A Healthy Guide to Fast Food

Ever wonder what to order at a fast food restaurant? Nutrition expert Hope Warshaw has the answers in her book Eat Out, Eat Right: The Guide to Healthier Restaurant Eating.

The Menu Profile


The bitter truth is this: Most items on fast-food menus are high in total fat, saturated fat, and sodium, and are low in healthier carbohydrates. Even a nutritious food like a potato is usually drenched in from the oil of the deep-fryer or smothered by lots of unhealthy cheese, bacon, and sour cream. There’s not much that is green and crunchy in an order of burger, fries, and a shake.

You should minimize the amount of fried foods you eat for several reasons. Firstly, cutting down on total fat will decrease the amount of calories you consume. Also, many fried foods contain trans fats (learn more about trans fats and how to avoid them in Chapter 2), which are unhealthy. If you must indulge in some fried food, offset it with a grilled or nonfried item. For example, opt for a small order of French fries (or share a medium order) with a no-frills hamburger, a grilled chicken sandwich, or a roast beef sandwich. If you choose a piece or two of fried chicken, remove the skin before you eat it and add a plain baked potato, a garden salad, and baked beans or an ear of corn. Fat grams add up in other parts of the meal as well. Think about the toppings on those main dishes: cheese, bacon, and “special sauces--which are usually either mayonnaise-based or just plain mayonnaise. All are loaded with fat and contain at least some unhealthy saturated fat.

Even healthier options like salads and baked potatoes usually have significant amounts of fat tucked away in their dressings and toppings. Consider the fast food packets of salad dressing: Many contain as much as four tablespoons of dressing and more than 200 calories. If you pour on the whole packet, you destroy the health benefits of the salad. The same logic holds true for the nonfat baked potato offered at some fast-food franchises. When you add cheese sauces, sour cream, and/or bacon bits, you’re pouring on fat. But that’s one of the great things about fast food: You are in control. You can specify exactly how you want your food “dressed.”

The high sodium content of fast-food meals is another pitfall. Sodium levels shoot through the roof as foods are coated in salty batters and served with pickles, sauces, bacon, cheese, and salad dressing. Of course, you can’t mention sodium and fast food without considering the amount of salt in French fries. Remember—you can order them salt-free.

Entrées are loaded with salt, too. Burger King’s Original Whopper with cheese contains more than 1,400 milligrams of sodium—more than half the maximum daily amount for adults. In fact, it is commonplace for fast-food meals to rise above the desirable daily sodium count of 2,300 milligrams. Some of the sodium is difficult to cut out because of the high sodium content of the packaged foods the restaurants use. A chicken fillet contains around 600 milligrams of sodium before it even hits the deep fryer. Cut your sodium intake where you can by cutting down on high-sodium ingredients like salad dressing, cheese, sauces, and bacon. You’ll be cutting back the fat as well. Surprisingly, the art of pre planning is actually easier in fast-food restaurants. You probably know the menu intimately before you even set foot in the restaurant. Decide what you’ll order before you cross the threshold or shout your order into the drive-thru speaker. Once you are in the restaurant, the smells and visual cues might tempt you to change your mind, but hold firm. If you are dining with a companion, give her or him your order before you walk in and head to the dining room to secure a table.

Another advantage of fast-food restaurants is that you don’t have to wait to eat. You’ll be eating as soon as you sit down. There’s no bread and butter on the table or high-fat appetizers. Dessert is rarely a temptation. Portion size is easy to control as long as you order foods with the words small, regular, junior, or single. Avoid any of the words that are fast-food-speak for large portions: giant, super, jumbo, double, triple, big, and extra large. A single hamburger has between two and three ounces of meat, which is just about the right portion for lunch or dinner. Although you’ve probably chosen a fast-food restaurant because you’re short on time, you should monitor your pace of eating. Take at least 15 to 20 minutes to consume your meal. Avoid the drive-thru if you can. If you are eating in the car, you can’t focus on the food. You’ll hardly taste it as you shovel it in.

Excerpted from Eat Out, Eat Right by Hope S. Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE. Copyright © 2008 by Hope S. Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE. Excerpted by permission of Surrey Books, a division of Agate Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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