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How to Eat Healthy if Fast Food is your Option

by | Nov 8, 2021 | Health

My husband and I recently drove to Shreveport, Louisiana to visit our son. Our plan was to stop for lunch each day at a restaurant where we could sit down and order off the menu. Hopefully, that would also give us some healthy options for meals. That didn’t work out too well.  Near the Interstate between Atlanta and Shreveport there seemed to be a scarcity of restaurants, but an abundance of fast food options. Trying to eat healthy at a fast-food restaurant is many times a contradiction of terms. Some fast-food restaurants have recently tried to add healthier options to their menus, but it can still be a challenge.

Not to worry…Healthy Rowan has published a great resource, the Fast Food Nutrition Guide. According to the guide, “there are nutrients you should look for when ordering fast food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that people limit saturated fat, trans fats, sodium, and added sugars in their diet. Added sugars are sugars that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. They do not include natural sugars found in milk and fruits. Sodium, fats, and sugars are linked to health problems, such as obesity and heart disease.”

So to make good choices when you find yourself at a fast-food restaurant, the guide encourages us to follow the following 10 tips:

  1. Read the nutritional information for food you are considering: look in the guide, go online ahead of time, or check at the restaurant.
  2. Choose water, unsweetened tea, or 100% fruit juice with your meal. Have coffee drinks with fat-free or low-fat milk.
  3. Remember to include vegetables and fruit in your meals. Select fruits as a side dish or dessert. Make a salad your main entrée, but ask for low-fat dressing on the side and use only a small amount of it.
  4. Beware of large portion sizes. Pick the smallest size available or divide larger items between family and friends.
  5. Look for items that are lower in calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. Don’t add salt to your fast food.
  6. Pick steamed, grilled, or broiled foods. They have fewer calories than foods that are fried or “crispy.”
  7. Choose whole-wheat breads and rolls, and select brown rice, if available
  8. Order sandwiches without mayonnaise or other creamy dressings. Then, leave the cheese off and ask for extra lettuce and tomato.
  9. Select thin-crust pizza and ask for lots of veggies on top.
  10. Eat slowly so your body has time to let you know when it’s full.

The real problem comes when you are rushed through a drive-thru line (because most eat-in options were not available during Covid restrictions) making it hard to quickly identify the healthy options. A trick I discovered is to go through this guide ahead of time and highlight the best option for each of the 19 restaurants referenced. I keep the guide in my car, so if I find myself in the drive-thru line at one of them, I can pull out my guide and know what to order. This keeps me on track and keeps me from ordering crazy things I shouldn’t eat on impulse.

Deciding what is healthiest for you may differ from person to person depending on your dietary preferences. If you are counting calories you might choose one option, but if you are counting carbohydrates you might choose another. Looking through the guide was interesting and provided a wide range of options. For sandwiches, the highest possible calories was at Hardees with the 2/3 lb Monster Thickburger coming in at 1300 calories. It appears the best option may be the Chick-fil-A Grilled Chicken Sandwich at 330 calories. Most of the fast-food restaurants have added salads to their menus, and even KFC (aka Kentucky FRIED Chicken) has added grilled chicken to their menu. One issue we found on our trip was that not all items on the standard published menu for each restaurant are actually available. Somewhere in Mississippi, I tried to order a grilled chicken breast at a KFC and almost got slapped by the clerk who informed me, “We don’t grill nothin’.”

In addition to the Fast Food Guide, Healthy Rowan also has available “A Parent’s Guide to Fast Food for Kids,” which features Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and KFC. It also has helpful tips for parents such as requesting fruit or yogurt instead of fries. This is also a handy tool to keep in your car to make decision-making easier and healthier.

Both guides can be obtained free from the Rowan County Health Department, the Community Care Clinic, or any of the Rowan County YMCA branches – free of charge! So grab a guide and healthy eating!!!

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About The Author

Dari Caldwell

I was born and raised on the northern end of Kannapolis, NC and after college (UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University) I lived away from North Carolina for 12 years, during which I earned a doctorate in Health Care Administration. My career has been in healthcare for over 40 years and in addition to being a Registered Nurse, I have held healthcare executive positions in Los Angeles, California, New York, Concord, Charlotte, and finally completed my career as President of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, where I retired in 2020. I live in and love Rowan County and have enjoyed immersing myself in the community on various volunteer boards such as Rowan Cabarrus Community College, Rowan Chamber of Commerce, Rowan Economic Development, Novant Hospice Advisory, Healthy Rowan, and am now Board Chair for the Rowan Board of Health. In retirement, my husband David and I have enjoyed our hobby of vegetable gardening, and visiting our children. We have two sons – Trent, who is the head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Lenoir Rhyne and is married to Brittany. They have 3 children including brand new twins! Our younger son Chris lives in Shreveport, Louisiana where he is an orthopedic surgery resident physician. We love sports, and also enjoy time at the lake, the beach, and with my 93 year old very spry mother!