When you are hungry with just a few bucks in the pocket or no time to prepare food at home, fast food takes the spot. It calls out to you, mainly because it is quick, tasty, and most of all, convenient. But fast food is richer in sodium than it should be, it’s loaded with the bad fat, it has been linked with a large number of healthy disorders including type 2 diabetes, coronary artery diseases, weight gain, and obesity, and it’s devoid of vegetables, fiber, and fruits (1). Also, contrary to what most people think, that fast food is cheap, if you are feeding the whole family, it can turn out to be expensive than cooking at home, not to mention it has a lot of empty calories.
But not all fast foods are bad. In the midst of the fast food disaster, there lies a few good choices. You just need to know where and how to order.
But Can Fast Foods be Healthy?
The truth is that it’s hard to stick to a healthy diet when eating out frequently in fast food joints. To keep costs down, fast food restaurants use the cheapest ingredients available. This means that food ordered in fast food joints may not be as healthy as it’s supposed to be. For example, under ordinary circumstances, cheese is supposed to be a great source of calcium and protein, but the cheese covering your pizza is not from cow milk, and even if it is, it is highly processed. The same case applies to chicken, eggs, and meat used to prepare fast foods.
However, this doesn’t mean its 100 percent ‘evil’ to don on fast foods. It’s okay to quench your thirst once or so in a month, but if you’re watching your weight or you want to stay healthy, eating at a fast food chain should not be a routine. Taking fast food regularly will certainly throw your health out of balance.
The secret is moderation – both in relation to what you order while in a fast food chain and how often you visit them. There are some healthier choices that you can make and the following tips will guide you, but bear in mind that all fast food, even the healthiest, will have several nutritional drawbacks. Try to limit fast food to once in a while treats. Ideally:
- Limit your meal to 500 calories or less: Generally, fast foods have high-calorie density. For example, on average, most fast foods have 1100KJ/100g, which is about 65% higher than the average British diet (2). Do not work with guess work. Fast food joints and hotels offer nutritional information on their website and franchise locations. Read this information and limit your plate to 500 calories.
- Got for option rich in fiber and protein, and lower in fat: Order fast foods with more of the healthy ingredients such as fiber, whole grain, and high-quality protein, and less of the bad stuff such as saturated fats. Note that although some saturated fats are good for you, those found in fast food are all in the bad fat category.
- Avoid trans-fats: Meat and dairy product have small amounts of natural trans fats, but it’s the artificial trans fats used to preserve food that is bad for your healthy. Avoid fast foods that contain “partially hydrogenated” oil, even if the label claims they are trans-fat free. Also, avoid all deep-fried fast foods. USDA recommends limiting intake of trans fats to 2g per day (3).
- Check your sodium intake: The AHA (American Heart Association ) recommends you to take not more than 2,400 mg of sodium a day (4). Most fast foods, especially pasta dishes, sauces, pizza, and soups, exceed the recommended daily intake of sodium. Keep a sharp eye on their nutrition fact label to make sure you don’t exceed your daily sodium intake. For people with blood pressure, AHA recommends reducing sodium intake to less than 1500 g per day (4).
- Stop Eating Too Fast: Have you ever noticed how long thin people take to clear their plate? My younger sister was always the last one to clear her plate, and for a long time it drove the rest of my family crazy. Everyone thought it was her way to get out of doing the dishes or clearing the table. It was not after reading a journal article published by the NCBI that I realized her slow eating was the secret behind her lean figure. According to the study, eating slowly maximizes satiation and minimize caloric intake during a meal (5)
- It’s okay to carry your own add-ins – Even if you are very keen when ordering, it is extremely hard to get enough fiber, nutrients, and vitamins from a fast food menu. Ideally, plan ahead and bring your own toppings such as dried fruit, apple, carrot sticks, cottage cheese, nuts, and seeds.
Be Aware of Added Sugar
The biggest problem with food menus is the large amount of added sugar – and it is not only in desserts and sodas. The average burger and cookies contain five to ten grams of added sugar, nearly the same amount as a couple of cookies (6). Ketchup, BBQ sauces, salad dressings, and dips are also packed with added sugars.
Your body absorbs enough sugar from the naturally occurring sugar in foods. So, all the added sugar in fast foods does nothing but add inches to your waistline, worsen your risk of developing depression, diabetes and suicidal thoughts.
According to the AHA (American Heart Association), a man should stay under 9 teaspoons or 37.5 g of added sugar a day, and a woman 6 teaspoons or 25 g (7). The amount sounds a lot, but eating at a fast food joint can easily burst the limit. For example, a 12-ounce soda has up to 40 grams of the added sugar while a 64-ounce soda contains about 200 g of the added sugar. Clearly, the amount of added sugar in a soda is not worthy consuming. As an alternative, order fresh fruit juice.
Whenever you choose to eat at a fast food joint, plan ahead and take the least amount of sugar possible in the meal leading to and after your affair at a fast food chain. Also, you can reduce the damage by opting for salad dressing, eating subs, sandwiches open-faced, burgers, and by skipping dips and sides that are loaded with sugar.
Tips for Ordering Healthy Fast Foods
It is easy to choose healthy fast food if you plan by going through the nutrition fact guides that most fast food joints post on their site. However, even if you don’t have time, you can still don on healthier options by following a few rules:
- Take small portions: Most restaurants deliver large amounts of food in a single meal that can or ought to be served for several meals. Steer clear of value-sized and supersized items, and settle for the smallest burgers, sandwiches, and sides. A quick hint, check kid’s menu to get reasonable portions.
- Choose roasted or grilled meats: Do not take breaded or fried meals like breaded fish fillets, crispy chicken sandwiches and processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, sausage, or ham. Instead, choose roasted beef, turkey, or chicken breast.
How to Consume Less Calories at a Fast Food Joint
- Keep an eye on dressings and condiments: When evaluating options at a fast food chain, keep an eye on empty calories packed spreads, sides, sauces and salad dressings. Oil-based sauces and mayonnaise are calories packed. Instead, order mustard or ask for a packet so that you can limit how much you want to add to your sandwich.
- Be wise with sides: Be careful with menu items that are accompanied by side dishes. Some of the bad sides include chips, fries, noodles, onion rings, macaroni, biscuits, cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, coleslaw, and rice. Healthier options include baked potato, fresh fruit cups, apple slices, corn on cob, and salads with limited dressings.
- Skip French Fries: Must you really don on those fries? A burger or sandwich is enough filling on its own.
- Go Slow on Bacon: It’s really tempting to add some bacon to salads and sandwiches for a richer flavor, but processed or industrial produced meat is high in fat and calories and low in nutrients. Healthier alternative includes extra pickles, lettuce, mustard, onions and tomatoes.
Ensure the salad is not a stealthier diet saboteur
- Skip calories loaded toppings such as croutons, processed cheese, crispy noodles and bacon bits.
- Avoid taco salads: Cheese, sour cream, tortilla chips, and deep-fried shells.
- Go for salads with shrimp, veggies, and grilled chicken. Avoid salads with fried toppings or breaded chicken.
Well, that marks the end of our discussion in part 1 of this article. In part 2, we will discuss more complex issues such as how to choose healthier fast food at a burger joint, tips for selecting healthier fast foods at a chicken joint, ideas for eating well in a Mexican fast food chain and more.
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