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Healthy Eating: How to Make the Best Choices at the Fast Food Counter

Fast food: we know it’s not healthy, and yet, as a nation, we still eat it — lots of it. In fact, a couple years ago the CDC calculated that American adults get 11 percent of their calories from fast food.[1] That’s a lot of burgers, fries, and shakes.

Most people don’t go to fast food restaurants looking for healthy eating options. They go because they want to treat themselves, or to satisfy the kids, or as a last resort when pressed for time, or as a quick stop while traveling. But many fast food joints have been taking small steps to improve the nutritional quality of the food they offer. If you order carefully, it is possible to get (relatively) healthy fast food at many of these establishments.

So if you find yourself standing in line at a fast food restaurant sometime soon, wondering what you should order to keep the meal from being a complete nutritional disaster, this article offers some guidance.

1. Check the calorie counts. Sometimes these are posted on menu boards, but if they’re not, the information is available online on the restaurants’ websites. Just pull out your smart phone and look it up. (And as of Dec. 1, 2016, the FDA will require all establishments with more than 20 locations to post calorie counts on their menus.) You want to keep your meal under 500 calories. That may sound easy, but the average adult eats 836 calories per fast food meal!

2. Order the smallest size (e.g. the six-inch sub instead of the foot-long). Usually it’s plenty of food and won’t leave you feeling you overindulged. If all the portions are big, try cutting your meal in half before you start to eat, wrapping it up, and saving the rest for later.

3. Go for grilled items instead of fried. Fried foods not only have more calories, but often contain unhealthy trans fats. Avoid anything that’s labeled with the telltale words “crispy,” “batter-dipped,” or “deep-fried.”

4. Skip the liquid calories. It’s easier to drink too many calories than to eat too many, so do yourself a favor and skip calories in liquid form. Did you know that a shake can have up to 800 calories — more than your entire meal should contain? Even a soda, at 300 calories, can cut into your calorie budget. Stick to water, milk, or unsweetened coffee or tea instead.

5. Include some fresh fruits and vegetables in your meal, whether it’s in the form of apple slices or a salad. Dressing is often full of sugar and other undesirable ingredients, but if you order it on the side you can decide how much to use. (Vinaigrette is usually your best bet.) Or if there’s a veggie-intensive entree, like fajitas, order that instead of a taco or enchiladas.

6. Watch your sides. Skip the fries or chips and get a salad instead. (The article recommends opting for a baked potato, but I disagree, as potatoes, however they are prepared, are full of simple carbs that will expand your waistline quickly.) Other carb-heavy sides worth skipping include rice, noodles, onion rings, macaroni and cheese, biscuits, and mashed potatoes.

7. Be sure to take your Juice Plus+ when you get home to help you bridge the gap between what you should have eaten, and what you actually did.

How do you make healthy choices at fast food restaurants? Share your tips in the comments.



[1] Fryar CD, Ervin B. Caloric intake from fast food among adults: United States, 2007-2010. 2013 Feb. NCHS Data Brief 114.

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