Is it possible to eat healthy at a fast food restaurant? Big chains like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell want you to think so. All of these restaurants offer some sort of “healthy” alternative to the menu to appeal to those who are watching their weight or just want better options. But how healthy are these options? It depends on what you order, of course.
Aside from some options that can be very healthy, like salads, other options that may seem like smart choices may not be as good as they look. Also, avoid ordering anything in a large size, as this quickly adds extra calories and fat. Many foods also contain additional sugars which add calories quickly.
The salads and dressings at McDonalds are quite low in calories and fat. A salad with dressing can go up to 500 calories or more, but it’s much less than the other choices. Salads don’t necessarily mean that the nutritional value is high, however. Many salads are made with iceberg lettuce, which is mostly water. However, if you are trying to watch your weight and find yourself with no other option, a salad may be a good choice. It probably won’t make you feel full, so snacking ahead of time can be a good option to avoid further temptations during your stay.
Other options that appear to be healthy alternatives can be misleading. Whether a food is fried or grilled will also have a huge effect. But simply choosing between beef and chicken, for example, may not be enough. The Premium Crispy Chicken Club Sandwich has 680 calories compared to the Big Mac’s 560. The key is to look for grilled alternatives and avoid the tempting sides, like fries or desserts.
If you go for a salad, choose wisely. Just because a menu item includes the word “salad” doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Wendy’s Taco Salad, for example, contains almost 400 calories if you only look at the basic ingredients of the salad; add the extras that come with it, and the total is almost 700 calories. This is about a third of the daily total of a 2,000 calorie per day diet. Even a seemingly healthy broccoli and cheese baked potato has 340 calories.
If you are hungry, it can be very difficult to avoid the temptations of fast food. This can be dangerous from the point of view of added fat and calories. If you give in to temptation at Wendy’s and order pregnancy fries, you’ll consume an additional 590 calories and 28 grams of fat.
What about alternatives like low fat strawberry flavored yogurt? The yogurt itself has 200 calories, and the accompanying granola topping has an additional 110 calories. In comparison, an average cup of low fat yogurt bought at the grocery store will contain about 100 calories.
Burger King offers a range of food options through its website for those watching carbs, fats, or calories. Many of the salads listed contain between 10 and 13 grams of fat, or between 90 and 117 calories from fat. Salads fall into the 400 total calorie range. Dressings will add an additional 70 to 270 calories, for a total of almost 700 calories. Again, this is almost a third of a day’s total calorie intake. The Original Whopper Sandwich with everything in it has about the same amount of calories. Depending on the salad and dressing chosen, the salad option may actually contain more fat than the Whopper. In other words, eating a “healthy” salad instead of a sandwich may not give you the benefits you’re looking for.
Taco Bell offers “Fresco Style” options that contain less than ten grams of fat per serving. This results in the removal of cheeses and sauces from the item. This style can reduce the total intake of fat and calories. Many items on the Fresco Style menu contain less than 400 calories. The key to ordering this method is knowing which Fresco Style items are available and which are not. Most articles offer this option, but many do not. Ask before ordering.
A final word of caution when it comes to fast food: Even when the options are low in fat and calories, many are still very high in sodium and low in fiber. Total nutritional value is an issue. Cooking methods, such as deep frying or leaving foods under hot lights for long periods of time, can dramatically reduce the nutritional value of a food. So what’s the bottom line? While the occasional visit to a fast food restaurant can be enjoyable and won’t create too many negative side effects, the idea that “healthy” alternatives in fast food chains are in fact “healthy” is questionable.