Solutions for Unhealthy Fast Food Options

Chicken Caesar salad sandwich wraps
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Fast food is tasty, convenient and usually pretty cheap — unfortunately, it’s also kind of terrible for us. Besides the fact that each mouthful carries with it a lot of calories, fat and sodium, there are a few other reasons why it’s best to minimize your trips through the standard drive-thru. Let’s break down the typical convenience meal into its three component parts.

  1. Grilled Red Meat: Italy gave the world pasta and Mexico gave us tacos, but what does the U.S. bring to the table? The hamburger. It’s so American it might as well be our national dish. We like it so much we think two patties are better than one; and then we add cheese, bacon and mayonnaise to really make it something special. The bad news is that red meat brings with it saturated fat and cholesterol, which have been implicated in heart disease. Add to that the risk from carcinogens that form when meats are fried, grilled or broiled at high temperatures —they’re called heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and they can damage the gastrointestinal tract. Red meat in particular has been linked to colon cancer.
    A Healthier Solution: But what are the alternatives to this beloved American fare? Fill your bun with a different kind of meat like salmon, halibut or chicken, or forgo the meat altogether and opt for a veggie burger. You can still customize it the way you like with cheese, ketchup, mustard and other toppings…which is half the fun anyway. If your favorite joint doesn’t offer creative alternatives to beef, find one that does.
  2. Fried Potatoes: What’s the perfect crispy sidekick for your custom-built cheeseburger? Fries, of course. But before you pop those salty sticks in your mouth, consider this: Scientists have found a compound called acrylamide in french fries and potato chips; it’s formed when foods containing both carbohydrates and the amino acid asparagine are baked, roasted or fried at high temperatures. This discovery is fairly new, but it’s been classified as a carcinogen and a genotoxicant, meaning it has the capacity to cause cancer and damage genetic material.
    A Healthier Solution: But what’s a burger experience without the fries? Pick a different side or bring your own! If another option like a side salad or sliced apple is available, go for it. Otherwise, indulge your fast food craving, but bring a bag of grapes or baby carrots from home for a fast finger food.
  3. Sweet Sips: The usual item to round out this tasty trio is either a soda or a milkshake. The problem here, as you can probably imagine, is sugar. These ever-growing cups of refreshing liquid mean lots of added calories but virtually no nutrition. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of six teaspoons of sugar a day for women and nine for men. An average 16-ounce shake has about 25 teaspoons, and that’s not even the largest size available. (Some of this is from the milk but the rest is from the sugar and the corn syrup.) A 30-ounce large soda has 18 teaspoons, and it’s all added sugar.
    A Healthier Solution: But really, what else is there to wash down the salty, fatty meal on the go? Order unsweetened iced tea or water instead or bring a favorite non-soda, non-ice-cream beverage from home.

Besides serving up giant helpings of the undesirable stuff, most fast food menus are also missing the really good stuff — whole grains are few and far between, vegetables are usually minimal, and fruits are virtually non-existent. When taken all together, this way of eating doesn’t serve us very well in the long-run, especially if we make a habit of it. So, think about your options the next time the fast food urge strikes:

Go, but challenge yourself to order wisely and make it the best fast food it can be.

Go, but try somewhere that offers more interesting options so you can get a delicious, but possibly less traditional, fast food meal.

You might be surprised that sometimes healthy decisions can be tasty, convenient and cheap, too.

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Kristine Duncan, MS, RD, CDE
Kristine Duncan, MS, RD, CDE, is a dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Bellingham, Wash. Read her blog, Veg Girl RD, where she writes about diet and nutrition from a vegetarian’s point of view, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn.