It is a common perception that all fast food is evil. However, in our fast-paced lives, the allure of fast food’s convenience and affordability is nearly impossible to avoid. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 65.2 percent of adults in Missouri are overweight and 30.5 percent are obese, making the state the 11th most obese in the country.
“There is a relationship between obesity and fast-food consumption,” says Ginger Meyer, a registered dietitian nutritionist for Lifesong Growth and Wellness in Jefferson City. “When people are eating these fast-food items that are high in fat, sodium and calories, that affects their overall weight and health in general.”
According to Meyer, the occasional fast-food meal is possible — if consumers know how to choose the right foods at fast-food restaurants. The key to eating healthily is learning how to read menus in a healthy light at each type of restaurant.
American Fast Food
With 75 burgers served every second around the world, there is no argument that McDonald’s is a global force in the restaurant business. What many people do not know is how to navigate a healthy path through the menus of McDonald’s and similar restaurants.
“Your No. 1 is to find any sort of vegetable you can,” says Kristy Lang, a clinical dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Boone Hospital Center. “If you really like hamburgers, get that, but instead of french fries, do a side salad or get the apple slices.”
Tip: Be aware that many fast food salads have elaborate toppings and dressings that make the salad more calorie-heavy than fries. Staying away from the creamy dressings in favor of vinaigrette-style dressings will make your salad healthier.
Sandwich shops, such as Subway, are generally touted as being the healthiest fast-food
purveyors. Many subs, such as ones with lean meats and vegetables, are good for a diet, but health-conscious diners should avoid those with fried elements.
“It’s important to be careful about what you’re putting on your sandwich,” Meyer says. “Sometimes if cheese is on a sandwich, you won’t even be able to taste it, so try and see if you’d even miss it that much. More veggies will help fill you up and add more nutritional value also.”
Tip: Wheat bread is the most nutrient-filled bread, and Lang recommends filling up the sandwich with vegetables to the point where the bun cannot close.
Taco Bell is arguably the most popular Mexican food chain in the country. With cheesy, spicy goodness, this restaurant and others like it are hard to resist.
“A taco salad here is deceiving,” Lang says. “With the shell, it’s just shy of 900 calories and somewhere around 46 grams of fat. Taking away the shell cuts your calories and fat almost in half.”
Tip: Items such as tacos are relatively low-calorie and low-fat, but many people tend to order more than the recommended two tacos and order multiple items on the menu.
The typical serving size for pizza is just one slice, which makes it extremely unlikely people will consume just one serving.
“Make half of your plate the pizza and the other half some sort of salad,” Lang says. “If you aren’t full and want seconds, go for more salad, not pizza.”
Tip: Vegetables are the most optimal toppings. Choose leaner meats, such as chicken, and stay away from meats high in fat, such as sausage and bacon.
With huge menus that seem to be increasing at the same rate as people’s waistlines, there are many choices to make, but making the right choices is possible.
“Any restaurant is OK to eat at occasionally, absolutely any restaurant,” Meyer says. “It is possible to maintain a healthy diet and still eat fast food, but it’s important to plan ahead.”
In general at any restaurant, choosing water shaves off the nearly 300 calories in a large soda. Try also to stay away from cheese, and when given the option, choose grilled chicken over crispy.
It is always ideal to think in moderation when ordering fast food. Both Lang and Meyer say the value menus offered at restaurants provide smaller, more appropriate portion sizes for a better-balanced meal.
“It’s just important to realize that we’re given way more food than we actually need,” Lang says. “Eating it is OK, it’s just in such excess where it becomes a problem.”