How can I eat healthier at fast food restaurants?



Every day, 25 percent of American adults and 30 percent of children eat one meal from a fast food establishment, according to a recent article from the Journal of American Dietetics Association. For those over the age of 18 months, french fries are the most common vegetable eaten. Not surprisingly, our country, as a whole, is getting fatter. The obesity rate in the United States has more than doubled in the last 20 years.

For those wanting to eat fast food, there is good news. Healthy side dish options are the newest trend. Consider this information.

McDonalds now offers side salads, fruit and yogurt parfaits and milk. Children may choose apples with low-fat dip, milk or a juice box in their Happy Meals. Wendy’s offers a fresh fruit platter with dip, baked potato, mandarin oranges or chili as side order options. Burger King offers applesauce, 100 percent apple juice or water.

Entree salads are gaining popularity. Mandarin chicken, spring mix, fire-grilled and Cobb salads are examples. These can be healthy alternatives as long as they are not slathered with high-fat dressing and toppings. A “slathered” salad can actually provide the same amount of calories or fat grams as a typical burger.

When comparing menu items, it is important to consider nutritional factors such as fiber and vitamin/mineral content. Salads greatly outweigh burgers and fries when compared this way. Fruit and yogurt parfaits may have the same number of calories as a cookie, but the yogurt and fruit also contribute calcium, vitamin C and vitamin A, whereas the cookie consists of empty calories. Some of the new side options may not be the healthiest, but they are healthier than the alternatives.

Other fast food options are available. Deli sandwich shops, Asian rice bowl eateries and Mexican or southwest grills offer a selection of healthier alternatives. Keep in mind, however, that every restaurant has both healthy and less-healthy choices. For example, Subway advertises its menu items that contain less than 6 grams of fat. However, they also have other items that can pack in around 30 grams of fat, even without condiments.

Additional tricks can help make any fast food meal better for you. Special ordering is one way. Ask to add lettuce and tomato to your burger. Hold the mayo or ask for low-fat sauces and dressings. Ask for sauces and condiments on the side so you can control the amount. Order water or diet soda with your meal instead of regular soda to cut around 200 calories. Opt for grilled items rather than fried. Order smaller sizes and eat slower. You might be surprised that you can fill up with less food if you pay close attention to how you really feel.

Keep in mind that this is not the first time fast food companies have included healthier items on their menus. Customers vote with their stomachs, and healthy products can fade quickly. McDonald’s McLean sandwich, adult happy meals, no-fat bran muffins and carrot/celery sticks are examples of healthy failures. Most companies are aware that healthier items won’t be big money makers. They know that people eating at fast food establishments are not always the most health conscious and will usually have a hard time resisting the temptation of tasty, greasy foods. The restaurant’s consolation is that by offering healthy choices, the obesity critics might leave them alone, and they can also control the “veto factor.” This social phenomenon occurs when groups of people eat out together. If one person doesn’t agree with the restaurant choice because they don’t want a burger or are on a diet, the whole group must go elsewhere. But if there are healthy options for that one person, the restaurant can do what it really wants — sell the other four or five people burgers and fries.

Fast food restaurants are profitable because the empty calorie foods they sell are inexpensive. A 16-ounce soda costs a fast food establishment less than16 cents to produce, yet they can sell it for $1.09. On the other hand, an 8-ounce milk jug costs them considerably more, but is sold for approximately the same price. Potatoes are also an inexpensive menu item.

By choosing the new, healthier fast food options, we are showing companies that nutrition is important to us and that we appreciate their efforts to provide healthier choices.

Posted on 13 May 2005

Nedra Christensen
Utah State University Extension Dietician
Emily Cannon
Senior dietetic student

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