For most of us, the term “fast food” conjures up images of greasy bacon burgers, super-sized French fries, and crisp chicken tenders dunked into creamy special sauce. Our doctors tell us to avoid it. Dieters say it’s their doom. Many of us call it our “guilty pleasure”, something completely contrary to our otherwise healthy living. But let’s face it. Life happens. We don’t have time to cook. We’ve got kids and school and work deadlines to meet. And sometimes it’s just plain easy. But does visiting the local fast food joint have to mean we have to sabotage our stomachs? Do we have to throw our health goals out the window as we pass beneath those golden arches? Good news! The answer is no! It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, by following five simple guidelines, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying healthier fast food options that both tickle your tastebuds and meet your nutrient needs.
Five Guidelines for Healthy Fast-food Freedom
1. Ask yourself: What food groups are in this meal?
- Remember the five food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, and grains or starchy vegetables. Aim to include 3-5 food groups per meal.
- Use MyPlate as a template. Aim for half of your plate to be fruits and vegetables, with the other two quarters being grains and lean protein. Don’t forget a little dairy too! Use the MyPlate template for all menu items, not just those that come on a plate. The goal is to look at the proportions of each food group on the plate and to then ask yourself, “what can I do to adapt this meal to make it more like MyPlate?” Some examples may include adding extra fruits or vegetables as sides and toppings, asking for a single-patty sandwich instead of a double, or enjoying regular bread instead of hoagie style bread. The goal is to keep food group proportions consistent with the MyPlate model.
2. Ask yourself: What nutrients are in this meal?
- Check the facts. Most fast-food restaurants are required to post calories on their menus. Full nutrition facts are available on the restaurant website. You can also ask for a paper copy on-site.
3. Choose your highs and lows
- Choose foods that are HIGHER in fiber and protein.
- Whole grain bread and pasta, brown rice, vegetables, and fruit are good sources of fiber.
- Grilled meats, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, and eggs are good sources of lean protein.
- Choose foods that are LOWER in saturated fat.
- Choose less fried foods, bacon, multiple patty burgers, cream-based dressings, mayonnaise, mayonnaise-based sauces, sour cream, and cheese sauces. These foods are high in saturated fat and our bodies need them in smaller quantities.
- Choose more grilled foods, fish, vegetables, fruits, and vinegar-based dressings. These foods are low in saturated fat and can sometimes include healthy UN-saturated fats that our bodies need.
- Choose beverages with LOW OR NO added sugar
4. Have it your way
- Don’t be afraid to ask if a meal item can be modified. Most of the time restaurants are more than happy to add and remove items to and from your order. (Note: Adding items can may include an extra charge!)
- Sample modifications:
- Ask if you can substitute a side salad instead of chips or fries.
- Ask for sauces and salad dressings on the side.
- Add available vegetables to sandwiches, salads, wraps, and bowls.
- Ask for a kid size.
5. Savor and be satisfied
- Aim to enjoy your meal to the fullest! Eat slowly and enjoy the different tastes and textures. Not only does this allow you to enjoy your food more, but it also allows you to more accurately sense your fullness level. Use this principle for eating any meal, not just fast-food!
- As we know, fast-food can also be a fun treat, and that’s perfectly okay!! In fact, it’s an important element of a balanced lifestyle! Allowing ourselves to enjoy ALL foods in our overall healthy diet is a critical element of maintaining sustainable lifelong wellness that we ENJOY.
- As a general guideline, aim to choose more nutritious options 80% of the time. Remember, there is no such thing as a “good food” or a “bad food”. Food is morally neutral. Of course, some foods have more nutrition than others, but no one food has the power to make or break your nutrition goals. Our bodies are smart and flexible. Some foods we eat more often, some foods we eat less often.
Finding balance = creating a healthy lifestyle that will last a lifetime!
Enjoy your meal! For more information, visit the following:
Jenna Le Kayworth, MS, RDN, LD
Jenna Le is a passionate dietitian who believes that true health is found independent of body size. She believes in helping others find balance with eating and movement, enjoying all types of foods while journeying toward overall wellness. Jenna Le aims to help people improve their relationships with food, exercise, and their bodies by focusing on holistic nutrition principles that address both body and mind. She believes that by improving these relationships, people are better equipped to sustain lasting wellness. Jenna Le loves to help others find ways to adopt health behaviors into their own unique lives while remaining true to the things they love most. Her vision is for a wellness industry that focuses more on behaviors and inner health than on outside appearances. Jenna Le loves to read, write, spend time outside, and enjoy her husband Thomas, and their spoiled cat Milo.