8 Rules for Healthy Fast Food

July 26, 2013

It’s no secret that posted calorie counts fail to dissuade many people from downing a Big Mac meal, but receiving specific calorie guidelines doesn’t appear to work either, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health.

For the study, researchers spent four months handing out standardized dietary guidelines to adults who were about to purchase food at one of two New York City-based McDonald's restaurants. Some participants received a pamphlet recommending that men limit their calories to 2,400 per day and women cap theirs at 2,000. Others were given materials that stated a single meal should contain between 650 and 800 calories. A third group of individuals received no calorie guidelines. 


After analyzing food receipts and post-meal surveys, researchers found that women consumed 27 percent more calories per meal than recommended, men ate 11 percent more, and, on average, the diners who received calorie guidance ate 49 more calories per meal than those who got no nutrition information at all.

The researchers hypothesize that consumers may choose a reasonable menu item, but then tack on hundreds of extra calories by ordering a side and a drink. “Each one item may seem OK, but it adds up,” study author Julie Downs, a social science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told HealthDay. Another possible explanation: “Even if someone sees a food listed as very caloric, they may still order it and say to themselves, ‘I’ll just eat less later,’” says Keri Glassman, registered dietician and author of The New You and Improved Diet.

Regardless of the reasoning, regularly racking up fast-food calories is no joke: Recent research has linked fast-food consumption to higher body weight and waist circumference, higher triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels, and even depression.

Ideally, you’d steer clear of the drive-thru all together, but we know that’s not necessarily realistic in our age of over-packed schedules. So to help you make the smartest choices whenever you do find yourself face-to-face with a fast-food menu, we asked Glassman to share her guidelines for staying healthy and slim on the go:

•    Never go to a fast-food restaurant starving. Since your metabolism is slowed, chances are you’ll overeat or make poor choices.

•    Avoid items that are breaded, crispy, or batter-dipped because they’re usually high in fat and calories. Try to go for leaner proteins like grilled chicken.

•    Drink water with your meal. Sodas are a (completely avoidable) hidden source of calories and, more importantly, sugar, which has been linked to diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

•    Be careful with condiments. Try “undressing” your food by ordering dressings on the sides and limiting or cutting out mayonnaise, ketchup, sour cream, and cheese. This can save you a tremendous amount of calories from extra, unneeded fat.

•    Ditch the fries. Order a side salad instead, but be wary of fat-free dressings, since they can be loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients.

•    Eat mindfully, and pay attention to what you’re putting in your mouth. Fast food is often eaten on the go, but try not to rush your meal. It takes the body a little while to register that you are full and satisfied.

•    Pay attention to sizes. Order the smallest portions.