5 Ways to Eat Smart at a Fast-Food Restaurant

Why, yes, you would like fries with that! Learn how giving in to the urge—and following a few other easy pointers—can keep your next fast-food meal from undoing your healthy diet.


1. Tune out temptation. A hungry stomach is a suggestible stomach. And a typical fast-food environment—with poster-size images of fried chicken and promos for super cheap combo meals—can bring out your worst impulses. Don't let it. Step back and read the entire menu. Mentally eliminate items described as crispy, deluxe, or double (never mind triple). If the restaurant displays nutrition information, or if you can find it on your smartphone, aim for a meal that's under 600 calories, 22 g of fat, and 800 mg of sodium. Most chains offer at least a few relatively wholesome options—such as grilled chicken—that can help you make it happen.

2. Feel free to skip salad. Don't feel bad if you're not in the mood for greens. Many fast-food salads are smothered with cheese, croutons, fried noodles, and bacon—not exactly a garden harvest. And even if you could order plain veggies, you might not stop there. Fast-food patrons who opt for strenuously healthy main dishes can experience something dubbed "the halo effect," a feeling of virtue that drives them to reward themselves with fatty side dishes and desserts. If that sounds like you, order a modest meal that will truly satisfy—such as a hamburger and kid-size fries—and think of it as preemptive damage control.

3. Tweak your toppings. Mayo, barbecue sauce, honey mustard, and ranch dressing can pack more than 100 calories per ounce and serious amounts of sugar, fat, and/or sodium. Luckily, a little goes a long way. Ask your server to keep sauces separate, then use them sparingly (or just scrape off the excess with a knife). If the restaurant has a fixings bar, help yourself to guilt-free garnishes such as onions, salsa, yellow mustard, tomatoes, lettuce, mushrooms, and roasted peppers.

4. Choose a smarter sip. You're probably already cautious about classic fountain drinks, and rightly so: A 32-oz. cola contains up to 108 grams of sugar, the equivalent of roughly 14 packets of Pop Rocks. However, artificially sweetened diet drinks may pose problems, too. Some research suggests that sweet tastes prime the brain for sustenance—and when no calories come down the pike, the body's food demand can intensify. Order a beverage that's inherently calorie-free (such as seltzer, plain water, or unsweetened iced tea) or one that delivers bonafide nourishment (such as skim milk or OJ).

5. Pace yourself. Fast food is served in seconds, and people can gobble it almost as quickly. That's because most menu selections are exceedingly easy to eat—no utensils necessary. Plus, studies have found that people chew and swallow more rapidly in environments with loud colors and bright lighting. Considering that the brain takes about 20 minutes to register feelings of fullness (a complex process that involves the release of hormones from the small intestine), the risk of going overboard is high. Relax and savor your meal, or get your order to go and eat at an outdoor table.

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