By Matthew Thompson, Associate Food Editor for EatingWell Magazine

Like every kid who enjoyed the occasional Happy Meal growing up, I have always held a special (yellow, plastic) spot in my heart for McDonald's. I remember making friends in the sleek, candy-colored Play Places, coveting the flimsy, free toys. In second grade, I committed the entire '80s-era jingle "Menu Song" to memory (you remember: "Big Mac, McDLT, a quarter pounder with some cheese…") and sang it to a rapt audience of kindergarteners on the school bus.

Maybe that's why as an adult it was always so easy for me to justify the occasional McDonald's Big Mac as a midweek treat. Sure, I knew they were unhealthy (especially when it comes to the Big Mac's calories, but I always figured they were no worse than any other burger. They're an occasional indulgence, I thought, and perfectly fine if treated that way. "All things in moderation…" I said. Right?

Wrong. Because, even compared to a homemade hamburger with a similar amount of meat, toppings and-ahem-"Special Sauce," it turns out the Big Mac packs a wallop when it comes to fat and calories.

Let's compare it with EatingWell's recipe for a Classic Burger, for example. The EatingWell burger is a sweet and tangy take on the summer classic you remember from the backyard barbecues of your childhood, complete with a thick layer of creamy special sauce and the bite of onions. With three ounces of cooked beef, it has almost the same amount of meat as the Big Mac's 3.2 ounces. Like the Big Mac, it's garnished with crisp lettuce and tomato as well.

Mouthwatering Burger Recipes to Try:
"Fajita" Burgers and More Low-Calorie Burger Recipes
Inside-Out Cheeseburgers and More Healthy Hamburger Recipes
But that's where the similarities end:

  • Unlike the Big Mac, the EatingWell burger has 0 grams of trans-fat (compared to the Big Mac's 1.5 grams in the bun).
  • It has 375 calories, compared to the Big Mac's 540.
  • It has less than half the saturated fat and half the sodium of its big, bad counterpart.
  • At the same time, our burger manages to have significantly more of vitamins A and C (which boost the immune system and promote healthy skin) and even a bit more iron. Let's compare nutrient by nutrient:
blog post photo

That last stat threw me for a second. Could it be that, at least in terms of fiber, the Big Mac is actually the better pick? Then I remembered the extra slice of bread nestled into the beefy heart of the McDonald's burger. You're basically paying for that single gram of fiber by eating extra calories!

Now, it's important to point out that the EatingWell burger is not some kind of health-nut substitute for the real thing. There's no seitan lurking in the meat, no tofu tucked below the bun (though, I'd point out, that could be delicious too); this is an unapologetic, All-American ground beef burger smothered in a mayonnaise-based sauce. Still, it's not too bad nutritionally. Sure, you wouldn't want to have red meat every day, but lean beef in moderation, as the nutrition information above shows, is actually pretty healthy.

The Big Mac, however, is a different story. By many metrics, our burger is twice as good for you as Mickey D's offering, and it's not even trying all that hard to be healthy.

Where's the Beef?
Why might that be? Take a look at the beef, for starters. While backyard burgers are just straight-up beef from your local supermarket, McDonald's adds "Grill Seasoning" to theirs-a fancy name for pepper, sunflower oil and a boatload of sodium. Add to that the fact that they're probably not working with as lean a cut of beef as your typical home chefs and that equals a major difference in fat as well.

What About the Buns?
Next, check out their buns (not those buns, come on!): while your average deli Kaiser rolls have about five ingredients, McDonald's Big Mac buns have 16-they're pretty highly processed. Generally speaking, processed foods are higher in salts and sugars, so when you bite into them you taste sweetness, not sodium propionate. Take a look at McDonald's "Special Sauce" ingredients: propylene glycol alginate, sodium benzoate, calcium disodium EDTA-yeah, you can bet there's a bunch of added salt and sugar there too.

So, where does that leave us? I'll still think fondly of past trips to the Golden Arches, but maybe it's time to cut the Big Mac out of my diet once and for all. Next time I'm in the mood for a flame-broiled disk of beef, I'll head for another place with many warm childhood memories for me: the backyard.

What fast food item do you want a healthy makeover of?
Matthew Thompson is the associate food editor for EatingWell Magazine.

More from EatingWell: