Whether you're eating on-the-go, on a budget, or with friends who wouldn't care about their diets, you'll probably end up eating at a fast food restaurant despite your best efforts to avoid them. They're everywhere, they're cheap, and they're convenient -- so what's a dieter to do? Take the following steps to minimize the impact of fast food on your diet.
1. Read the nutrition pamphlet.
If there are certain fast food chains you tend to patronize, visit their websites for nutritional information. Determine what they have to offer that's more nutritious and lower in calories than other items on the menu. Make a list to keep in your wallet or purse, if you forget ("...which one had 700 calories?"). If you don't have a chance to do your fast food homework, some places have nutritional information pamphlets available near the registers. If so, skim through one before ordering, if you can.
2. Read the ingredients list.
The nutrition pamphlet won't tell you everything. Trans fat from the process of hydrogenation is a major risk factor for heart disease. Due to FDA regulations, if a food item has less than 0.5g of trans fat "per serving," it will be rounded down to 0 grams on the nutrition facts sheet. The only way to make sure you aren't eating any trans fat is to scan the ingredients list for any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, and avoid eating food items which contain them.
3. Plan ahead.
Most major fast food chains have websites, and most now offer the nutrition information on-line. Select your meal and tally the calories before heading to the restaurant.
4. Cast away the condiments.
A salad is a healthier choice until you soak it in high-fat salad dressing and sprinkle it with cheese. Avoid or cut the following:
Salad dressing - contains fats in the oil, but read the labels, because sometimes the fats are "good fats" like extra virgin olive oil. The lowest-calorie salad dressing is usually the healthiest choice. Don't feel like you have to use the entire package. A small drizzle may be all you need.
Cheese - high in saturated fat, but if your diet is low in calcium and you cannot tolerate milk, one slice of cheese will help provide that.
Ketchup - many U.S. brands have high fructose corn syrup
Sauces which are high in sugars and/or fat. If you need a sauce for flavor, look for the one with the fewest calories. Mustard is good for sandwiches, Vinegar is good for fries, and lemon juice is good for salads.
Salt (in excess). Be aware that sodium is hidden throughout most fast foods, so the foods you would think have the most sodium (salted fries, for example) may actually not have as much sodium as other foods.
Mayonnaise (a tablespoon of regular mayonnaise has almost 100 calories).
5. Choose grilled chicken instead.
Fried chicken contains a lot more calories and fat.
6. Ask for extra veggie toppings on your sandwich.
Extra tomato, lettuce, and onion will add more vitamins, fiber, and flavor to the sandwich and only add a few calories. This can help turn a small burger into something more substantial.
7. Substitute a healthier side dish for fries.
Some fast food chains allow this. For example, a small garden side salad with low-calorie dressing or fresh apple slices. Choose these more often.
8. Eat no more than half of what's served to you.
Fast food joints are well-known for their big portions. A single serving typically provides enough calories for two meals! Split your meal with someone else. As soon as you get your meal, divide it in half and keep the other half out of sight. If you can't give it to anyone, save it for the next day's meal. You don't have to get the signature sandwich at the restaurant; you can get a regular hamburger (which is usually half the size of the signature 1/4 pound burger) instead.
9. Have water with your meal.
A large soda (32 ounces) has about 400 calories that you can probably do without. Ask for water (sparkling, if it's available, and you won't miss the bubbles). At the very least, drink a diet soda to avoid the calories. If you have a sip between every bite, you'll also slow down your eating time. Numerous studies have shown that eating slowly results in eating less which, when you're eating at a fast food joint, is definitely a good thing.
10. Continue avoiding fast food places.
"Healthy" is relative term, especially in this context. Making the choices described above is only healthy if you visit fast food restaurants sparingly, when you find yourself with no other choice. If you get too comfortable and start thinking that you can eat at fast food places more often because you're confident in your ability to make "healthy" choices, the results won't be healthy at all if you become tempted by the large selection of unhealthy choices. The healthiest choice is to avoid fast food venues in the first place.