Nutrition Column – Making Healthful Fast-Food Choices

There’s no doubt about it – Americans like their fast food. Whether it’s for a quick lunch, a no-mess meal while on the road or an easy way to get dinner on the table for a busy family, Americans continue to rely on fast food to fit their hectic lifestyles.  

When first introduced, fast-food menus mainly consisted of high-fat, high-calorie food items. Today, however, many fast-food restaurants offer healthful menu items in addition to the traditional burger, fries and soft drink. From grilled chicken sandwiches and broiled fish to salads and fresh fruit to low-fat milk and smoothies, consumers now have a wide variety of healthful items from which to choose. Follow these suggestions from the Mayo Clinic to help make healthful selections the next time you eat at a fast-food restaurant.

Keep portion sizes small. If the fast-food restaurant offers several sandwich sizes, pick the smallest or order half of a sandwich, if available. Bypass hamburgers with two or three beef patties, which can pack more than 1,000 calories and 70 grams of fat. Instead, choose a regular or child-size hamburger, which has about 250 to 300 calories. Also, skip the large serving of French fries or onion rings and go for the smaller size. This switch alone can save you 300 calories.

Choose a healthier side dish. Take advantage of the healthy side dishes now offered at many fast-food restaurants. For example, instead of french fries, choose a side salad with a low-fat dressing or a baked potato, or add a fruit bowl or fruit and yogurt cup to your meal. Other healthy choices include applesauce or apple slices, mandarin oranges, corn on the cob, steamed rice and baked potato chips.

Go for the greens. Choose a large entree salad with grilled chicken, shrimp or garden vegetables along with fat-free or low-fat dressing served on the side. Watch out for high-calorie salads such as those made with creamy pasta or topped with breaded chicken or other fried toppings. Also, skip those salad extras such as cheese, bacon bits, croutons and fried chips that quickly increase your calorie count.

Opt for grilled items. Fried and breaded foods, such as crispy chicken sandwiches and breaded fish fillets, are high in fat and calories. Select grilled or roasted lean meats, such as turkey or chicken breast, lean ham or lean roast beef.

Have it your way. Don’t settle for what comes with your sandwich or meal. Ask for healthier options and substitutions. For example, ask for reduced-fat mayonnaise or mustard on your sandwich. At a fast-food Mexican restaurant, request salsa with your meal instead of shredded cheese and nacho cheese sauce. Try to avoid special dressings, tartar sauce, sour cream and other high-calorie condiments.

Watch what you drink. Many beverages contain a large number of calories. For example, a large soda (32 ounces) has about 400 calories. Instead, order diet soda, water, low-fat milk, unsweetened iced tea, sparkling water or mineral water. Also, steer clear of shakes and other ice cream drinks; these can contain more than 1,000 calories and all of your saturated fat allotment for the day.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension