Healthy Fast Food 040908

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Meta Title: Healthy Fast Food: Guide to Healthy Fast Food Restaurant Eating
Meta Description: What are some healthy fast food and restaurant choices? Provides general guidelines
for eating out and staying healthy.
Word Count: 1854 (not incl. hook or related links)
Keywords: healthy/healthiest (70) fast food (43) restaurant (40) nutrition (15) eating out (9) fat (27) calories

In this article:
      Healthy fast food: is it possible?
      Healthy fast food: The big burger chains
      Healthy fast food: The big fried chicken and taco chains
      Healthy fast food: Sandwich shops and delis
      Healthy fast food: Casual-fare restaurants
      Healthy fast food: Chinese, Japanese & Thai restaurants
      Healthy fast food: Pizza and Italian restaurants
      Related links for healthy fast food

Healthy Fast Food
                                              With our busy lifestyles, it’s no wonder that
                                              everyday many of us find ourselves at the
                                              drive-thru, or sitting in booths with plastic
                                              menus in hand.
                                              Fast food meals are usually higher in
                                              calories, sodium and fat, and lacking in
                                              important vitamins and minerals. Even fine-
                                              dining restaurant meals tend to include too
                                              much fat, salt, or sugar, and portions are
                                              almost always larger than normal.
                                              The good news is that many restaurants,
                                              fast food and sit-down, are adding healthier
                                              menu options. Read on to learn how to
                                              make smart choices and maintain your
                                              healthy diet goals when eating out!
Healthy fast food - is it possible?
America has been called a ‘fast food nation,' and for good reason. Everyday, one out of four Americans
eats fast food. Most do it for the convenience, and money plays a part as well. If you are eating out, fast
food restaurants are often the cheapest option. Unfortunately, fast food restaurants are not the most
nutritious option. Generally, fast food meals are higher in calories, sodium and fat, and often lacking in
important vitamins and minerals. Until recently, French fries were the only vegetable option at many
fast food restaurants – and by most standards, it’s a stretch to call fast food French fries a vegetable!
The good news is that many restaurants, fast food and sit-down, are adding healthier menu options. It
is now possible to eat a fairly nutritious meal on the go. Making good choices when you are eating out
will help you maintain a healthy diet.

Top tips for healthy eating at fast food restaurants

Following a few simple rules when you are eating out will make it possible to maintain your nutritious
diet, even when you are away from home or on the road.

      1. Look before you leap - Most fast food restaurants and restaurant chains post nutritional
         information about their food offerings on their web sites – check them out. If you decide what
         you can and should order before you arrive, it will make it easier to avoid the less nutritious,
         higher calorie options.
      2. “Undress” your food - When choosing, be aware of highly caloric additions such as salad
         dressings, cheese, sour cream, etc. Sometimes, making your choice healthier is as simple as
         removing the condiments. For example, ask for a grilled chicken sandwich without the
      3. Avoid buffets – All-you-can-eat buffets – even seemingly healthy ones like salad bars -
         0promote overeating. If the temptation isn't in front of you, you are less likely to overindulge.
      4. Make careful menu selections – Many restaurants indicate healthy choices on their menus;
         fast food restaurants now offer a wider range of healthy choices and most will provide
         nutritional information on all of their offerings by request.
      5. Don't be afraid to special order – Most restaurants have plenty of things that are good for
         you, but they are served in heavy sauces. Ask for your vegetables and main dishes to be
         served without the sauces. Ask if things are fried or cooked in oil or butter – if they are, see if
         you can order them in a more healthy way.
      6. Watch portion size – At a typical restaurant, a single serving provides enough calories for at
         least two meals. If you can't order a smaller portion, it is a good rule of thumb to leave at
         least one-third to one-half of the meal on your plate. Or, separate your meal before you start
         eating so that you create a distinction between what you are going to eat in the restaurant
         and what you want to take home. Ordering something that will reheat easily will provide you
         with a delicious lunch or dinner the next day. At fast food chains, avoid combo meals – they
         often have larger portions and extra calories.
      7. Share – Sharing entrees, appetizers and desserts with dining partners is a great idea. It
         allows you to sample something that you really want to have while also helping you avoid the
         temptation to overindulge. It is still important to make good menu choices, but sharing might
         make dessert (or something else indulgent) more of an option.
      8. Order sauce and dressing on the side – If you ask for sauces and dressings on the side,
         you can control the amount that you eat. Often you can use less than is normally used and
         still enjoy the same taste.
      9. 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, cut
          back on your earlier meals that day. Moderation is always key, but planning ahead can help
          you relax and enjoy your dining out experience without sacrificing good nutrition or diet

Healthy fast food: the big burger chains
Figuring out the healthiest option at your favorite fast food burger chain can be tricky. Chicken may
seem like a better diet choice than beef, but the McDonald’s chicken sandwich has more fat and
calories than their regular hamburger – a decent choice at 280 calories and 10 grams of fat. But
upgrade that regular hamburger to a Big Mac, and you’ll be adding more than 300 calories and 20
grams of fat to your meal!
However, even some old favorites can be healthier choices – once you know the nutrition facts of your
favorite items, you’ll be able to make better decisions.

                    The Big Burger Chains: Healthiest and Unhealthiest Choices

Healthy choices                  Unhealthy choices

Regular, single-patty            Triple-patty hamburger with
hamburger w/o mayo or            cheese, mayo, special
cheese                           sauce, and bacon.

Grilled chicken sandwich         Fried chicken w/mayo
w/out mayo or special

Veggie burger                    Battered, fried fish
                                 sandwich w/tartar sauce

Salad with grilled chicken       Chicken “nuggets” or
and low fat dressing             tenders

Egg on a muffin (w/out           Breakfast burrito with steak

Baked potato w/out sour          French fries
cream or butter or small chili

Yogurt parfait                   Large milkshake

Healthy fast food: The big fried chicken and taco 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. Just a single Extra Crispy Chicken breast at KFC has a whopping 440
calories, 27 grams of fat, and 970 mg of sodium.
Fast food chains that specialize in tacos or burritos can also be caloric minefields. Adding guacamole,
cheese, sour cream and tortilla chips can make even a good meal turn unhealthy. Luckily, chains like
Taco Bell and Baja Fresh have recently added “healthy” menu options that feature less fat and fresher
 You can still enjoy an occasional lunch from Church’s, KFC, Taco Bell or other fast food chicken and
taco restaurants, by taking care with how you order.

                The Big Fried Chicken Chains: Healthiest and Unhealthiest Choices

Healthy choices                    Unhealthy choices

Chicken breast without skin or     Extra crispy fried chicken
breading                           breast

Honey BBQ chicken sandwich         Teriyaki wings

Grilled chicken caser salad        Chicken and biscuit “bowl”
w/out dressing

Mashed potatoes w/out gravy        Biscuits and gravy

                     The Big Taco Chains: Healthiest and Unhealthiest Choices

Healthy choices                   Unhealthy choices

Veggie and bean burrito w/out     Crunch wraps or gordita-type
sour cream or cheese              burritos w/meat, sour cream,
                                  guacamole and cheese

Grilled chicken soft taco         Overstuffed chicken taco with
                                  crispy shell

Grilled “fresco” style steak      Steak Chalupa
burrito with black beans

Shrimp ensalada                   Grande nachos with cheese,
                                  refried beans, and sour cream

Healthy fast food: sandwich shops and delis
We’ve all seen the ads – eat at Subway and lose weight! Easier said than done... an October 2007
Journal of Consumer Research study found that people tend to eat 350 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.

It is easier to eat healthfully at a deli or sub shop than it is at most fast food establishments, but you
need to use some common sense.
               Subs, sandwich shops and delis: Healthiest and Unhealthiest Choices

Healthy choices                    Unhealthy choices

6-inch sub with lean meat          Foot-long ham and cheese
(roast beef, chicken breast,       sub with mayo
lean ham) or veggies; no
cheese or mayo

One or two slices of lower-fat     The “normal” amount of
cheese (Swiss or mozzarella)       higher-fat (Cheddar,
                                   American) cheese

Leaving off the mayo; asking       Keeping the sub “as is” with
for low-fat dressing or            all toppings
mustard and adding extra
veggie toppings

Choosing whole-grain bread         Choosing white bread or
or taking the top slice off your   “wraps” which are often
sub and eating it open-faced       higher in fat than normal

Healthy fast food: Casual-fare chains

Just because someone serves you your food at a table, doesn’t necessarily make it healthier. But many
casual restaurants are offering “light selections” on their menus. Some examples of “good’ menu
choices at casual restaurants:
      Cheesecake Factory’s Chinese Chicken Salad, California Salad, or Seafood Salad (all about 590
      Applebee’s Weight watchers menu: Steak and Portobellos (330 calories, 10 grams fat); Italian
       Chicken and Portobello Sandwich (360 calories, 6 grams fat).
      Chili’s Guiltless Chicken Sandwich (490 calories, 8 grams fat); Guiltless Grill Salmon (480
       calories, 14 grams fat).
Some more healthy choices that can be found at casual-fare chains:
Casual-fare Restaurants: The healthiest and unhealthiest choices

                                                    Healthy choices             Unhealthy choices

                                                    Side salad, side of         Fries
                                                    steamed veggies

