Big Macs, Nuggets, and Fries…Oh My!!

I want to preface this post by saying one thing:  I do not endorse eating at fast food restaurants, let alone any particular one.

Like any American kid, I grew up eating pretty standard stuff, which, in the 1970’s and 80’s included a lot of meatloaf, potatoes, pizza, sugar cereals and visits to McDonald’s.  I’m fairly sure this hasn’t changed a whole lot in the intervening 2 decades, with perhaps the addition of even more “convenience” foods, frozen dinners, pre-packaged and processed to facilitate preparation.  Which means that–like any American kid–I grew up with a sort of low-grade addiction to this stuff, perpetuated by the chemicals one finds in pretty much anything sold in the middle aisles of the grocery store, or in just about any fast-food restaurant.

This may all sound rather biased, but it’s no joke: if you found yourself–cold turkey–leaving off all the stuff we’re told to buy and consume every day as “food”, you would, coincidentally, find yourself having headaches, shakes, weird cravings, and other symptoms associated with withdrawals. So, all this being said, don’t go from milkshakes, pizza and fried chicken straight to salads and tofu. Or rather, do so…but in stages, so you avoid two things: feeling deprived (which is the quickest route to failure), and funky withdrawal experiences.

But I digress. I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you have an interest in eating better, and that you also don’t necessarily have a lot of time on your hands to craft healthy, home-cooked awesomeness. So I’m going to talk a little bit about some of the options that are staring you in the face when you’re racing from home to work, have about 15 minutes for lunch, from work to your kid’s soccer game, from the soccer game to practice, and then finally home again to collapse and do it all over again the next day.

Something else to consider: none of these places are going to win any awards for being “healthy”, no matter what their ad campaigns say. Their commercials and fliers are designed to get you in the door so when you order that chicken salad, you reward yourself for eating healthy by grabbing a milkshake or side of fries to go with it. (I may or may not have done this myself on more than a few occasions…) The choices I’m going to talk about here will only give you a “healthier” option, which is no great substitute for something you’ve brought from home, but still better than not eating at all or wolfing down a Big Mac.

Now, a lot of fast food chains have made a big deal about their overhauled menus with new choices for the “health-conscious”, offering salads and fruit sides, and using canola oil for frying. But just because it contains lettuce doesn’t make it healthy: hidden pitfalls here include huge portion sizing, creamy dressings, croutons, and fried chicken (on a salad? Seriously?!) And canola oil, while containing a fat profile similar to olive oil, does funny things at high temperatures; some studies have linked its properties, once it reaches its smoke point, to cancer. For home use, it’s recommended that you only use it over medium heat. Last time I checked, the 350 degrees or so that a deep fryer requires doesn’t really qualify as “medium” heat…I guess where I’m going with this is avoid those foods prepared in the fryer altogether. Skip the fries.

If you find yourself grabbing food on the go and pulling into the parking lot of a Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, etc, here’s a few simple things you can do to try to keep the calories and food high down to a dull roar:

1) DRINK WATER. I know it seems like that soda or lemonade isn’t
“that bad”, especially if you’re noshing on a Caesar salad, but
truth is, they’re loaded with sugar and hidden (empty) calories
and will only serve to make you thirstier and then more tired.
Drinking soda will also only aggravate the chronic state of
dehydration we already live in (especially at higher altitudes)
and make practice that much more miserable. Go with bottled
water, or ask for a cup.

2) Watch out for sauces, dips, and dressings…if you’ve done any
dieting at all (and let’s be honest: what woman hasn’t?), you
already know that these can turn your grilled chicken salad
a calorie bomb. Ask for sauces or dressings on the side, and
skip varieties like ranch or bleu cheese. Try to opt for a
vinaigrette or something similar. This also (maybe
especially) applies to sub and sandwich shops which are
generally viewed as “healthy” choices. This can be true if you
are ordering, say, a 6″ turkey breast sub with a few veggies,
but not if you load it up with mayo and dressings and then
order yourself a cookie and a bag of chips as a bonus because
you were “good” and went to Subway instead of McDonald’s.
Just saying…

3) This might seem like a no-brainer, but DON’T SUPERSIZE. These
culinary tragedies can weigh in at over 1,500 calories per
meal. For reference, a healthy and ACTIVE woman really only
needs about 1,700-2,000 calories per day, give or take a few
hundred depending on her age and actual level of activity.

