Slow down and think about fast food choices

Thursday, August 9, 2007
A happy meal and another bag of food was passed to a customer Tuesday at the McDonald's drive-through on Broadway. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

Pile four coworkers into your car for a quick lunch run. Now look around. One of you is obese.

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services more than one in five adults in the state are considered obese. More than half adults are overweight. And with tight schedules and changing cultures, many Americans eat out on a daily basis, making it tough to stick to a controlled diet.

The typical meal at a fast-food restaurant contains nearly the total recommended daily amount of calories, but grabbing a meal deal at the local drive-through doesn't have to be so bad.

The calorie count for most of Burger King's Whopper sandwiches hovers around 1,000. The sodium in almost all the sandwiches at McDonald's have more than half the daily recommended amount.

According to nutritionists, lower -calorie and lower-sodium options are available at fast-food joints, just not recognized. A Whopper Junior with no mayonnaise has only 290 calories, and a hamburger from McDonald's has just more than 500 mg of sodium. Choosing these lower-calorie, smaller portioned options can prevent a quick lunch from turning into a calorie trap. Cutting out certain habits can also cut down on calories in the meal.

"Never supersize," said Raina Childers, a dietitian at Southeast Missouri Hospital's HealthPoint Plaza. "I encourage people not to get double. If it's got double in the name, it's probably too much."

A small order of fries has 13 grams of fat. Make it a large or king size and the amount more than doubles.

Leaving off special sauces, opting for no cheese or choosing smaller portions are ways to make the meal healthier, Childers said. She also advised going with a plan.

"Usually when we eat away from home we lose control," Childers said. "Stick to your guns."

Calories can build up in second-nature choices. Sodas are what dietitians call "empty calories," said Debbie Schumer, a registered and licensed dietitian with Saint Francis Medical Center.

"Unfortunately, as Americans we get a lot of calories and sugar from high-fructose corn syrup and sodas," Schumer said.

Getting rid of hidden calories is up to the buyer. Even salads can be misleading.

"It can be just as bad or high in calories or high in fat as the Whopper, if you add a lot of the regular creamy dressing, cheese, bacon," Schumer said.

These added items can add several digits to the calories, sodium content and fat count.

"I would rather encourage someone to know where those hidden calories are," she said.

Most restaurants have nutritional information packets available. Some even have them displayed on the wall for easy access. They detail the value of each individual meal component as well as several sauce, drink and dessert options.

"When you know what you're eating you can decide: Are those calories worth it?" Childers said.

Consider the amount of sodium and fat content, especially the saturated and trans fat amount, Schumer said.

"Sodium is a very important thing to consider these days," she said. "Americans typically get at least two to three times the [recommended] sodium."

The average adult is advised to keep sodium intake to less than 2,400 mg -- the amount earned in less than a teaspoon of salt.

Too much sodium can complicate problems with high blood pressure, hypertension and diabetes. It also causes the body to retain water.

Looking at the fat content is also important, Schumer said.

Trans and saturated fats are both linked to heart disease.

But French fries or potato wedges are not the only option anymore.

"There are more options now," Childers said. "They have been listening to the cries for healthier options."

Choosing fresher options like apple dippers or a side salad can help reduce the health risk on a fast-food trip. A typical side salad has fewer than 100 calories and many places now offer fruit and juice in lieu of higher-calorie soda.

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