Heatlhy Fast Food Choices

iVillage Member
Registered: 10-29-2004
Heatlhy Fast Food Choices
Mon, 03-02-2009 - 12:36pm
Healthy Fast Food


America has been called a "fast food nation" and for good reason. Everyday, one out of four Americans eats fast food. If you are eating out, fast food restaurants are often the cheapest option, but unfortunately, not usually the healthiest one. Eating just one fast food meal can pack enough calories, sodium and fat for an entire day, but the quick-and-cheap temptation can be hard to resist.

Learning to make healthier choices at fast food restaurants

Making healthier choices at fast food restaurants is easier if you prepare ahead by checking guides that show you the nutritional content of meal choices at your favorite restaurants. Free downloadable guides help you evaluate your options. If you have a special dietary concern, such as diabetes, heart health or weight loss, the websites of national non-profits provide useful advice. You can also choose to patronize restaurants that focus on natural, high quality food.

If you don’t prepare ahead of time, common sense guidelines help to make your meal healthier. For example, a seemingly healthy salad can be a diet minefield when smothered in high-fat dressing and fried toppings, so choose a salad with fresh veggies, grilled toppings and a lighter dressing. Portion control is also important, as many fast food restaurants serve enough food for several meals in the guise of a single serving.

Top tips for healthy eating at fast food restaurants

Make careful menu selections – pay attention to the descriptions on the menu. Dishes labeled deep-fried, pan-fried, basted, batter-dipped, breaded, creamy, crispy, scalloped, Alfredo, au gratin or in cream sauce are usually high in calories, unhealthy fats or sodium. Order items with more vegetables and choose leaner meats.

Drink water with your meal. Soda is a huge source of hidden calories. One 32-oz Big Gulp with regular cola packs about 425 calories, so one Big Gulp can quickly gulp up a big portion of your daily calorie intake. Try adding a little lemon to your water or ordering unsweetened iced tea.

“Undress” your food. When choosing items, be aware of calorie- and fat-packed salad dressings, spreads, cheese, sour cream, etc. For example, ask for a grilled chicken sandwich without the mayonnaise. You can ask for a packet of ketchup or mustard and add it yourself, controlling how much you put on your sandwich.

Don't be afraid to special order. Many menu items would be healthy if it weren't for the way they were prepared. Ask for your vegetables and main dishes to be served without the sauces. Ask for olive oil and vinegar for your salads or order the dressing "on the side" and spoon only a small amount on at a time. If your food is fried or cooked in oil or butter, ask to have it broiled or steamed.

Watch portion size - an average fast food meal can run as high as 1000 calories or more, so choose a smaller portion size, order a side salad instead of fries, and don't supersize anything. At a typical restaurant, a single serving provides enough for two meals. Take half home or divide the portion with a dining partner. Sharing might make dessert (or something else indulgent) more of an option.

Watch your salt. Fast food restaurant food tends to be very high in sodium, a major contributor to high blood pressure. Don’t add insult to injury by adding more salt.

Avoid buffets – even seemingly healthy ones like salad bars. You'll likely overeat to get your money's worth. If you do choose buffet dining, opt for fresh fruits, salads with olive oil & vinegar or low-fat dressings, broiled entrees and steamed vegetables. Resist the temptation to go for seconds, or wait at least 20 minutes after eating to make sure you're really still hungry before going back for more.

Eat mindfully. Pay attention to what you eat and savor each bite. Chew your food more thoroughly and avoid eating on the run. Being mindful also means stopping before you are full. It takes time for our bodies to register that we have eaten. Mindful eating relaxes you, so you digest better, and makes you feel more satisfied.

Remember the big picture – Think of eating out in the context of your whole diet. If it is a special occasion, or you know you want to order your favorite meal at a nice restaurant, make sure your earlier meals that day are extra healthy. Moderation is always key, but planning ahead can help you relax and enjoy your dining out experience while maintaining good nutrition and diet control.

Guides can help you make healthier meal choices
Many fast food chains post nutritional information on their websites. Unfortunately, these lists are often confusing and hard to use. Instead you can go to other websites that provide health and nutrition information, but in easier to follow formats. Some even publish comparison downloadable guides or inexpensive pocket guides. Learn how to make a healthier meal selection at your favorite restaurant:

HealthyDiningFinder.com – allows you to search for restaurants offering a selection of healthier menu options and view the nutrition data for selected items. You can search for area restaurants or a specific restaurant.

Stop&Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide – this guide is particularly convenient and easy to use. Look up any of the major chain restaurants and find out how to make healthier choices. For more information, see below.

Guides for your individual needs

There are many websites geared toward how to make healthy choices at restaurants depending on your specific dietary needs, whether it is for diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or weight management. See below for specific listings.

Healthier fast food at burger chains

Figuring out healthier options at your favorite fast food burger chain can be tricky. A typical meal at a burger joint consists of a "sandwich", some fries and a drink, which can quickly come in at over 1700 calories for something like Burger King's Triple Whopper with a large fries and a 16 oz. soda. A better option would be a regular single patty burger, small fries, and water, which is about 500 calories. Alternatively you may enjoy a veggie burger smothered in grilled onion and mushrooms. Or if you want a large beef burger, then skip the fries and soda and have a side salad and water instead.