4) This kills me, really, but resist the temptation to add bacon
to your sandwich. I know, I know…I love it, too. I really
do. But bacon adds nothing of nutritional value (particularly
what you will get at a fast food joint) and only stacks up lots
of extra sodium and calories. Boo.

5) Watch out for salt. No, really. The American Heart
Association recommends you take in less than 1500mg per day;
your average fast food meal can far exceed that…in ONE MEAL. So
do your blood pressure a favor and forego the extra salt.

6) AVOID BUFFETS. Even salad bars can trip you up; even though
this might seem like a good option, there is always a
temptation to overeat to “get your money’s worth”. And I don’t
know about you, but I ALWAYS put too much on my plate. I don’t
even realize it until I’m out of room and I’m not even halfway
down the line yet. If you do hit up the salad bar, try to wait
at least 15-20 minutes before going for seconds, to make sure
you’re really still hungry.

7) And finally, CHEW. This sounds weird, I know, but a side
effect of us being so damned busy all the time is that we have
forgotten not only how to sit down and eat, but also how to
chew. And I’m not even going to go on about how you need to
chew “100 times each mouthful” or some such craziness.
Honestly, with most foods even 25 times is a stretch. But I’m
going to go out on a limb and recommend you try 10, or maybe
even 15 if you can get there. Focus on that, and see what
happens. There are a few reasons; one, digestion starts in
your mouth, with the mastication process. Two, as you take
time to chew your food thoroughly, the message that you are
full has more time to get from your body to your brain,
resulting in you eating less because, surprise! You realize
that you are no longer hungry. And third, your stomach doesn’t
have teeth. True story.

Below are a few tables to give you an idea of what your choices might be if you find yourself perusing a fast food menu and wondering what to get. Just be sure to scrutinize the add-ons and preparation methods, and if you aren’t sure, ask.

The Big Burger Chains

Less Healthy choices

  1. Double-patty hamburger with cheese, mayo, special sauce, and bacon
  2. Fried chicken sandwich
  3. Fried fish sandwich
  4. Salad with toppings such as bacon, cheese, and ranch dressing
  5. Breakfast burrito with steak
  6. French fries
  7. Milkshake
  8. Chicken “nuggets” or tenders
  9. Adding cheese, extra mayo, and special sauces
Healthier choices

  1. Regular, single-patty hamburger without mayo or cheese
  2. Grilled chicken sandwich
  3. Veggie burger
  4. Garden salad with grilled chicken and low-fat dressing
  5. Egg on a muffin
  6. Baked potato or a side salad
  7. Yogurt parfait
  8. Grilled chicken strips
  9. Limiting cheese, mayo, and special sauces

The Big Taco Chains

Less healthy choices

  1. Crispy shell chicken taco
  2. Refried beans
  3. Steak chalupa
  4. Crunch wraps or gordita-type burritos
  5. Nachos with refried beans
  6. Adding sour cream or cheese
Healthier choices

  1. Grilled chicken soft taco
  2. Black beans
  3. Shrimp ensalada
  4. Grilled “fresco” style steak burrito
  5. Veggie and bean burrito
  6. Limiting sour cream or cheese

Finally, one resource for checking on how your favorite fast foods rate out on the nutrition scale is This website has links to all the major fast food chains on the left-hand side of the site; click on a restaurant and it will take you to a list of their menu items including beverages. Then click on whichever item you’re curious about and you can check out its content.

While I was writing this, I kept thinking to myself, “Should I even talk about that? That’s just common sense…” But the fact is, as I talk to people, and continue to evaluate my own experiences, I find that a lot of this is not, in fact, common sense at all. Assumptions I have held for years are giving way under further examination. Choices I thought were good for me become, under a different light, not so good after all. So I’m trying to include a variety of selections because the upshot is, different people have different needs, and some have very different thresholds. Some have allergies, or just plain don’t like, say, grilled chicken.

But the end goal here is to get you to eat less of the food-crack (Crack food? Whatever. You get my point), and find a way to fuel your body without crashing. I think you will find that as you eat less of the garbage, you will want it less. AND have more energy. Bonus.

Give it a shot.