So you’re counting calories away from home and have no choices other than fast food. Thanks to healthier menus items, you can stay on your weight loss plan even at the roadside drive-through.
Fast food is tempting if you are traveling long distances — it’s easy to pick up and you don’t have to invest as much time as you would in a sit-down eatery. Yet, if you are counting calories and looking to lose weight, you may have concerns about how to make healthy choices in fast-food restaurants.
Your wariness is justified. Data shows that people who say they eat often at fast-food restaurants are more likely to eat a high-fat diet and have excess body weight. But when you are on the road, you may have few options. Here’s how to make the best choices.
Fast Food: Ask Questions Before You Order
Curious to find out what types of healthy options are available on the road in rural areas, a team from Texas A&M University surveyed 261 fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, and supermarket/grocery stores in rural Texas. They found varying healthy choices in each location, but determined that supermarkets/grocery stores offered the most healthy prepared meals and side dishes, and convenience stores offered the least healthy options. Fast-food restaurants varied in their offerings and were not consistent, even among those of the same national brand.
The results of this survey indicate that as a road-savvy traveler, you will have to adapt how you approach counting calories depending on what is available.
“All fast-food restaurants have come up with some healthy choices. You just have to get the nutritional analysis and sit there and look at it,” says Donna L. Weihofen, RD, MS, nutritionist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison. You are looking for calorie count per serving and for other key elements of the nutritional analysis, such as sodium (salt), carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and protein.
Fast Food: Clues to Healthy Choices
Navigating a sometimes massive menu board is the secret to ordering well. Stand to the side as you review it so you won’t be tempted to order in a rush.
Better choices to order:
- Grilled chicken sandwiches (hold the bun if watching carbs, hold the mayo and cheese if watching fat)
- Salads with protein like broiled chicken (choose light or no salad dressing, hold the cheese)
- Fresh fruit (without added sugar or syrup)
- Steamed, roasted, or fresh vegetables
- Baked potatoes with low-fat toppings (skip the cheese sauce and bacon bits)
- Low-fat and low-sodium soups
- Chili made with lean meat or turkey
- Whole-grain bread, buns, wraps, or pizza crust
- Baked chicken or fish
- Low-fat or non-fat milk
What to skip:
- Anything fried
- Full-fat dressings and toppings (bacon, cheese)
- Mayonnaise-heavy salads (potato, coleslaw) and toppings
- Upgrading to larger portions and adding French fries to your order
- Sugary drinks
- Dessert items other than fruit or fat-free frozen yogurt
It’s true that the healthy choices look smaller and plainer than more traditional fast-food fare. “It might not be your favorite thing,” acknowledges Weihofen, but you will feel better making the healthy choice.
What may surprise you about some fast food is that a seemingly healthy salad, if loaded with toppings like cheese, heavy dressings, and fried croutons, can exceed a plain hamburger in calorie count. Similarly, a stuffed deli-style sandwich with meat, cheese, and condiments may have twice the calories of a plain bun and patty.
Most fast-food restaurants have nutritional information available online, and some have it posted on-site, so you could include a menu review as part of your trip planning. That way you will know what your meal options are at various fast food outlets.
Fast Food: Calorie-Counting Bargains
Another option to consider is stopping in at a grocery store or supermarket. While the food items you might find there are not consistent across the country, the Texas A&M study demonstrated that even in rural areas, supermarkets and grocery stores offer a wide variety of healthy food options, especially fresh fruits and vegetables.
With a little research and advance planning, you should be able to stick to counting calories and eat well, even when dining choices are limited.