Fast foods are quick, reasonably priced, and readily available alternatives to home cooking. While convenient and economical for a busy lifestyle, fast foods are typically high in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt.
The fast food chains and restaurants have responded to the increasing awareness of the public about nutrition and attempted to help people concerned about health. For example, they now make ingredient and nutrition information available on their menus. Despite these changes, however, in order to maintain a healthy diet, it is necessary to choose fast foods carefully.
Most people today have less time to select, prepare and eat food than their grandparents did. Fast foods are very appealing because they are widely available and inexpensive.
Fast food items have been modified to reflect consumers’ concern about the fat content of their food. Many fast food restaurant have switched from beef tallow or lard to hydrogenated vegetable oils for frying.
Some restaurants offer low calorie choices like salad bars and assorted take-out salads with low calorie dressing, low-fat milkshakes, whole grain buns, lean meats, and grilled chicken items.
Maintaining nutritional balance is not easy with fast food as there is no control over how they are cooked. For example, some are cooked with a lot of oil and butter and there may be no option if you want this selection with reduced fat.
The large portions also encourage overeating. Fast foods also tend to be short on fresh fruits and vegetables.
In general, people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease must be much more careful about choosing fast food due to the high content of fat, sodium, and sugar.
Knowing the number of calories and the amount of fat and salt in the fast food can help you decide which items are better choices. Many fast food restaurants have published the nutrient content of their foods. These are often available on request. You can plan a convenient yet healthful diet with this information.
Make better choices when eating at fast food restaurants. In general eat at places that offer a variety of salads, soups, and vegetables. Consider these general tips:
Ask for less cheese, and choose low-fat toppings such as onions, mushrooms, green peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables.
Healthier choices include regular or junior size lean roast beef, turkey, or chicken breast, or lean ham. Extras, such as, bacon, cheese, or mayo will increase the fat and calories of the item. Select whole-grain breads over high-fat croissants or biscuits.
A single, plain meat patty without the cheese and sauces is the best choice. Ask for extra lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Limit your intake of french fries.
- Meat, Chicken, and Fish:
Look for items that are roasted, grilled, baked, or broiled. Avoid meats that are breaded or fried. Ask for heavy sauces, such as gravy, on the side.
High-fat food items such as dressing, bacon bits, and shredded cheese add fat and calories. Choose lettuce and assorted vegetables to make up the majority of your salad. Select low-fat or fat-free salad dressings, vinegar, or lemon juice when available. Ask for the salad dressing on the side.
Choose low-fat frozen yogurt, fruit ices, sorbets, and sherbets. Occasional indulgent desserts add fun to a carefully selected, well-balanced diet.
Try to choose smaller sized servings. Consider splitting some fast food items to reduce the amount of calories and fat. Ask for a “doggy bag.” or simply leave the excess on your plate.
To help supplement and balance the fast food meal, make nutritious options such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and yogurt available as snacks.
When chosen carefully and not used in excess, fast foods can offer reasonably good quality nutrition to your diet. By being aware of what you eat and paying attention to how it affects your health, you can set an example and teach your children to eat healthy as well. As always, variety and moderation are the key principles in providing a healthy diet for children as well as adults.
Revision date: June 21, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD