Fast Food Doesn’t Need to be Fatty Food

Posted on March 17, 2011


Due to hectic lifestyles, busy work schedules, and lack of time; it may not always be possible for you to get the home-cooked meal you deserve. At certain times we turn to fast food as an alternative because it’s quick, cheap, and filling. However, most fast food also contains high amounts of sodium, fat, and calories (all the things you want to limit).

There are a number of ways in which you can make healthier choices at these types of restaurants. By being informed and aware of what you are eating, you can turn fatty options into lighter ones. Many restaurants put all their nutritional information online or offer them in person. Before ordering, make sure to take a look at their guide. Moreover, follow these tips from for a healthy. well-balanced meal (yes, even at McDonalds):

Tips for making healthy choices at fast food restaurants

  • Make careful menu selections – pay attention to the descriptions on the menu. Dishes labeled deep-fried, pan-fried, basted, batter-dipped, breaded, creamy, crispy, scalloped, Alfredo, au gratin or in cream sauce are usually high in calories, unhealthy fats or sodium. Order items with more vegetables and choose leaner meats.
  • Drink water with your meal. Soda is a huge source of hidden calories. One 32-oz Big Gulp with regular cola packs about 425 calories, so one Big Gulp can quickly gulp up a big portion of your daily calorie intake. Try adding a little lemon to your water or ordering unsweetened iced tea.
  • Undress” your food. When choosing items, be aware of calorie- and fat-packed salad dressings, spreads, cheese, sour cream, etc. For example, ask for a grilled chicken sandwich without the mayonnaise. You can ask for a packet of ketchup or mustard and add it yourself, controlling how much you put on your sandwich.
  • Special order. Many menu items would be healthy if it weren’t for the way they were prepared. Ask for your vegetables and main dishes to be served without the sauces. Ask for olive oil and vinegar for your salads or order the dressing “on the side” and spoon only a small amount on at a time. If your food is fried or cooked in oil or butter, ask to have it broiled or steamed.
  • Eat mindfully. Pay attention to what you eat and savor each bite. Chew your food more thoroughly and avoid eating on the run. Being mindful also means stopping before you are full. It takes time for our bodies to register that we have eaten. Mindful eating relaxes you, so you digest better, and makes you feel more satisfied.

Tips for what to AVOID at fast food restaurants

  • Supersized portions – An average fast food meal can run to 1000 calories or more, so choose a smaller portion size, order a side salad instead of fries, and don’t supersize anything. At a typical restaurant, a single serving provides enough for two meals. Take half home or divide the portion with a dining partner.
  • Salt. Fast food restaurant food tends to be very high in sodium, a major contributor to high blood pressure. Don’t add insult to injury by adding more salt.
  • Bacon. It’s always tempting to add bacon to sandwiches and salads for extra flavor, but bacon has very few nutrients and is high in fat and calories. Instead, try ordering extra pickles, onions, lettuce, tomatoes or mustard to add flavor without the fat.
  • Buffets – even seemingly healthy ones like salad bars. You’ll likely overeat to get your money’s worth. If you do choose buffet dining, opt for fresh fruits, salads with olive oil & vinegar or low-fat dressings, broiled entrees and steamed vegetables. Resist the temptation to go for seconds, or wait at least 20 minutes after eating to make sure you’re really still hungry before going back for more.

Healthier Choices by Restaurant Type:

Burger Chains: A typical meal at a burger joint consists of a “sandwich”, some fries and a drink, which can quickly come in at over 1700 calories for something like Burger King’s Triple Whopper with a large fries and a 16 oz. soda. A better option would be a regular single patty burger, small fries, and water, which is about 500 calories. Alternatively you may enjoy a veggie burger smothered in grilled onion and mushrooms. Or if you want a large beef burger, then skip the fries and soda and have a side salad and water instead.

Have one of these:

  • Regular, single-patty hamburger without mayo or cheese
  • Grilled chicken sandwich
  • Veggie burger
  • Garden salad with grilled chicken and low-fat dressing
  • Egg on a muffin
  • Baked potato or a side salad
  • Yogurt parfait
  • Grilled chicken strips
  • Limiting cheese, mayo, and special sauces

Not one of these

  • Double-patty hamburger with cheese, mayo, special sauce, and bacon
  • Fried chicken sandwich
  • Fried fish sandwich
  • Salad with toppings such as bacon, cheese, and ranch dressing
  • Breakfast burrito with steak
  • French fries
  • Milkshake
  • Chicken “nuggets” or tenders
  • Adding cheese, extra mayo, and special sauces

Fried Chicken Restaurants: Although certain chains have been advertising “no trans fats” in their food, the fact is that fried chicken can pack quite a fattening punch.Have one of these:

