If you ask most people, eating healthy and fast food are on two sides of the fitness scale; if you eat healthy, you don’t eat fast food and if you eat fast food, you aren’t eating healthy. However, if you have a basic knowledge of healthy eating, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to enjoy a healthy meal at a wide range of fast food restaurants.
First off, what makes a healthy meal is up to debate, but generally the goal is to promote weight loss or to maintain a healthy weight while also providing valuable nutrients to the body. That said a healthy meal means:
- 500 calories or less (Check out McDonalds under 400 Calorie Menu Items)
- Eating foods high in protein and fiber and low in fats and sugars
- Avoiding trans fats
- Keeping sodium intake in check
Avoid Added Sugars
All fast food restaurants, and all restaurants in general, must provide a nutrition fact sheet so that consumers can make educated choices about what they eat. While you may think that a salad and a fruit smoothie would be the healthiest choice among the options, you still need to be aware of the biggest danger to a healthy diet: added sugars. Wendy’s Apple Pecan Chicken salad sounds like a really healthy choice, but it contains 40 grams of sugar; nearly twice the daily recommended value. As for the shakes and smoothies offered at many fast food restaurants…McDonald’s Wild Berry smoothie, something that sounds so deliciously healthy, has 210 calories and 44 grams of sugar in just 12 ounces. That’s worse than any soft drink.
Keep an Eye on Your Sides
Most fast food places offer sides that are very high in fat or simple carbs, which both work double time to add to your waist line; fats slow the metabolism, and simple carbs (white breads, white rice and pastas) work much like sugars in the body and are broken down and stored as fat. So when you’re picking your sides, stick to choices like fresh fruit (not sugar-laden fruit cups), baked potatoes, vegetables or salads with light dressing.
Don’t Add Bacon
Yes, bacon is delicious. And yes, it’s pretty much the sole reason a lot of people aren’t vegetarians. But when prompted with the question of whether to add bacon to whatever fast food choice you’ve made, always opt against it. Heavily processed meats like bacon are high in unhealthy fats and calories, and offer very little in the way of nutrition. If you need extra flavor or heft to that burger, add onions, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes or mustard.
Get Whole Grains Whenever Possible
Whole grains are becoming increasingly available at a variety of fast food chains. If you have the option, you should always substitute white breads and pastas with their whole grain counterparts. The carbohydrates found in whole grains, otherwise known as complex carbs, are more difficult for the body to convert into fat, meaning that just this small change can mean a healthier meal overall.
Watch Your Portion Size
Ever get food at a restaurant and think “wow, there’s no way I can eat all that.” Don’t let it become a challenge. You don’t have to eat all that food. Eat half of it and bring the other half home to eat for the next meal. The Burger King Triple Whopper Sandwich is 1,020 calories. Unless you’re a lumberjack, dogsledder or Olympic athlete, you don’t need that much food in one meal. Cut it in half and you’ve got two meals per our guidelines.
Keeping these things in mind means eating healthy at a fast food restaurant can be a lot easier than most people think. Essentially, it just means getting the dressing on the side, avoiding soda, shakes and smoothies, opting out of bacon (and cheese, for that matter) on your sandwiches, getting whole grains when possible, and making sure you keep your calories and fats in check. Use the nutrition fact sheets available on the walls of fast food joints to make the most educated decision possible. Chances are you’ll still have a delicious meal that won’t break your diet.