Healthier Fast Food Choices
“Healthier” is the key word with regards to fast food because it can be difficult to find something truly healthy at fast food restaurants. I find there are three main reasons that fast food meals can be unhealthy. They are often:
- High in calories and fat
- High in sodium (even when the food is low in calories!)
- Few fruits or vegetables, especially fresh
As for calories and fat, many fast food chains now have low calorie options available and in some cases, this is clearly indicated on the menu or menu board. Look for the Healthydiningfinder.com logo on menus.
Calories & Nutrients
California statute requires that most chain fast food restaurants must provide nutrition information. This information is available at the restaurant and is often online as well. Interestingly enough, the Affordable Care Act has similar requirements as California law so you’ll be seeing it throughout the country. To access these popular fast food restaurants’ nutrition information, click on the icon below.
You can use the nutrition information if available or, if not, you can remember these two points and you’ll likely reduce the calories and fat:
- Limit or modify foods with high-fat red flags. Foods that are fried, battered, crispy, rich, or creamy or have “special sauce,” mayo, and extras like bacon, sausage, cheese. Don’t be afraid to “order it your way” and ask for changes … hold the mayo, or skip the bacon or cheese.
- Limit choices with Red Flag Words. Large portion words such as: ultimate, Grande, double, big, super size or combo. The difference between “going big” and regular can be as much as 1000 calories!
Choosing food items and meals with fewer calories is a good start, but even lower calorie items can still contain high amounts of sodium. Here’s an example: El Pollo Loco’s menu now includes “5 under 500 [calories]” items. Yes, these menu items are less than 500 calories each, and contain vegetables, but several contain nearly HALF of the daily sodium recommendation. The Mango Tostada Plate with dressing contains almost an entire days’ worth of sodium at 1960 milligrams! Much of the sodium comes from the salad dressing, so if you eliminate the dressing, you will not only cut calories and fat, but also sodium.
For more on sodium recommendations and fast food, read:
Fruits & Vegetables
Lastly, it can be tough to find fresh fruits and vegetables at fast food restaurants. Even when available, they often cost more than other not-so-healthy choices. Whenever possible choose an entrée or add a side dish with fresh, not fried, vegetables and/or fruit. Or carry some fresh fruit and raw veggies with you to complement or balance out a fast food meal.
by Rana Parker, Department Dietitian