  • Skinless chicken breast without breading
  • Honey BBQ chicken sandwich
  • Garden salad
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Limiting gravy and sauces

Not one of these:

  • Fried chicken, original or extra-crispy.
  • Teriyaki wings or popcorn chicken
  • Caesar salad
  • Chicken and biscuit “bowl”
  • Adding extra gravy and sauces

Mexican Chains: Fast food chains that specialize in tacos or burritos can be caloric minefields or they can be a good option for finding healthy fast food. Rice, beans, salsa and a few slices of fresh avocado can make a very healthy meal. But adding cheese, sour cream and tortilla chips can turn even a good meal unhealthy. Be sure to also remember portion control since these types of restaurants can have enormous menu items (eat half and take the rest for another meal).

Have one of These:

  • Grilled chicken soft taco
  • Black beans
  • Shrimp ensalada
  • Grilled “fresco” style steak burrito
  • Veggie and bean burrito
  • Limiting sour cream or cheese

Not one of These:

  • Crispy shell chicken taco
  • Refried beans
  • Steak chalupa
  • Crunch wraps or gordita-type burritos
  • Nachos with refried beans
  • Adding sour cream or cheese

Sub Sandwich Chains: The ads promote the health benefits of sandwich shops. Easier said than done… studies have found that many people tend to eat more calories per meal at a sub shop than at McDonalds. This may be because people feel so virtuous eating “healthy” like the ads promise, that they reward themselves with chips, sodas, or extra condiments.

Have one of these:

  • Six-inch sub
  • Lean meat (roast beef, chicken breast, lean ham) or veggies
  • One or two slices of lower-fat cheese (Swiss or mozzarella)
  • Adding low-fat dressing or mustard instead of mayo
  • Adding extra veggie toppings
  • Choosing whole-grain bread or taking the top slice off your sub and eating it open-faced

Not one of these:

  • Foot-long sub
  • High-fat meat such as ham, tuna salad, bacon, meatballs, or steak
  • The “normal” amount of higher-fat (cheddar, American) cheese
  • Adding mayo and special sauces
  • Keeping the sub “as is” with all toppings
  • Choosing white bread or “wraps” which are often higher in fat than normal bread

Asian Cuisine: Asian cultures tend to eat very healthfully, with an emphasis on veggies, and with meat used as a “condiment” rather than being the focus of the meal. Unfortunately, Americanized versions of these ethnic foods tend to be much higher in fat and calories – so caution is needed. But here’s a great tip for all Asian restaurants – use the chopsticks! You’ll eat more slowly, since you can’t grasp as much food with them at one time as you can with your normal fork and knife.

Have one of these:

  • Egg drop, miso, wonton, or hot & sour soup
  • Stir-fried, steamed, roasted or broiled entrees (shrimp chow mein, chop suey)
  • Steamed or baked tofu
  • Sauces such as ponzu, rice-wine vinegar, wasabi, ginger, and low-sodium soy sauce
  • Steamed brown rice
  • Edamame, cucumber salad, stir-fried veggies

Not one of these:

  • Fried egg rolls, spare ribs, tempura
  • Battered or deep-fried dishes (sweet and sour pork, General Tso’s chicken)
  • Deep-fried tofu
  • Coconut milk, sweet and sour sauce, regular soy sauce
  • Fried rice
  • Salads with fried or crispy noodles

Italian Fast Food: Italian is actually one of the easiest types of cuisine to make healthy. Stay away from fried, oily or overly buttery, as well as thick crust menu items, and you can keep your diet goals intact.

Watch out for the following terms, which are common culprits of high fat and calories: alfredo, carbonara, saltimbocca, parmigiana, lasagna, manicotti, Generally Italian places have lots of veggies in their kitchen so it’s easy to ask to have extra veggies added to your meal.

Have one of these:

  • Thin-crust pizza with half the cheese and extra veggies
  • Plain rolls or breadsticks
  • Antipasto with vegetables
  • Pasta with tomato sauce and veggies
  • Entrée with side of veggies
  • Grilled (“griglia”) dishes

Not one of these:

  • Thick-crust or butter-crust pizza with extra cheese and meat toppings
  • Garlic bread
  • Antipasto with meat
  • Pasta with cream or butter-based sauce
  • Entrée with side of pasta
  • Fried (“frito”) dishes

There is no need to always avoid fast food. You can turn even the fattiest foods into a healthy meal by making the right choices. Call the Mayor’s Health Line at 617-534-5050 if you need help finding the nutritional information for your favorite restaurant.

Posted in: Boston, Food, Health, Nutrition