make you crave more in a few hours.  I don’t think there’s any way you can say the same for the BigMac.

Then there’s the issue of portion size.  The Chipotle burrito IS huge.  And, though some people leave theirs unfinished (or make more than one meal out of it), plenty are eating it all in one sitting.  For most of us, that’s too much food — and yes, that’s something that contributes to our collective expanding waistlines.  Eating too much of anything (even when that anything is “healthy”) will lead to weight gain.  And excessive portion sizes are a big problem in most restaurants (yes, even the local and sustainable ones).  That’s a difficult issue to address and one that goes beyond the scope of this post.

And yet: This may get me into trouble, but if you are going to over eat, I’d rather you have one thousand calories of real food than one thousand calories of processed food.  So in the end, I’d say that Chipotle is still offering us a better choice than McDonalds.

One last point, which I didn’t realize but find particularly illuminating:  Pound-for-pound, a Chipotle burrito is actually cheaper.  Commenter revchico points out that while the Big Mac is 45 cents per ounce ($3.39), the burrito costs 30 cents per ounce ($7.75).  And that burrito’s price includes $1.65 extra charge for the guacamole — without guac it is an even better value.  This is really promising given the (usually correct) perception that junk food is cheaper than real, “healthy” food.

I get that news outlets like the Atlantic like to offer contrarian viewpoints.  I usually love to read them.  But in this case, McWilliams’ argument uses some pretty misleading logic simply to make an incendiary point, which discredits an organization that I think is actually doing pretty well, nutritionally-speaking, compared to its competitors.

Are there unhealthy options available at Chipotle?  Yes.  Are there unhealthy options at sustainable, locally-run restaurants?  Yes, of course.  But to say that this “proves” that they are no better than those companies that are working with artificial and industrially produced “food” is both disingenuous and a textbook example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I say to both James McWilliams and to the Atlantic: Come on, guys!  You can do better than that.  Let’s not add to the overly abundant misinformation about food.  People are confused enough about what to eat as it is.

Note: For the Chipotle calorie counts, I used the nutrition calculator at chipotlefan.com, the same source that McWilliams used for his article.

Mariana Cotlear is a foodie and public health advocate.

She hopes to change the nutritional landscape in the U.S. and beyond via public policy and communications campaigns to influence the way people eat and encourage them to establish healthier relationships with food. She blogs about eating, cooking, and food policy issues at her blog Epicuriosa.

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  • http://foodtrainers.blogspot.com Lauren Slayton

    I was forwarded this article by a client and did find myself pondering some of the questions addressed above. I agree with you that real food versus processed food isn’t an apples to apples comparison. I also think your point about portion and ability to modify the “loaded” burrito clearly add to Chipotle’s case in this food trial. Yet I don’t think the Atlantic deserves to be criticized for this as there is a point we shouldn’t miss. We don’t want slow, sustainable food to be another olive oil example. Remember when everyone switched from butter to olive oil and were suddenly consuming huge quantities because it was better? Maybe the message to Chipotle is that the burrito doesn’t have to weight a pound and a half or that they make the healthy modifications more obvious to consumers.

  • http://landanimal.wordpress.com/ Jo

    I think it is important, however, to consider the fact the whole burrito is worse than a big mac and the majority of people don’t know it. This can be dangerous because people will think they are eating healthy, but they aren’t. People will let their guard down at Chiptole and not be better for it, but worse.

  • RF

    Where I live, people really do eat the entire burrito in one sitting. And I doubt they’re modifying it to be healthy – most get it loaded with a side of chips. And likely with a non-diet soda. Even without all that extra, 1200 calories for a burrito vs 550 for a Big Mac is insane. You can cut the burrito in half and STILL eat more calories.

    You can’t really say that the OPTION makes it healthier – you can order a Big Mac without sauce, without cheese, etc, and without fries, and you can cut it in half too. That option doesn’t change the fact that a Big Mac is a horrible choice. But neither is the Chipotle burrito.

    I agree with the need for slow, sustainable food, but I still refuse to support a company just because they supposedly do too. I want food to be responsible, and knowingly feeding myself or my loved ones 1200+ calories (plus other insane stats as you mentioned above) in one sitting seems ridiculously irresponsible.

    • kev

      No matter how you build the burrito or the big mac, the chipotle burrito comes out on top. It’s not a simple calories vs calories argument. That ~500 calories from a Big Mac is going to have you hungry for more food in <1 hour because it's full of highly processed & efficient carbs and fats.

      The burrito on the other hand is high in fiber, protein and natural fat sources, making it extremely satisfying. Also, all of the ingredients are much much more nutritious. Which certainly translates to feeling better / being healthier.

      Sure, anyone can get fat eating too many calories, but the easiest way to reduce calories is to pick highly satiating choices to reduce the need to eat more later. And the most satiating foods have lots of fiber, protein and natural fats: for example, a Chipotle Burrito. (a staple in my diet which has brought me down to <15%BF ) or even better: a Chipotle salad with beans, veggies, meat, cheese, and guacamole :) (~600 satisfying heart healthy calories)

  • bill

    I’m pretty sure Chipotle never said “Hey we’re low on calories!”. What they are saying is “Hey we buy from family farmers, try not to buy meat from farmers that use antibiotics or hormones. We buy local and organic when possible. We use dairy cows that don’t use hormones.”

