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Fast Food, Healthy Food

Tips to help you eat right — even on the go

Young girl eating carrot stick

Fast and healthful food almost sounds like a contradiction. We are so accustomed to thinking of fast food as unhealthy food that many of us avoid it completely.

Well, you don't have to anymore. It all comes down to making the right choices.

Emphasize nutrition and portion size

"The first place to start with any meal is with an eye toward getting your nutritional needs met. This applies to fast food dining, too," says Jennifer Ventrelle, MS, RD, a dietitian and lifestyle program director at the Rush University Prevention Center.

"Make sure that you get something from at least four food groups when having a meal. This can sometimes be more challenging at a fast food restaurant, but it can be done." 

Portion control can also be a challenge. With so much emphasis on supersized meals and getting a lot of food for your money, it's easy to overeat when you eat out.

But that means you're getting way more calories, fat, salt and sugar than your body needs. In fact, you might be taking in an entire day's worth of calories and fat, or more, in just one meal. 

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Here are four food groups to aim for and their appropriate portion sizes:

  • Protein
    • The size of a deck of cards or your palm (just the palm, don't include the fingers)
  • Starch
    • No bigger than your fist. That's usually two slices of bread, two tortillas, a hamburger bun or, if you go without the bun, a medium-sized potato. (Choose a baked potato or salad over French fries, though.)
    • You should consider corn and peas as falling in the starch category.
  • Vegetables
    • The nonstarchy vegetable portion of your meal should be at least the size of your fist.
  • Dairy
    • About the size of your fist for a glass of milk or cup of yogurt
    • Choose low-fat or no-fat dairy products
    • You can replace a dairy serving with another serving of nonstarchy vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, or fruit

Make Trade-Offs

When it comes to eating smarter at fast food restaurants, another essential ingredient is compromise: 

  • Downsize. Don't order double or triple decker sandwiches. Opt for smaller or even kid-sized menu items. Order a la carte instead of getting "value" meals. 
  • Choose grilled proteins, not fried. Ordering grilled chicken and fish instead of the fried versions will save you a lot of calories and fat. For instance, a KFC Original Recipe chicken breast has 320 calories and 14 grams of fat; by comparison, KFC's grilled breast has 220 calories and 7 grams of fat.
  • Don't overdo the toppings. Loading your sandwich with things like bacon, cheese and fried onions will rapidly up the calorie count. Choose fresh or grilled veggies instead. For instance, the McDonald's Bacon Clubhouse Grilled Chicken Sandwich (which includes bacon, white cheddar and Big Mac sauce) packs a whopping 610 calories and 26 grams of fat; McD's Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich (topped with lettuce, tomato and vinaigrette dressing): 360 calories and 6 grams of fat.
  • Go easy on the sauce. Try skipping the sauce, asking for less, or getting the sauce on the side so you can control how much you put on your food. And when it comes to dressing and mayo, choose reduced fat versions and use half a packet. 
  • Explore the alternatives. Instead of a hamburger, try a black bean or veggie burger. Swap the fries for carrot sticks or a plain baked potato. And fresh fruit or a small fruit and yogurt parfait can help satisfy your sweet tooth without the guilt.
  • Skip the sugary drinks. Soda, flavored coffees and milkshakes may be tasty, but they pack a lot of calories and sugar. Drink water, black coffee, unsweetened ice tea or lowfat/skim milk to quench your thirst. 
  • Know your options. Take a few moments to look at the entire menu and plan your meal before you step up to place your order. If you feel rushed, you might be more likely to order the first thing that comes to mind. Weighing your options first can help you make smarter choices.

Be your own chef

The ideal way to have "fast food," though, is to make it yourself at home, says Ventrelle. "This takes a little planning, so you'll want to go grocery shopping with a list."

She suggests buying in bulk, but portioning out your servings for each day of the week.

"The half-size sandwich bags are perfect for this," she says. "Then work it into your routine to pack your food for the next day about 10 minutes before you go to bed every night." 

Take-out from home

Some ideas for meals and snacks to carry with you when you're away from home: 

  • Sandwiches (made with whole grain bread, for the fiber; just go easy on the mayo and cheese)
  • Vegetables (half a cup; for a crunchy, satisfying snack, try carrot, cucumber or zucchini sticks)
  • Salad (two fists of greens; light dressing)
  • Fruit (medium-sized whole fruit, or a serving about the size of your fist for loose fruit such as berries and grapes)
  • Whole grain bagel (small), bagel thin or English muffin with peanut butter, almond butter or another protein source
  • Granola (a handful)
  • Roasted nuts (only enough to fill your palm)
  • Trail mix (a handful)

Stay hydrated

Often, people mistake thirst for hunger. Since the brain doesn't distinguish well between these two sensations, you may think you're hungry when your body's actually craving fluids. 

"No matter if it's fast food or lunch that you've brought from home, drink a glass of water first before any meal," says Ventrelle. "You'll feel more satisfied and tend to eat less. Plus your body needs regular hydration."

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