Once given the frightening reputation of single-handedly leading the obesity epidemic in this country, clogging arteries in their wake, fast food restaurants have opened their eyes to what (some of) the public wants and made quite successful attempts to modify their menus to offer healthier choices. I’ll take you through a few of these restaurants and offer some healthy (read: lower calorie, lower fat, and hopefully less sodium) choices, point out some less-than-smart ones, and reveal a few surprises.
Arby’s: Their regular roast beef sandwich has 350 calories and 16 grams of fat. That’s a pretty light meal, comparable to a frozen ‘diet’ dinner, especially when you consider the 950 milligrams of sodium. The French Dip sandwich has only 440 calories, 18 grams of fat, and (oops) 1680 milligrams of sodium. And for those of you who are shooting for about 2000 calories a day, feel free to add an order of 2 potato cakes for only 250 additional calories to round out a meal that comes in under 700 calories.
Now for the not-so-good choices that may be quite surprising: The market fresh roast beef and swiss contains 810 calories, 42 grams of fat and 1780 milligrams of sodium. The roast chicken caesar, 820 calories and 38 grams of fat with 2160 milligrams of sodium (that’s all the sodium a healthy diet has in an entire day).
My surprise for this restaurant falls under the ‘not-so-good’ category: The honey french dressing has 290 calories per packet!
Burger King: Good ideas include the BK broiler without mayo, which provides only 390 calories and 8 grams of fat (albeit 1010 milligrams of sodium) and the whopper junior without mayo, just 330 calories and 14 grams of fat, and only 470 milligrams of sodium. A small order of fries at only 230 calories can nicely round out a meal to total barely 600 calories.
Not-so-good ideas where you thought you might have been doing well include the chicken club, which comes in at 740 calories, 44 grams of fat (nearly your daily allowance!) and 1530 miligrams of sodium; and the BK big fish with 710 calories, 38 grams of fat, and 1200 milligrams of sodium. One you might expect is not a smart choice is the whopper with cheese, and that’s 780 calories, 47 grams of fat, and 1390 milligrams of sodium.
A couple of surprises here include one good choice–the BBQ sauce which is only 20 calories per packet (a nice substitute for when you wisely leave the mayo off your sandwich), and a not-so-good choice, the large frozen coke, a mere beverage adding 460 calories to your meal without even satisfying your appetite (gulp!)
McDonald’s: This restaurant has paired up with some nutrition professionals to give lots of healthy meal options. Their salads (chef, garden, and grilled chicken caesar) all have less than 150 calories. However, if you add croutons you’re getting another 50 calories, and if you put on any dressing other than the fat free herb vinaigrette dressing (only 50 calories) you’re getting more calories from the dressing (ranging from 130 to 170 per packet) than from the salad. A chicken mcgrill without the mayo comes in at only 340 calories and 7 grams of fat, and a quarter pounder only 430 calories, but 21 grams of fat. A little advertised choice at this restaurant is sliced apples–a fantastic option designed for kids to have instead of fries. You could have a hamburger (280 calories) and a salad with the fat free dressing, a side of apples, and even a dessert at this place for under 500 calories! Their vanilla reduced fat ice cream cone provides only 150 calories.
I can’t finish this topic without mentioning Taco Bell, both because of its popularity and also the great low calorie menu items you can find here. Beef or chicken tacos (including the soft ones) average only 200 calories a piece and the gorditas (except for the ones with ‘crunch’ in the name) all have 360 calories or less. Watch out for salads that come with an edible bowl; the bowl has over 400 calories and 30 grams of fat!
Just a side note about the sodium content in most of these foods; it is added partly for flavor, but also to prevent the food from drying out once it’s cooked and sitting under the warming lights. It’s quite difficult to find a low sodium option at a fast food restaurant. But most people without high blood pressure, kidney, or heart problems will be easily able to flush the sodium out of their bodies if they drink a few glasses of water after their meal. Up to 1000 milligrams at a meal shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
And now, here’s a great bit of ammunition to start your healthy eating plan; every fast food restaurant will gladly hand over their nutrition information so you can see it all for yourself. Most places give access to this information online; some of them hand it out in their restaurant; sometimes it’s even on their tray place mats! So take a look at what’s in front of you and compare your choices before your next order.
Laurie Beebe is a registered dietitian with over 25 years of experience. She assists people from all walks of life in changing their diet for better health. Certified in Adult Weight Management, Laurie has transitioned into life coaching to better implement changes in people’s environments. No matter how much people know about what they ‘should’ be doing differently, they don’t alter their habits without making adjustments in their surroundings and their awareness. Coaching helps lead people to permanent changes by helping them set their own goals and design their own action plans. Please visit Laurie’s website for more free nutrition tips, a free monthly newsletter, or more information on coaching, at www.mycoachlaurie.com.