    IMO they have some of the best guacamole to boot.

  • Matthew

    Thank you! My wife and I were pretty appalled by the original article and tried to poke holes in it. We mostly succeeded but this is fantastic.

  • Matthew

    @Jo
    At least they CAN eat healthy at Chipotle, if they choose to (and it all really boils down to choice, doesn’t it?).

  • Jason

    Despite the portion sizes being unreasonably large and there being too much salt in Chipotle’s fare, it is still hands down better. It is fresher, far tastier, and far less loaded with industrial crap.

    I think the point that should be your entree has great latitude for customization. For example, you can create a more sensible meal by starting with a Bol, halving the rice, getting extra beans (I get triple if I go). This will cut down on the carbs a lot. Extra meat will help balance the meal (it’s quite lean too). The sour cream and cheese can be skipped. Then eat just half of this. and save the other half for another meal. Even if you get the cheese (awesome) have of one of these should be somewhere around 600 cals. Skip the chips and soda.

    Chipotefan.com has a calculator for you to get custom nutritional info.

    I do wish they would use slightly less oil, salt, and would use brown rice instead of white, so I don’t think you should eat it that often. But it’s still a huge step up from McDonald’s (yuck!). All I have to do to steer clear of McDonald’s is to be think of the huge feed lots where cattle are given hormones and antibiotics to help them survive long enough combat their acidy stomachs (because they are given GMO corn and are obese themselves because they have no room to graze like they should) – not to mention McDonald’s highly refined white bread which has preservatives, maybe HFCS, and who knows what else in it. It’s all about producing food as CHEAP (for greatest profit margins) as possible and that’s how it tastes to me.

    Funny thing is if you make two meals out of your burrito/bol it’s fairly economical.

  • Monica

    At least when you eat at MacDonald’s you know what you are getting, an unhealthy meal. But when you eat at Chipotle you think you are eating healthy and overindulge because this gives some people the license to overeat. They assume its healthy and wont have any negative impact on their health. If the food is so fresh then why does Chipotle have the need to add extreme amounts of sodium?

  • http://prattleonboyo.wordpress.com Peyton Farquhar

    You can make the same argument for the Big Mac. Don’t eat all of it in one sitting and it’s healthier for you. So essentially, what it comes down to is whether you devour a Chipotle burrito all in one sitting or make it two meals, you’re still eating the same **shit** Mickey D’s sells. Brilliant.

  • http://www.nutritionendeavor.com Brian Hedgpeth

    personal responsibility and choice….chipotle offers that for those of us who educate ourselves. i can make the choice to consume a combination of ingredients that offer some nutritional value and be personally responsible for my portion control. the big mac does not offer nutritional value nor the opportunity for portion control that would allow me to fuel my body for a reasonable length of time.

  • Jay

    Any time you eat out, even at a nicer, sit-down place, your food is going to be loaded in sodium. Salt makes things taste better.

    Also, it should be pretty apparent that eating an entire “loaded” burrito is a LOT of food. And at least you can see the people dolloping sour cream and cheese into your burrito, and you know exactly what’s going in there. But, as someone who eats 3 burritos a week, when you finish a burrito, you feel full and satisfied, and the next meal is generally smaller. After a Big Mac, you just feel awful and still hungry. This comparison is just plain silly.

  • JodyColleen

    i may be going out on a limb here, and more than likely offending people with my following comment, but i’m going to do it anyway.

    first of all, i love chipotle’s burritos, they are amazing! and, i love big macs, they are a serious guilty pleasure. HOWEVER, i have the smarts enough to know that i shouldn’t be eating big macs every day, nor should i polish off an entire chipotle burrito in one sitting!

    in many of the replies i’ve read, i see people saying (paraphrasing here) ‘people where i’m from eat chipotle’s burritos in their entirety (in a single setting). chipotle should change the size of their burritos so we know better.’ and here’s my reply to that: if you (and your family, and neighbors) don’t pay enough attention to the fact that a burrito that is well over a pound has completely filled you up at the half way mark, AND, you expect, nay, you demand that portion sizes be changed so you know what is and is not healthy, it doesn’t matter if you’re eating fried twinkies or a spinach salad, you’re still going to be unhealthy, if not obese.

    soda taxes and portion control aren’t going to change your unhealthy eating habits. YOU have to be the one to change them. you have to recognize that eating well over a pound of food in one setting is simply not healthy for you. you have to be aware that the overly full feeling you have after eating the entire burrito isn’t you’re body thanking you for stuffing yourself, it’s your body saying ‘please! don’t do that to me again!’

    the old saying is right, there really is too much of a good thing.

  • Scott

    Simple facts. Divide the weight of the meal by the stated findings.
    McDonald’s Big Mac, 7.6 oz.
    Chipotle Burrito, 25.6 oz.

