Eating at the drive-thru has always been considered a surefire way to increase your risk for obesity and other nutritionally related health problems, but that doesn't have to be the case. Fast food is what you make it.
If you know what you're doing, a few simple choices can completely change the nutritional profile of your meal and remove the guilt associated with eating fast food. Here are three simple "tricks" that can turn a fast food feast from a nutritional nightmare into a well-balanced meal.
1. Take it Easy on Toppings and Sauces
The problem with many fast food purveyors is that they show no restraint. Rather than offering a plain hamburger, they offer a cheddar cheese burger topped with bacon and onion rings and slathered in special sauce. Since these additions pack lots of calories, fat and sodium in a relatively small package, they take the burger's nutrition facts off the deep end.
For example, the McDonald's BBQ Ranch Burger is topped with white cheddar cheese, BBQ ranch sauce and chili lime tortilla strips.
Here are the nutrition facts:
Not so great. But here's how they look when you remove the cheese, sauce and tortilla strips:
Huge difference, right? Cutting the toppings resulted in a burger with 110 fewer calories, half as much saturated fat and over 300mg less sodium.
Another great example is their Premium Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Bacon Clubhouse Sandwich. When the name of the menu item is that long, it's likely to be loaded with unhealthy toppings. Here are the nutrition facts:
And here's how they look when you remove the cheese, sauce and bacon:
The difference is like night and day. When you include all the toppings, the nutrition facts are disastrous. But take them off and you have a halfway decent sandwich that's high in protein and won't torpedo your diet. Toppings like cheese, sauce, extra meats, onion rings, tortilla strips, etc. might seem insignificant, but they have a huge impact. You're better off adding veggies and a little bit of mustard to add flavor to your food.
2. Order Water or Chocolate Milk Instead of Soda
When most people think of a fast food meal, they envision it accompanied by a big cup of soda. This isn't a coincidence. For years, fast food menus have included photos strategically placed on their menus, subliminally encouraging customers to choose soft drinks as their beverage.
Fast food restaurants also serve soda in behemoth beverage containers, which can lead customers to consume triple the normal serving size.
But get this—you don't have to order soda at a fast food joint. It might come as a surprise to some, but it's totally true. Fast food places offer healthier alternatives like chocolate milk or just plain water.
The suggested serving size for Coca-Cola is 12 fluid ounces. That number might not sound like much (it's equivalent to a normal-sized can), but it packs 39 grams of sugar.
But if you head to Burger King, the smallest size available (dubbed a "value" size) is 12 ounces. A "small" contains roughly 16 ounces, a "medium" roughly 24 ounces, and a "large" roughly 32 ounces.
Guzzling down a large Coke at Burger King, you're consuming 102 grams of sugar—over three times the daily recommended limit for adult men and teens prescribed by the American Heart Association. In one drink. It's insane.
Many fruit drinks and even teas on fast food menus are similarly high in sugar, which makes water the safest and smartest choice. Don't let a bad beverage bankrupt your meal. Stick with good ol' H2O.
3. Be Smart with your Sides
Just as soda is the go-to beverage for a fast food meal, French fries have become the go-to side.
But just because they're the standard option doesn't make them the smart one. French fries have little nutritional value—they're pretty much empty calories. A medium fry at Hardee's contains 490 calories, 24 grams of fat and 970mg of sodium. That's a lot of bad stuff for a simple side dish.
Instead of fries, order a side salad, apple slices or a baked potato. These choices are much lower in calories and fat and higher in useful nutrients and vitamins than French fries.
The Big Picture
Although each of these changes can have a significant effect on the nutritional profile of your fast food meal, if you follow all three of them, the results are astonishing.
Here are the numbers for a Big Mac, large Fries and large Coke from McDonald's:
And here are the numbers for a Big Mac (hold the sauce and cheese), apple slices and chocolate milk:
The differences are staggering. Fast food is convenient, affordable and accessible for many people—and if you know how to make the right choices, it can be pretty healthy, too.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock