Source: Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The New York Times published an interesting article analyzing the calories consumed by the average customer at Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG), and the results are quite surprising. According to the data, the typical order at Chipotle has 1,070 calories -- roughly half the daily recommended intake for most adults, and it doesn't look so good in comparison to McDonald's (NYSE:MCD).

Consumers are increasingly conscious about nutrition, and a reputation for healthier products is a major competitive advantage for Chipotle against McDonald's and other traditional fast food chains. What does this study mean for both Chipotle customers and investors?

Counting calories
Chipotle offers a lot of flexibility in its menu, and that's clearly a big advantage for customers when it comes to calories. For example, you can have a steak crispy taco with fresh tomato salsa and sour cream for 535 calories.

However, that's not what most customers order at Chipotle. The New York Times tracked data from nearly 3,000 meals in about 1,800 online orders, and it came to the conclusion that most Chipotle meals have over 1,000 calories. This could be, for example, a steak burrito with rice, tomatillo green chili salsa, sour cream, guacamole, and lettuce, or maybe a chicken burrito with rice, black beans, roasted chili corn salsa, and guacamole.

Most McDonald's burgers are below 550 calories, including widely popular names such as a Big Mac, Quarter Pounder With Cheese, and McRib. Medium French fries add an additional 340 calories, and large French fries have 510 calories. Based on these numbers, a customer can have a classic McDonald's burger with French fries for roughly 1,000 calories, in line with the calories provided by a typical meal at Chipotle.

Health goes beyond calories
The data can be a shocker to many customers, as Chipotle is typically consider far healthier than McDonald's and other traditional fast food players. However, it's important to keep in mind that there is much more to health considerations than just calories. 

In addition to calories, you need to consider variables such as fiber, vitamin, minerals, sugar, etc. A Chipotle burrito usually includes plenty of beans and vegetables, which is something most nutritionists recommend. Also, by including a relatively higher amount of fiber and protein in an order, Chipotle food is superior when it comes to satiety, and this can be a huge advantage in terms of reducing overall calories consumed through the day.

Guacamole is a clear example of this. Avocados have tons of calories and fat, but that's monounsaturated fat, which is a "good" fat that reduces bad cholesterol. Avocados offer nearly 20 vitamins and minerals in every serving, and they are low in sugar. In addition, they offer a lot of fiber, which reduces your urge to eat after meals.

Chipotle is focused on fresh and natural ingredients, trying to source from organic and local produce when possible. This is a major contrast against McDonald's and its highly processed foods. Maybe a typical Chipotle and McDonald's meal have a similar calories, but that doesn't mean they have the same consequences in terms of nutrition and overall health impact.  

Why Chipotle is crushing McDonald's
Chipotle is really humiliating McDonald's when it comes to sales growth. The organic burrito company delivered a spicy sales increase of 26.7% during the last quarter, with comparable sales rising 16.1% year over year. McDonald's, on the other hand, announced a lackluster increase of 0.3% in constant currency global comparable sales during January.

There are probably many different reasons Chipotle is crushing McDonald's and other fast food chains. While nutritional aspects are clearly important, taste and the overall customer experience should not be overlooked. Chipotle has a unique culture, and this allows it to deliver superior products and a differentiated customer experience.

In the words of Chipotle CEO Steve Ells during the company's third-quarter earnings conference call:

While our performance has been particularly strong this year, our results have been solid throughout our history as a public company even through the depths of the recession and I am often asked how we continue to perform so well. The fact is there is no great mystery to it. Our ability to generate such strong sales growth is the result of our commitment to serving the best tasting food we can. Food that is made with ingredients from more sustainable sources and prepared using classic cooking techniques, and our commitment to having teams of top performers in our restaurants who are empowered to provide an extraordinary customer experience.

It is our focus on these two key areas that will allow us to achieve our vision to change the way people think about any fast food. This formula is unique in the world of traditional fast food in some very important ways. The traditional fast food sector has traded food quality and taste for low cost and ease of preparation. It has aggressively marketed low prices to entice customers to visit more often, which has resulted in the need to reduce cost by cheapening ingredients and by compromising the overall dining experience. We have not made these compromises because our fundamental belief is that in order to provide an extraordinary customer experience you cannot take shortcuts.

Some customers may want to pay more attention to calories when eating at Chipotle; however, healthy nutrition is about much more than just calories. From an investor's point of view, the competitive dynamic between Chipotle and traditional fast food players is unlikely to change anytime soon.