    Fat
    Big Mac, 3.9
    Chipotle, 1.2

    Saturated Fat
    Big Mac, 1.3
    Chipotle, 0.4

    Salt
    Big Mac, 132.9
    Chipotle, 101.6

    Cholesterol
    Big Mac, 10.5
    Chipotle, 4.1

    Carbs
    Big Mac, 6.2
    Chipotle, 4.0

    % RDA Fiber
    Big Mac, 1.6
    Chipotle, 2.7

    Protien
    Big Mac, 3.3
    Chipotle, 2.1

  • Kim

    I live in NY but visited California a few years back after moving away and love mexican food. So I stopped in and tried Chipotle by the urging of my son. I am very health conscious and never eat at McDonald’s~ We used to. Knowledge=power.
    I would buy the burrito, eat half and cut out cheese as well. But yes pork is going to be higher in sodium by nature as compared to chicken, beef or vegi options. So you do have options at this chain, and more flexible for those of us who may be vegitarians than at McD.’s.
    I just wanted to put out there info re-quarding the restaurants. Since you were at a point comparing the two. ~~ They are both owned by McDonald corporation.~~~ McDonald’s bought into the restaurant then opened more stores out west.
    So as I applauded how Chipotle is marketed….. it all boils down to who’s at the top. And that being said is McDonald’s. So keep that in mind when thinking you are doing something better. You never really know do you? Every time you eat outside your home you are choosing to take a a chance with your health by the unknown.

  • BC

    Interesting to compare the two since Mc Donald’s used to be a huge investor in Chipotle and helped turn it into the large franchise it is today. My husband can eat an entire burrito in one sitting, which is why I keep him away from those places and cook every night except for weekends.

  • Shannon

    “How an organization known for promoting responsible food choices can get away with serving a signature meal that exceeds our daily sodium allowance…exonerate their barbell of a burrito from attacking our bodies with obscene levels of cholesterol, saturated fat, and salt?”

    Get the hell over it and don’t eat it. No one’s forcing anyone to eat a burrito. Or to even finish the burrito. This article is ridiculous. It’s called personal responsibility.

  • Anne

    @Shannon

    Where are the Corporations of these restaraunts responsibility? Why aren’t you taking issue with them?

    Sure, it is personal responsibility. But even I have been floored by the insane amounts of fat grams, calories, sodium, sugar in our food that you would not expect. I do pay attention I have lost 54 pounds since March, with 53 pounds to go.

  • Shannon

    @Anne

    In my opinion, they have ZERO responsibilty in providing you with healthy choices. Let your dollar decide. By paying attention to what you’re eating and losing all that weight (congrats!), you have proven that this is possible.

    I do believe it is their responsibility to provide consumers with nutrition facts, but not to decide for them.

  • Kitten Wire

    Yeah, what about the nutrition content of the burrito vs the burger?

    Burrito:
    Rice, which has more nutrients than bread could ever dream of;
    Fresh onions, peppers, and tomatoes, which provide the vitamin C you must replenish every day;
    Fresh avocado, one of which can provide you with enough potassium for a week
    Unprocessed meat

    Burger:
    Processed bread, which is mainly empty carbohydrates;
    Processed meat, mainly fat;
    And a bit of lettuce? The only thing healthier on this thing is the mustard.

  • roger

    The tortilla contains transfat (hydrogenated oil) …. so drop the tortilla and you should be ok.

  • http://google Rod Sornson

    Beef should not have growth hormones. I think that is why our little girls are developing so fast. Some are only 10 years of age, I believe, from all the hormones. Cattle should be grazing grass, not corn fed. Even when you cook your own meals, your beef in all probabilty has all these hormones, making them grow bigger & fatter. Another thing, Chipotle’s produce on average, travels 150 miles from local farms without pesticides, as possible. On average, food for other restaurants travel 1500 miles before you even have a chance to eat it. If I had my way, salt would be out of the restaurant kitchens, and only on the table. That way those who love salt could add all they want. Those with high blood pressure could eat out more. That’s a win win. I have eaten at Chipotles on occasion, & take half of a buritto home, then just eat the inside. I eat the beef, because pork naturally has more sodium. I do applaud the fact that they have chickens, pigs, and when possible cattle range roaming, & happy. It’s awful to see them packed in so tightly. The smell is terrible, and it’s not a good life for the animals. Guacamole is healthy fat. Their protein is much higher than MCs. Chipotle may come out with an all vegan menu, and an Asian one. Much Chinese food has a lot of sodium. I’d check that out. At any rate, enjoy what you eat in moderation. It boils down to calories in, calories out, so watch your portions. Don’t drink sodas, the’re the worst for your teeth. Far fewer cavities without, and no false teeth. Hahahaha – Good Luck.

  • http://google Rod Sornson

    @Rod Sornson
    No change

  • Djwstarr

    Yes – I get a similar bol to the one you discribed you get and it is great you can go along and ask – just a tiny bit of this or that.  I take 1/2 home for another lunch…of course, we would all be better off to make the exactly same thing at  home where we could make the same thing with very little sodium…but usually when I have cchipotle it is a fast meal on the run.  As for the big mac…well, I just don’t eat that any more!!  I heaR THEY HAVE some nice salads etc. but haven’t felt like trying them…at least not yet.

  • Tony

    Eating a Big Mac is not unhealthy.