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How Can You Choose Healthy Options at Fast Food Restaurants?

Jim Dorsch has been a writer and editor for 25 years, specializing in food, drink and entertainment.

Learn some strategies for healthier eating when you're out for fast food, and review some research studies about McDonald's and Subway.

Learn some strategies for healthier eating when you're out for fast food, and review some research studies about McDonald's and Subway.

Restaurant menus become healthier. Americans become fatter. The proportion of obese adults increased from 23 percent to 31 percent between 1991 and 2001, while the proportion consuming low-calorie foods and beverages grew from 48 percent to 60 percent, and physical activity is on the rise.

What's going on here? For one thing, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) indicated that daily calorie intake had grown steadily between 1983 and 2000, when it reached 2,800 calories per person. Men need about 2,700 calories per day, on average, to maintain a desirable weight, and women need 2,000 calories. That means that, as of 2000, adults ate around 450 calories more than they needed, on average, less the amount expended through exercise.

Can You Find Healthy Food at a Fast Food Restaurant?

Be that as it may, sometimes busy people end up dining at a fast-food joint. It's either that or go hungry. How can you get out of such a place without leaving your diet a shambles?

You can do it if you're prepared. Do some homework before you leave the house, and you'll be armed with strategies to fill your stomach and not expand it. If you expect you'll be eating fast food, take a quick look at the menus and nutritional information on the websites of places you might visit. If you don't do that, you can still follow some simple rules to eat healthy foods, or at least minimize the damage.

Don't have it your way.

Don't have it your way.

Basic Tips for Healthier Fast Food Meals

If you find yourself in a fast-food outlet and you haven't done your homework, consider the following advice.

  • Look for smaller sizes. A regular hamburger may be enough for you.
  • Skip value meals, which tend to provide more food than you need. Share an item with someone, or order an appetizer portion.
  • Get whole-grain bread if possible.
  • Leave the top half of the bun on the side and eat your burger open-faced.
  • Order vegetables such as tomatoes and lettuce on sandwiches.
  • Go easy on mayonnaise and sauces. Ask about low-fat mayonnaise, or request salsa, ketchup, or mustard instead of mayonnaise or creamy dressing.
  • Get a small salad on the side instead of fries. Other options for side orders are a baked potato, steamed rice, a fruit cup, or a vegetable.
  • Order skinless chicken, grilled or broiled.
  • Drink milk, juice, or water instead of soda.
  • Pass on fruit pies, which contain a lot of sugar.

Fast Food Nutritional Information

Fast food tends to be high in fat, calories, and sodium, notes the USDA. It's also low in fiber, calcium and other nutrients, and it's short on fruits and vegetables. Large portions encourage you to eat more than you need.

The Affordable Care Act requires restaurants with more than 20 outlets to post calorie counts for regular menu items on menu boards and drive-through menus. This is not the case for special items. These establishments must also provide written nutritional information upon request.

Watch the sides.

Watch the sides.

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Read More From Delishably

Absent specific information, consumers must estimate the nutritional and caloric value of a meal, and they aren't too good at it. People tend to benchmark this information based on comparable goods, or on the healthful positioning of a restaurant. For example, Subway has successfully positioned itself as a provider of lower-calorie meals.

Does Labeling Really Help?

Studies have shown mixed results regarding the labeling of healthier foods. One study indicated that consumers were more likely to order an item if it was labeled “heart-healthy,” but another suggested that people were less likely to order something labeled as “healthy” because they thought it might not taste good.

One study showed that consumers are likely to order an unhealthy dessert with a healthy entrée, or vice versa. Another indicated that someone who perceives himself to be making progress toward weight loss may be more likely to want something that tastes good, and hence eat something unhealthy. People are also likely to order a healthy item along with an unhealthy choice due to guilt over ordering the latter.

Perception vs. Reality About Healthy Options

In a 2007 article, Pierre Chandon and Brian Wansink discussed a study of diners at Subway and McDonald's. The subjects of the study predictably indicated that Subway was a healthier choice than McDonald's.

  • The study found that McDonald's diners estimated that a 1,000-calorie meal contained 744 calories.
  • Subway diners estimated that their 1,000-calorie meal contained 585 calories, or over 21 percent less.

The study above could be prone to error because respondents may have only eaten one meal at either restaurant, and they were not asked to compare between the two restaurants.

A second study focused on people who had eaten several times at both chains. These subjects were asked to compare two Subway sandwiches containing 330 and 600 calories, respectively, with McDonald's sandwiches with the same caloric content. Respondents estimated the 330-calorie Subway sandwich's calorie count at 24 percent less than McDonald's, and the 600-calorie sandwich at 33 percent less.

A Research Study on Ordering Sides

In another study, subjects were offered either a 900-calorie Subway sandwich or a 600-calorie McDonald's sandwich, and they were asked to choose from a limited range of drinks, side items, and desserts, selected because they were common to both menus.

  • Subjects at Subway ordered an additional 111 calories on average, for a total of 1,011 calories.
  • Those at McDonald's added an average of 48 calories, for a total of 648 calories.
  • They estimated 439 + 48 = 487 calories at Subway, versus the true 1,011 calories.
  • At McDonald's, they estimated 557 + 43 = 600 calories, versus the true 648 calories.

Those at Subway added more calories to a meal already higher in calories than at McDonald's, and they estimated they were consuming fewer total calories.

Research Menus and Calorie Counts Ahead of Time

Based on the studies cited above, while one shouldn't avoid a restaurant that, like Subway, offers lower-calorie meals, consumers need to improve their skills at estimating calorie counts. Diners can also consider that they might negate the benefits of a lower-calorie sandwich by chasing it down with a high-calorie soda or following it up with cookies.

If you eat out regularly, you can research the menu and calorie information for the places where you eat regularly. There are some great websites with fast-food nutritional information. For example, you can evaluate specific items from a large number of fast-food chains at Drive Thru Diet.

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