                                                    Turkey, roast beef, or      Mayo-heavy tuna or
                                                    grilled chicken sandwich,   chicken salad sandwich
                                                    plain or with mustard,
                                                    horseradish, or low-fat

                                                    Baked or grilled fish       Battered or deep-fried

                                                    Chicken or turkey wraps     Salads with fried onions,
                                                    w/out mayo or cheese        cheeses, meats and high-
                                                                                fat dressings

                                                    Turkey or veggie burgers    Extra-large burgers
                                                                                loaded with cheese and

Healthy fast food: Chinese, Japanese & Thai restaurants
Asian cultures tend to eat very healthfully, with an emphasis on veggies and small servings of stir-fried
meats. Unfortunately, however, 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 a time as you can
with your normal fork and knife.

Healthy choices                   Unhealthy choices

Egg drop, miso, wonton, or hot    Fried egg rolls, spare ribs,
& sour soup; edamame,             tempura
cucumber salad, stir-fried
mixed veggies

Stir-fried, steamed, roasted or   Battered, deep-fried, or
broiled entrees (Shrimp chow      breaded entrees (sweet and
mein, chop suey)                  sour pork, General Tso’s

Steamed or baked tofu             Deep-fried tofu
Sauces: ponzu, rice-wine          Coconut milk – used in many
vinegar, wasabi, ginger, mirin,   Thai dishes; very high in fat
soy (although soy is very high
in sodium)

Steamed brown rice                Fried rice

Healthy eating at Pizza and Italian restaurants
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 menu items, and
you can keep those diet goals intact.

              Italian and Pizza Restaurants: The healthiest and unhealthiest choices

                                               Healthiest choices            Unhealthiest choices

                                               Thin-crust pizza with half    Thick-crust or butter-crust
                                               the cheese and extra          pizza with extra cheese and
                                               veggies                       meat toppings

                                               Plain roll or breadstick      Garlic bread (usually very

                                               Antipasto with extra          Antipasto with meat
                                               chickpeas, olives, kidney
                                               beans, lettuce, tomatoes,
                                               and other vegetables

                                               Pasta with tomato sauce       Pasta with cream or butter-
                                               and veggies                   based sauce, and higher-fat
                                                                             meat sauce.

                                               Entrée with side of veggies   Entrée with side of pasta –
                                                                             often the “side” is an entire
                                                                             portion in itself

                                               Grilled (“Griglia”) dishes    Fried (“Frito”) dishes

Secret fat code words: Alfredo, carbonara, saltimbocca, parmigiana, lasagna, manicotti, stuffed (all
have heavy amounts of cream and cheese.)
Related links for healthy fast food
Top tips for eating healthy while eating out
Eating Right When Eating on the Run – Suggests ways to make healthy eating choices when you are
out – in restaurants, in airports, in fast food places. (AARP)
Your Guide to Eating Out – Offers tips to help you eat healthier when dining out regardless of whether
you have diabetes. (American Diabetes Association)
Healthy Fast Food Choices – Tips on portion control, beverage choices and balancing fat,
carbohydrates, and protein when dining out. (MSNBC Interactive)

Fast food nutrition
Nutritional information for popular fast food restaurants’ websites:
      Burger King (PDF)
      McDonald’s
      Wendy’s (PDF)
      KFC (PDF)
      Taco Bell

Restaurant nutrition
Restaurant Nutrition Facts – Links to nutritional information for over 453 popular restaurants.
( commercial site)
Beyond Fast Food "Fast Casuals" Come Of Age (PDF) - Provides guidance on selecting healthy
choices when dining at "fast casual" restaurants, such as Au Bon Pain, Panera, and Briazz. (Nutrition
Action Healthletter)
Restaurant Calories: Extreme Eating – Get the skinny (or, in this case, fat) on the 8 of the worst
restaurant dishes for your health. (WebMD)
Healthy Dining Finder – Using an alphabetical list of popular restaurants, find the healthiest choices at
your favorite establishment. (Healthy Dining Finder)

Nutrition Action - Restaurant Confidential Reports:

      Chinese Food: A Wok on the Wild Side – CSPI's Guide to Chinese Food – Analysis of the
       nutritional value of take out Chinese food and includes three suggestions for making your
       restaurant Chinese dinner more healthy.
      Mexican Food: Oile – CSPI's Guide to Mexican Food
      When in Rome – CSPI's Guide to Italian Food
      What a Pizza Delivers – CSPI's Guide to Delivery Pizza (PDF)

Suzanne Barston, Gina Kemp, M.A., and Robert Segal, M.A., contributed to this
article. Last modified on: 4/7/08.

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