Fast-food restaurants contain at least some healthful items for hungry travelers

December 19, 2011

During a recent car trip to Florida with my kids, we were pressed for time and only made pit stops directly off the highway. Which is to say that three times a day, there and back, we ate fast food — McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Chik-fil-A. By the end of the day, even my McNugget-and-french-fry-loving kids were begging for a healthful snack.

This got me to wondering, as I look ahead to more long road trips this holiday season, whether it’s possible to eat healthfully if your main resource is fast-food establishments. The answer is yes, though it’s not always easy, says Baltimore dietitian Angela Ginn: “Every single restaurant, rest stop and even gas stations now have at least a few healthy options,” she explains. “But it definitely takes some extra work and planning to put together a good, reasonably nutritious meal.”

It can also take quite a bit of willpower to go for the healthful food choices when everyone around you has trays full of fries, burgers and milkshakes.

“When we have multiple choices and we’re hungry, we tend to lead with taste and go with the unhealthy options,” says Ginn, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. She adds that this is especially true when you’re on the road and off your normal eating schedule. You’re also more likely to be tempted by value-sizing, and “deluxe” or “mega” anything.

Indeed, a supervisor at a McDonald’s in the District said that very few patrons deviate from traditional fast-food fare: “We keep adding more healthy items to the menu, but it doesn’t seem to change what people order, which is chicken nuggets, hamburgers, french fries, the filet of fish, the McRib. We added the apple slices [in kids’ Happy Meals], but they don’t seem to be very popular.”

If you can marshall the self-control, though, nutrition experts offer some suggestions for eating healthfully when faced with drive-thrus, value menus meal deals and the like.

Keep it simple.

A lot of the calories and sodium in fast-food meals come from “sub-recipes: the sauces, dressings, marinades,” says dietitian Amy Jamieson-Petonic, director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. She notes that salad dressing packets typically contain as many as four servings, which can negate any nutritional value of the greens. “When you put it all together in one restaurant meal, it can really add up.” So avoid anything labeled “deluxe,” “double” or the like, and stick with a small, plain hamburger or grilled chicken sandwich. Hold the Swiss, mayo, special sauce and other extras to avoid extra calories, saturated fat and sodium. Also, opt for water instead of high-calorie soft drinks or other beverages.

Think beyond burgers.

One of the biggest trends in fast food these days is chains that offer a wider array of food options, such as Panera Bread, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Noodles and Company. At such places, “a majority of foods are really pretty good,” says Steven Aldana, an expert in chronic disease prevention who writes the Stop and Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide. He suggests mapping out the most nutritious options along your route and then planning stops accordingly. Once you’re there, it’s still important to order wisely, avoiding such high-fat, high-sodium add-ons as cheese, bacon and mayo.

Eat like a kid.

The regular portions at fast-food restaurants often contain a staggering amount of calories, saturated fat and sodium, warns Aldana, who notes, for example, that the Texas Double Whopper from Burger King has 1,050 calories — roughly half of what a typical man should consume in a single day — as well as 130 percent of the daily recommended allowance of saturated fat.

If you must have an occasional splurge on nuggets, fries or any other fast-food standbys, it’s best for an adult to order a child-size portion. “It’s just around the right amount of calories you should have, and you don’t feel deprived,” says Ginn. For a child, similarly order small portions or best options, such as lowfat milk instead of soda and fruit instead of fries.

Do some research.

Luckily, it’s now quick and easy to check menus and specific nutrition information for almost any eatery using any number of Internet and smartphone tools, such as Healthy Dining Finder or Aldana’s Stop and Go. Once people see how unhealthful certain items are, they’re “often shocked into making better selections,” says Ginn.

Pack healthful snacks.

Load up a cooler with some fresh fruit and veggies, which are typically in short supply on the road. They can help balance out any fast-food binges. If you’re leaving early, Aldana recommends bringing along some yogurt, a whole-wheat bagel or another nutritious morning meal, since he says that fast-food chains that specialize in breakfast foods tend to have some of the most unhealthful offerings.

At the end of the day, just remember that while succumbing to that urge for a burger and fries every now and again won’t kill you, making better choices at fast-food restaurants and keeping to as normal an eating routine as possible may mean a better arrival at your destination. “You will just feel so much better along the way,” says Jamieson-Petonic. “Choosing some of the healthier options will provide more clarity, more energy, and allow you to sleep better.”

I have already started mapping out the most healthful rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike for a post-Christmas road trip. Now, if I could only keep my children out of those establishments’ indoor play areas — which one mom on a crusade recently discovered are often overrun with bacteria that cause skin infections, nausea and other problems — we’ll all be starting the new year on a much healthier note.

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