Talking Fast Food

taffIt’s hard to beat fast food for speed and taste, but as far as nutrition goes…well, most of us try not to think about it when we’re feasting on french fries, shakes, and double cheeseburgers. But when eating in fast-food restaurants becomes more than a once-in-a-while treat, it’s time to rethink your fast-food choices.

Fast-Food Nutrition

Fast food are not bad. All food, including fast food, has nutrients your body needs. Nutritionally, however, fast-food meals generally come up short in the vitamin and minreal departments, while being high in calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium. When fast-food meals are consumed once or twice a month, these nutritional problems aren’t a big deal. But relying on your local buger joint for meals once or twice a week? Not a good idea.

Luckily, making nutritious choices at the fast-food counter isn’t nearly as difficult as it used to be. In the last couple of years, many fast-food chains have developed new, more healthful products or reformulated existing products to please their health-minded customers. Salad bars and packaged salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, lower-fat hamburgers, and french fries fried in vegetable oils are good examples of the ways in which fast-food restaurants have marketed to nutrition-conscious patrons. Also, most fast-food restaurants can supply you with nutrient information.

Check near the counter area for nutrition cards or paphlets. Some chains even use their tray liners as vehicles for nutrition information, offering advice on putting together healthy fast-food meals. If you don’t see any information posted, you can ask your order taker where to call or send a written request for it.

Ordering Tips

Although referring to a restaurant’s written nutrition information will help you make good choices, chances are you won’t have the pamphlet available when you need it. When that happens you can fall back on the following guidelines for making wise choices at the fast-food counter:

* Order sandwiches/burgers without mayo, special sauces; use only ketchup or mustard.

* Remove the skin from chicken before eating; choose grilled chicken over fried.

* For extra fiber and much less fat, order a side salad with diet dressing instead of fries once in a while.

* Regular burgers are a good choice, but skip the cheese, bacon, and other extras.

* Go for low-fat milk or juice (or diet soda) instead of regular soda.

* Use only half the dressing that accompanies a main-dish salad–unless it’s low-fat.

* Order baked potatoes plain; top with diet ranch dressing and salad fixings.

Remeber to think about what you’ve already eaten and what you’ll eat later on the day. Fit your fast-food meal into your food intake for the entire day. This might mean having low-fat foods at your other meals, or eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, or drinking at the remaining meals that day.

How Healthy Are Those “Healthy” Fast Foods?

Even choosing just the “healthy” menu items doesn’t automatically guarantee a nutritionally top-notch meal. You may remember that a few years ago many fast-food restaurants announced that they were switching from cooking their fries in beef fat, to cooking them in all-vegetable oil. But, what most people don’t know is that the oil is partially hydrogenated (a process that turns liquid oil into a solid, such as is used to make margarine and shortening) and is higher in saturated-fat content than regular vegetable oil. Another problem often encountered when choosing more healthful alternatives is that the portion size isn’t equal to a comparable “regular” product. Sure, a grilled chicken sandwich may contain less fat and fewer calories, but also it may weigh substantially less than the fried chicken sandwich.

Beyond Burgers

We all know that fast food doesn’t just mean burgers and fries. There are plenty of restaurants serving quick meals that don’t even have hamburgers on the menu. What types of food choices should you make at the pizza parlor, the Mexican restaurant, or the little vegetarian takeout place?

PIZZA: Pizza ia a healthy food–if you choose the right topings. At the pizza parlor, or by-the-slice pizza outlet, keep your selections on the lean side by ordering a veggie-topped pizza. A slice of pizza topped with crunchy green peppers and savory mushrooms is just as satifying, and a lot lower in fat, than a slice loaded with sausage and pepperoni. Most of us get plenty of meat protein in our diets already, and by sticking to vegetable toppings you’ll be helping to reach your “five a day” goal for vegetable/fruit consumption. Cheese, however, is not low in fat. Ask if the mozzarella is part -skim–it it’s not, ask them to go light on the cheese, and always avoid ordering extra cheese. All in all, pizza can provide foods from the grain group (the crust–choose whole wheat if you can), the fruit and vegetable group (tomato sauce and veggie toppings), and the milk group (the cheese).

VEGETARIAN: Surprise! Vegetarian food is not necessarily lower in fat or calories than meat-containing dishes. Ordering menu selections that are heavy on the cheese or eggs, such as quiche and casseroles, will not give you an advantage over a burger in terms of fat, cholesterol, or calories. Also note that, contrary to what most people think, tofu, is not low in fat. While tofu has no cholesterol (because it’s a vegetable-based product), about half its calories come from fat! So what should you order if you’re in a hurry and want to avoid meat? Pita pocket sandwiches filled with plenty of vegetables and a drizzle od low-calorie dressing is a good pick-up-and-go meal. Salads are a good choice. Just watch the dressing.

MEXICAN: The basics of Mexican cuisine–beans, corn tortillas, tomatoes, chillies–are healthful and very low in fat. But Americanized versions of Mexican foods–smothered in cheese and sour cream or deep-fried–often don’t resemble their south-of-the-border origins. So, stay away from deep-fried tortilla concoctions. And as for tortillas, the corn variety has less fat than the flour, but neither is really high-fat. Bean Burritos are a good choice, but we aware that refried beans are often made with some lard. Chicken tacos and burritos are becoming more popular and are a tasty alternative to beef. Chicken and beef enchiladas are fine. but stay away from cheese enchiladas. They are filled and topped with cheese.

As you can see, you don’t have have to give up meals on-the-go in order to eat right. It’s all a matter of making choices and balancing your enture day’s intake when you eat at fast-food restaurants.

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