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Most people today have less time to select, prepare, and eat food than their grandparents did. Fast foods are very appealing because they are quick, reasonably priced, and readily available alternatives to home cooking. While convenient and economical for a busy lifestyle, fast foods are typically high in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt.

Fast food chains have modified some of their selections to respond to public concern about the fat content of their food. For instance, many fast food restaurants once switched from beef tallow or lard to hydrogenated vegetable oils for frying. However, hydrogenated oils (which contain trans fats) also increase the risk for heart disease. Some cities have banned or are trying to ban the use of trans fats. As a result, many restaurants are now trying to prepare foods using other types of fat. Meanwhile, some restaurants offer low-calorie choices like salad bars with low-calorie dressing, low-fat milkshakes, whole grain buns, lean meats, and grilled chicken items.

Despite these changes, however, in order to maintain a healthy diet, it is necessary to choose fast foods carefully.

Maintaining nutritional balance is not easy with fast food because there is no control over how they are cooked. For example, some are cooked with a lot of oil and butter, and some fast-food restaurants may not offer your food selection with reduced fat. The large portions also encourage overeating. Fast foods also tend to be short on fresh fruits and vegetables.

In general, people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease must be much more careful about choosing fast food due to the high content of fat, sodium, and sugar.

Recommendations

Knowing the number of calories and the amount of fat and salt in the fast food can help you decide which items are better choices. Many fast food restaurants have published the nutrient content of their foods. These are often available on request. You can plan a convenient yet healthful diet with this information. Make better choices when eating at fast food restaurants. In general eat at places that offer a variety of salads, soups, and vegetables.

Consider these general tips:

  • Pizza: Ask for less cheese, and choose low-fat toppings such as onions, mushrooms, green peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables.
  • Sandwiches: Healthier choices include regular or junior size lean roast beef, turkey, or chicken breast, or lean ham. Extras -- such as, bacon, cheese, or mayo -- will increase the fat and calories of the item. Select whole grain breads over croissants or biscuits because the latter contain lots of added fat.
  • Hamburgers: A single, plain meat patty without the cheese and sauces is the best choice. Ask for extra lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Limit your intake of french fries.
  • Meat, Chicken, and Fish: Look for items that are roasted, grilled, baked, or broiled. Avoid meats that are breaded or fried. Ask for heavy sauces, such as gravy, on the side.
  • Salads: High fat food items such as dressing, bacon bits, and shredded cheese add fat and calories. Choose lettuce and assorted vegetables to make up the majority of your salad. Select low-fat or fat-free salad dressings, vinegar, or lemon juice when available. Ask for the salad dressing, on the side, or avoid them altogether.
  • Desserts: Choose low-fat frozen yogurt, fruit ices, sorbets, and sherbets. Occasional indulgent desserts add fun to a carefully selected, well-balanced diet.

Try to choose smaller sized servings. Consider splitting some fast food items to reduce the amount of calories and fat. Ask for a "doggy bag," or simply leave the excess on your plate.

To help supplement and balance the fast food meal, make nutritious options such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and yogurt available as snacks.

When chosen carefully and not used in excess, fast foods can offer reasonably good quality nutrition to your diet. By being aware of what you eat and paying attention to how it affects your health, you can set an example and teach your children to eat healthy as well. As always, variety and moderation are the key principles in providing a healthy diet for children as well as adults.

Review Date: 6/28/2011

Reviewed By: Jeffrey Heit, MD, Internist with special emphasis on preventive health, fitness and nutrition, Philadelphia VA Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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