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Fast Food, Healthful Food

Eating healthy — even on the go

trail mix

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.

"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 size is another important part of the equation. 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

The ideal way to have "fast food" is to make it yourself, 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 day, about 10 minutes before you go to bed every night." 

Some ideas for fast food to carry with you when you're away from home: 

  • Sandwiches (made with whole grain bread, for the fiber)
  • Vegetables (half of a cup)
  • Salad (two fists of greens, light dressing)
  • Fruit (medium-sized fruit or a serving about the size of your fist for loose fruit such as berries and grapes)
  • Whole grain bagels (small) with peanut butter or other protein source
  • Granola (a handful)
  • 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."