Wise Drive ThroughIf you're like most Americans, you frequent one of the country's more than 72,000 fast-food restaurants at least once a week. After all, industry data show that fast-food accounts for 86 percent of meals taken home from restaurants.
Stick to double cheeseburgers, supersize your fries and sodas, and add a few high-fat breakfast items a couple times a month, and you could see your waistline and cholesterol levels grow like weeds in a summer garden.
But something has been happening to fast-food restaurants. As Americans have become fatter and more concerned about what they eat, the McDonald's and Burger Kings of the world have taken notice. They've added salads that actually fill you up (sales of salads in fast-food restaurants were up 12 percent between 2002 and 2003), reduced serving sizes, and added more healthful options to their menus. Here's how to take advantage of it.
1. Go for the salad, minus the fried toppings. Although most fast-food restaurants offer decent-sized salads these days, if you top them with fried chicken, fried noodles, and the entire contents of the dressing packet, you will wind up with as much artery-clogging saturated fat and calories as if you'd had the double-cheese and fries. Instead, choose broiled or roasted chicken as your protein source, skip the croutons, and ask for the low-fat dressing -- then only use half.
2. Skip the cheese. Craving a hamburger? That's okay -- just get a plain hamburger without the cheese. For instance, at McDonald's, that saves you 50 calories, 40 of them from fat, and 2 grams of saturated fat.
3. Ask for extra onions, lettuce, and tomato. Whatever sandwich you choose, it'll be healthier, crunchier, and more filling if you add these classics. And it ticks off one more serving of vegetables from your day's quota.
4. Order unsweetened iced tea or bottled water. A king-size Sprite at Burger King is 420 calories. This one change might save you the same number of calories as the meal you're about to eat!
5. Choose 1% or skim milk as your drink. At just 100 calories (less for skim), it provides much of your daily dose of bone-building calcium, as opposed to soft drinks, which can suck the calcium from your bones.
6. Always say no to the special sauce. Many are just dressed-up mayonnaise, and thus overflowing with fat and calories. The best topping for your chicken, fish, or burgers? Mustard (no calories, lots of flavor). Second best? Ketchup (no fat, but a fair amount of sweetener). Other good choices: olive oil and vinegar (in moderation), hot sauces, red pepper spreads. Worst choices: butter or mayonnaise.
7. Use hot sauce, not ketchup, on your french fries. Hot sauce is low in calories, has a big, adventurous flavor, and contains nutrients that are particularly good for your body. Plus, it gets you drinking lots of water, which reduces your appetite.
Select Carefully8. Do not supersize. Ever. Even McDonald's has finally wised up to the evil of its ways, and is phasing out some of its supersized items.
9. In fact, order a kid's meal. A small hamburger, a small fries, and an orange juice is surprisingly filling for most adults, and much fewer calories than the adult version. Plus, you get a free toy!
10. Get a sub sandwich. A six-inch sub (or hoagie, wedge, grinder, or whatever it's called in your area) with roast beef or turkey and lots of vegetables is an outstanding fast-food choice. Choose a whole grain bread, and as we said, skip the mayo -- a little bit of vinegar and olive oil is acceptable, or choose mustard. As with the burger stores, skip the value meal -- chips and soda are no match for an apple or salad and a low-fat milk or orange juice.
11. Don't be fooled by low-carb claims. Although many fast-food outlets have added low-carb offerings to their menus, it doesn't mean the selections are any healthier for you. For instance, the Carl's Jr. Breakfast Bowl has only 5 grams of carbs, but, composed of two scrambled eggs, a sausage patty, and a slice of Swiss cheese, it packs a whopping 900 calories and 73 grams of fat, nearly half of them saturated.
12. Use a fast-food item as part of a meal. In other words, rather than buying the entire meal through the drive-through window and eating it in your car, buy a sandwich or salad, bring it home, then add to it with some raw veggies dipped in low-fat ranch dressing, a cup of yogurt, or some other healthy side dish that still doesn't involve cooking.
Replace and Save13. Get some kind of vegetable and/or fruit with every fast-food meal. Salads are an obvious choice, and as mentioned, you could also ask for extra tomatoes and lettuce on sandwiches, tacos, and burritos. Other ways: Order a veggie burger (available at Burger King), add broccoli to your baked potato, and pick a fruit and yogurt parfait from McDonald's.
14. Get skinless chicken. This is particularly important when you're hitting KFC, home of the finger-lickin' good fried chicken. Ditch the skin -- and much of the batter -- and you'll save 240 calories and 16 grams of fat on a typical serving.
15. Order a taco salad without the shell or sour cream, and ask for only half the cheese. You still get the spicy meat and save about 300 calories and 10 grams of fat.
16. Look for ways to sneak in fiber. That means the baked potato (with skin) and chili (without cheese) from Wendy's, bean burritos and tacos from Taco Bell instead of meat (a Bean Burrito packs 12 grams of fiber -- nearly half your daily needs met!), and baked beans and corn on the cob (without butter) as side dishes (or even main dishes) at KFC.
17. Look for the word "Jr." You'll get a smaller portion. Ironically, what's considered a junior portion today used to be considered a regular size 20 years ago.
18. Avoid value meals. An oversized sandwich (fat), lots of french fries (fat), and a large soda (sugar) add up to major calories and minimal nutrition. Burger King's Value Meals are some of the least healthful among fast-food chains, says Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and coauthor of the book Restaurant Confidential. One of the lowest-calorie value meals, he notes, is the Whopper Jr., medium fries, and medium Coca-Cola Classic, with a whopping 1,000 calories. McDonald's value meals average about 1,200 calories. In comparison, the typical woman needs to eat just 1,800 calories in a whole day.
19. Look for the words "grilled," "baked," or "broiled." If they're cooked that way, they're not fried -- and you'll automatically be reaping some savings in terms of fat and calories.
20. Have an apple, banana, nonfat yogurt, or some other healthy snack an hour before you hit the fast-food line. That way you're not showing up starving. If you're too hungry, one whiff of the enticing fast-food smells will send all your good intentions of a salad right out the drive-through window.
21. Eat breakfast at home and save fast food for lunch or dinner. At least you'll know you're getting one wholesome meal. Plus, since it's hard to eat high-fiber cereal in your car, you're more likely to order a high-fat option, like a sausage biscuit.
22. Make a supermarket your fast-food restaurant. Run in, grab a piece or two of fruit, a cup of yogurt, an energy bar, a salad at the salad bar, a turkey sandwich at the deli counter, and you're out through the express lane with breakfast, lunch, and snacks in 10 minutes.
23. Avoid processed or cured meats. We're talking hot dogs, salami, bologna, and ham. These heavily processed meats are filled with fat, salt, chemical additives, and in some cases, sugar. At a deli or a sub shop, go for turkey breast, chicken breast, or roast beef instead.