The Big Burger Chains

Less Healthy choices

Double-patty hamburger with cheese, mayo, special sauce, and bacon

Fried chicken sandwich

Fried fish sandwich

Salad with toppings such as bacon, cheese, and ranch dressing

Breakfast burrito with steak

French fries


Chicken “nuggets” or tenders

Adding cheese, extra mayo, and special sauces

Healthier choices

Regular, single-patty hamburger without mayo or cheese

Grilled chicken sandwich

Veggie burger

Garden salad with grilled chicken and low-fat dressing

Egg on a muffin

Baked potato or a side salad

Yogurt parfait

Grilled chicken strips

Limiting cheese, mayo, and special sauces

Healthier fast food at fried chicken chains

Although certain chains have been advertising “no trans fats” in their food, the fact is that fried chicken can pack quite a fattening punch. According to the restaurant’s nutrition info, just a single Extra Crispy Chicken breast at KFC has a whopping 440 calories, 27 grams of fat, and 970 mg of sodium. A healthier choice is the drumstick, which has 160 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 370 mg of sodium. Alternatively, if you like the breast meat, take off the skin and it becomes a healthy choice at 140 calories, 2 grams of fat, and 520 mg of sodium.

Some tips for making smarter choices at fast food chicken restaurants:

The Big Fried Chicken Chains

Less healthy choices

Fried chicken, original or extra-crispy.

Teriyaki wings or popcorn chicken

Caesar salad

Chicken and biscuit “bowl”

Adding extra gravy and sauces

Healthier choices

Skinless chicken breast without breading

Honey BBQ chicken sandwich

Garden salad

Mashed potatoes

Limiting gravy and sauces

Healthy fast food: Mexican chains

Fast food chains that specialize in tacos or burritos can be caloric minefields or they can be a good option for finding healthy fast food. Rice, beans, salsa and a few slices of fresh avocado can make a very healthy meal. But adding cheese, sour cream and tortilla chips can turn even a good meal unhealthy. Be sure to also remember portion control since these types of restaurants can have enormous menu items (eat half and take the rest for another meal).

Several chains, like Taco Bell and Baja Fresh, have “healthy” menu options that feature less fat and fresher ingredients.

The Big Taco Chains

Less healthy choices

Crispy shell chicken taco

Refried beans

Steak Chalupa

Crunch wraps or gordita-type burritos

Nachos with refried beans

Adding sour cream or cheese

Healthier choices

Grilled chicken soft taco

Black beans

Shrimp ensalada

Grilled “fresco” style steak burrito

Veggie and bean burrito

Limiting sour cream or cheese

Healthy fast food: Sub sandwich chains

Americans love all types of sandwiches: hot, cold, wrapped, foot long. Usually eaten with a salad instead of fries. The ads promote the health benefits of sandwich shops. Easier said than done... studies have found that many people tend to eat more calories per meal at a sub shop than at McDonalds. This may be because people feel so virtuous eating “healthy” like the ads promise, that they reward themselves with chips, sodas, or extra condiments.

You can make healthier choices at a deli or sub shop but you need to use some common sense.

Subs, Sandwich and Deli Choices

Less healthy choices

Foot-long sub

High-fat meat such as ham, tuna salad, bacon, meatballs, or steak

The “normal” amount of higher-fat (Cheddar, American) cheese

Adding mayo and special sauces

Keeping the sub “as is” with all toppings

Choosing white bread or “wraps” which are often higher in fat than normal bread

Healthier choices

Six-inch sub

Lean meat (roast beef, chicken breast, lean ham) or veggies

One or two slices of lower-fat cheese (Swiss or mozzarella)

Adding low-fat dressing or mustard instead of mayo

Adding extra veggie toppings

Choosing whole-grain bread or taking the top slice off your sub and eating it open-faced

Healthy Asian food

Asian cultures tend to eat very healthfully, with an emphasis on veggies, and with meat used as a “condiment” rather than being the focus of the meal. Unfortunately, Americanized versions of these ethnic foods tend to be much higher in fat and calories – so caution is needed. But here’s a great tip for all Asian restaurants – use the chopsticks! You’ll eat more slowly, since you can’t grasp as much food with them at one time as you can with your normal fork and knife.

Asian Food Choices

Less healthy choices

Fried egg rolls, spare ribs, tempura

Battered or deep-fried dishes (sweet and sour pork, General Tso’s chicken)

Deep-fried tofu

Coconut milk, sweet and sour sauce, regular soy sauce

Fried rice

Salads with fried or crispy noodles

Healthier choices

Egg drop, miso, wonton, or hot & sour soup

Stir-fried, steamed, roasted or broiled entrees (Shrimp chow mein, chop suey)

Steamed or baked tofu

Sauces such as ponzu, rice-wine vinegar, wasabi, ginger, and low-sodium soy sauce

Steamed brown rice

Edamame, cucumber salad, stir-fried veggies

Healthy Italian fast food

The anti-carbohydrate revolution has given Italian food a bad rap, but Italian is actually one of the easiest types of cuisine to make healthy. Stay away from fried, oily or overly buttery, as well as thick crust menu items, and you can keep your diet goals intact.

Watch out for the following terms, which are common culprits of high fat and calories: alfredo, carbonara, saltimbocca, parmigiana, lasagna, manicotti, stuffed (all have heavy amounts of cream and cheese). Generally Italian places have lots of veggies in their kitchen so it’s easy to ask to have extra veggies added to your meal.

Italian and Pizza Restaurant Choices

Less healthy choices

Thick-crust or butter-crust pizza with extra cheese and meat toppings

Garlic bread

Antipasto with meat

Pasta with cream or butter-based sauce

Entrée with side of pasta

Fried (“Frito”) dishes

Healthier choices

Thin-crust pizza with half the cheese and extra veggies

Plain rolls or breadsticks

Antipasto with vegetables

Pasta with tomato sauce and veggies

Entrée with side of veggies

Grilled (“Griglia”) dishesAs an informed customer, you can make healthier choices and

still enjoy the convenience of fast food restaurants.