Whether you're eating on-the-go, on a budget, or with friends who couldn't care less about their diets, you'll probably end up eating at a fast food restaurant despite your best efforts to avoid them. They're everywhere, they're cheap, and they're convenient -- so what's a dieter to do? Take the following steps to minimize the impact of fast food on your diet.
- Read the nutrition pamphlet.
If there are certain fast food chains you tend to patronize, visit
their websites for nutritional information. Determine what they have to
offer that's more nutritious and lower in calories than other items on
the menu. Make a list to keep in your wallet or purse, in case you
forget ("...which one had 700 calories?"). If you don't have a chance to
do your fast food homework, some places have nutritional information
pamphlets available near the registers. If so, skim through one before
ordering, if you can.
- 2Read the ingredients list. The nutrition pamphlet won't tell you everything. Trans fat from the process of hydrogenation is a major risk factor for heart disease. Due to FDA regulations, if a food item has less than 0.5g of trans fat "per serving," it will be rounded down to 0g on the nutrition facts sheet. The only way to make sure you aren't eating any trans fat is to scan the ingredients list for any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, and avoid eating food items which contain them.
- 3Plan ahead. Most major fast food chains have websites, and most now offer the nutrition information on-line. Select your meal and tally the calories before heading to the restaurant.
- Salad dressing - contains fats in the oil, but read the labels, because sometimes the fats are "good fats" like extra virgin olive oil. The lowest-calorie salad dressing is usually the healthiest choice. Don't feel like you have to use the whole package. A small drizzle may be all you need.
- Cheese - high in saturated fat, but if your diet is low in calcium and you cannot tolerate milk, one slice of cheese will help provide that.
- Sour cream
- Ketchup - many U.S. brands have high fructose corn syrup
- Sauces which are high in sugars and/or fat. If you need a sauce for flavor, look for the one with the fewest calories. Mustard is good for sandwiches, Vinegar is good for fries, and lemon juice is good for salads.
- Salt (in excess). Be aware that sodium is hidden throughout most fast foods, so the foods you would think have the most sodium (salted fries, for example) may actually not have as much sodium as other foods.
- Mayonnaise (a tablespoon of regular mayonnaise has almost 100 calories).
- 5Choose grilled chicken instead. Fried chicken contains a lot more calories and fat.
- 6Ask for extra veggie toppings on your sandwich. Extra tomato, lettuce, and onion will add more vitamins, fiber, and flavor to the sandwich and only add a few calories. This can help turn a small burger into something more substantial.
- 7Substitute a healthier side dish for fries. Some fast food chains allow this. For example, a small garden side salad with low calorie dressing or fresh apple slices. Choose these more often.
- 8Eat no more than half of what's served to you. Fast food joints are well-known for their big portions. A single serving typically provides enough calories for two meals!" Split your meal with someone else. As soon as you get your meal, divide it in half and keep the other half out of sight. If you can't give it to anyone, save it for the next day's meal. You don't have to get the signature sandwich at the restaurant; you can get a regular hamburger (which is usually half the size of the signature 1/4 pound burger) instead.
- 9Have water with your meal. A large soda (32 ounces) has about 400 calories that you can probably do without. Ask for water (sparkling, if it's available, and you won't miss the bubbles). At the very least, drink a diet soda to avoid the calories. If you have a sip between every bite, you'll also slow down your eating time. Numerous studies have shown that eating slowly results in eating less which, when you're eating at a fast food joint, is definitely a good thing.
- 10Continue avoiding fast food places. "Healthy" is relative term, especially in this context. Making the choices described above is only healthy if you visit fast food restaurants sparingly, when you find yourself with no other choice. If you get too comfortable and start thinking that you can eat at fast food places more often because you're confident in your ability to make "healthy" choices, the results won't be healthy at all if you become tempted by the large selection of unhealthy choices. The healthiest choice is to avoid fast food venues in the first place.
- Burger chains
- Regular, single-patty hamburger, no mayo, cheese, special sauce, or bacon
- Grilled chicken sandwich (not fried), no mayo.
- Fresh garden salad with grilled chicken, low-calorie dressing.
- Egg on muffin - Hold the cheese and sauces
- Baked potato, no sour cream or butter (vs. French fries)
- Fresh apple slices (no caramel dip)
- Side garden salad with low-calorie dressing
- Low calorie beverages: water, black coffee, diet soda
- Yogurt parfait (instead of a milkshake)
- Order a small bowl of chili. Some fast food restaurants sell chili on the menu. Chili has lots of fiber which will fill you up.
- Fried chicken chains
- Skinless chicken breast, no breading, not fried
- Garden salad (vs. Caesar salad)
- Mashed potatoes (instead of chicken and biscuit "bowl")
- Mexican chains
- Grilled chicken soft taco (vs. crispy shell chicken taco)
- Black beans (instead of refried beans)
- Shrimp ensalada
- Sub sandwich chains
- Six-inch sub (not foot-long)
- Lean meat (roast beef, chicken breast) or veggies; not high-fat meat like tuna salad, bacon, meatballs, or steak
- Lower-fat cheese (Swiss or mozzarella)
- Low-fat dressing or mustard instead of mayo
- Whole-grain bread (or take the top slice off your sub and eat it open-faced)
- Asian chains
- Egg drop, miso, wonton, or hot & sour soup
- Steamed, roasted or broiled entrées
- Steamed or baked tofu (not deep-fried)
- Lighter sauces (ponzu, rice-wine vinegar, wasabi, ginger, and low-sodium soy sauce) not sweet and sour sauce or regular soy sauce
- Steamed brown rice
- Edamame, cucumber salad, stir-fried veggies; no fried or crispy noodles
- Don't feel like you're sacrificing flavor. Look at the calorie choices for condiments and make a wise decision. Yes, ketchup has high-fructose corn syrup but it has fewer calories than mayo so using ketchup instead of mayo is a healthier choice, fat and calorie-wise. Bacon may be high in sodium and saturated fat, but 2 slices only add about 40 calories to a sandwich.
- Budget calories by allowing an occasional treat, but still keeping health in mind, like substituting a frozen ice cream cone instead of the hot fudge sundae.
- Experiment! Ask for BBQ sauce instead of mayo on the grilled chicken sandwich. Yes, BBQ sauce has sugar, but it has fewer fat and calories.
- Remove chicken skin, mayonnaise, and dressing. This can save up to 240 calories and 16 grams of fat for one serving.
- Cut off any batter/coating with a knife and fork. By eating only the meat in the center, you can save yourself a lot of calories.
- Get lean meats, like chicken breast, turkey, or roast beef. They’ll lack extra calories, but still be full of flavor.
- Control your portion size. Order regular-sized items rather than large and extra-large items.
- Order a grilled, baked, or broiled sandwiches instead.
- Some people would start thinking broccoli was unhealthy if fast food restaurants started serving it just because they are serving it. Some people now believe bagged apple slices are unhealthy for you just because they're one of the Kids' menu options. Be aware of your choices and you can make less damaging and potentially healthy choices, even from a fast food restaurant.
- If you're ordering a sub and omitting the fats that add calories, load up on the fresh vegetable toppings, such as onions or bell peppers.