Fast Food Survival Guide: How to Eat Healthy When There’s Absolutely No Choice
When you’re tired, out of time, and really hungry it’s easier to give in and eat fast food. Don’t you wish you could enjoy fast food without the added sugar, off the charts sodium content, and too much fat?
As a matter of fact, there are some items on fast food menus that are safe to eat once in a while. The slideshow below shows our handpicked foods from the top 10 fast food restaurants.
6 Smart Tips When Eating Fast Food
Let’s face it. Most fast food items either contain too much salt or too much sugar or both. That’s why they’re so addictive. Fortunately there are easy to remember guidelines when eating fast food.
1) Go For Grilled[i]
Grilling makes the excess fat drip away. Grilling also seals in moisture, makes meat tender, and makes meat more flavorful. Less oil will be needed in cooking. And you’ll need smaller amounts of condiments to enjoy grilled meat.
Fast food restaurants use liquid margarine to prevent meat from sticking to the grill.[ii] The amount used, however, is still a lot less compared to the oil used in frying. So, if you have a choice between fried and grilled, always choose grilled.
This doesn’t mean all grilled food in fast food restaurants are okay to eat. You still have to watch portion sizes and go easy on the sauces.
2) Watch Portion Size
Hamburgers served in fast food restaurants have tripled in size since the 1950’s, according to CDC. A typical burger weighed 3.9 ounces in the ‘50’s. Now the average is 12 ounces – three times as big.[iii]
One serving may be enough to feed several people. Your best bet would be to order the smallest size when it comes to burgers, sandwiches, and side dishes.
If you can’t find reasonably sized regular meals, choose a kid’s meal instead.
For most of the hamburgers we’ve looked at, the regular beef burger without cheese is good for one meal.
3) Don’t Be Fooled by Healthy Sounding Names
Ever heard of Burger King’s “Premium Alaskan Fish Sandwich”? Sounds healthy right? After all, it’s premium and it’s fish from Alaska.
However it contains 1,360 mg of sodium, 27 g of fat and 530 calories – just a tad less than the original BK Big Fish Sandwhich. In other words, Premium Alaskan Fish Sandwhich is virtually the same as the old BK Big Fish Sandwhich. It just sounds a whole lot healthier. [iv]
The lesson? Always check nutrition information.
4) Careful with the Condiments
Half of the sodium, sugar, and calories from fast food meals are from condiments. Creamy sauces contain lots of fat while ketchup, mustard, and barbecue sauce are often high in sodium.
The truth is it’s hard to eat fast food without the flavor of these condiments. But you can use tasty substitutes such as lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles. Pro tip: combine all these ingredients for more flavorful meals.
Julie Haugen, our nutritionist, recommends consuming only half of the amount of dressing or sauce in the container served with the meal. Julie recommends choosing mustard over mayo. Mustard contains less fat and overall calories. You can also ask for low-fat mayo.
Watch your condiment consumption on all meals, even breakfast.[v]
5) Just Say No to Fries
French fries are one of the two worst foods in the world according to Jonny Bowden (soda being the other). Here’s what he has to say about French fries:
“Fast food French fries are potato-like ‘products.’ They’re ‘seasoned’ with flavorings, wheat, salt and sugar, all to make them ‘super-palatable’ (i.e., addictive).”
Bowden further wrote that French fries are fried in “high omega-6 (and pro-inflammatory) vegetable oil, which is then reused time and time (for about a week), increasing the likelihood that trans fats and carcinogenic compounds will form during the frying and make it onto your potato-like product, onto which you will now dump a ton of salt and consume in obscene, supersized amounts.”[vi]
Order a side salad instead of fries.
6) Be Choosy with Fast Food Beverages
Avoid soda. If you still need convincing, here are some of the things that soda does to your health:
- It increase your risk of heart attacks
- It alters your metabolism making it harder to burn fat
- It may cause cancer
- It may cause nerve disorder and memory loss
- It increases the risk of asthma[vii]
Fruit juices and floats often also contain too much sugar. So, when ordering beverages from fast food restaurants, black coffee, unsweetened tea, and water are your safest bets.
Nutrition Information from the Top Fast Food Restaurants
Here are the nutrition information pages of the top fast food restaurant websites. When looking at nutrition information, check total calories, fat, sodium content, and sugar content. The following values are recommended for the average adult:
- Fat – 70 grams/day
- Saturated fat – 24 grams/day
- Sugar – the World Health Organization recommends 25 grams /day
- Sodium (salt) – 2,300 mg/day
- Calories – 1,600 – 2,200/day depending on age and gender
The best source for nutritional information is the restaurant’s official website. Here are the top chains for your easy reference:
- Burger King
- Taco Bell
- Dunkin’ Donuts
- Pizza Hut
- Panera Bread
- Domino’s Pizza
- Jack in the Box
- Chipotle Mexican Grill
- Papa John’s
- Dairy Queen
- Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen
- Panda Express
- Little Caesars
- Carl’s Jr
- Jimmy John’s
- Five Guys Burgers & Fries
If you find the nutritional information on a fast food chain’s website too hard to decipher, visit Fast Food Nutrition – a more comprehensive list of fast food nutritional information.
While it’s not a good idea to rely on fast food for your daily meals, you can still eat some fast food items once in awhile especially when you’re tired, hungry, and don’t have enough time. The key is in choosing your meals carefully. This requires checking fast food nutritional information in advance. If this is not possible, follow these general guidelines:
- Choose grilled/roasted over fried
- Choose the smallest portion size available
- Don’t trust healthy-sounding names, ask what’s in it
- Go easy on condiments, choose mustard over mayo
- Say no to fries
- Drink water, black coffee, or unsweetened tea
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[i] 4 Health Benefits of Grilling, Botsford Blog, Published June 25, 2012, Retrieved October 23, 2014.
[ii] 7 Fast Foods You Should Never Eat – The Real Dish from Fast Food Workers, Melanie Haiken, Forbes, Published July 13, 2012, Retrieved October 23, 2014.
[iii] Fast food burgers have tripled in size since the 1950’s: CDC Graphic, Rheana Murray, New York Daily News, Published May 23, 2012, Retrieved October 23, 2014.
[iv] Healthier or Just Healthier Sounding?, Fast Food Nutrition Blog, Published February 1, 2013, Retrieved October 23, 2014.
[v] How to Eat Healthy at Fast Food Restaurants, Robin Reichert, ShapeFit.com, Retrieved October 23, 2014.
[vi] The Two Worst Foods in the World, Dr. Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., The Huffington Post, Published October 17, 2012, Published October 23, 2014.
[vii] 11 Reasons Why Soda is Terrible for You, Ashley Lutz and Dina Spector, Business Insider, Published May 28, 2013, Retrieved October 27, 2014.