Taste Test: Better Fast Food

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Now that we're past Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, vacations lie ahead -- and with them ample opportunity for nutritional mischief on the road.

But this year, you may want to think seriously about stopping at a fast-food establishment to grab a healthful meal.

That's right. Facing pressure from advocacy groups, public officials, lawsuits and (maybe) increasing consumer preference, many fast food chains have begun taking the healthier parts of their menus more seriously. That means more nutritious foods, from fruit and low-fat yogurt parfaits to tempting salads with low-fat dressings and grilled shrimp.

The Lean Plate Club recently recruited members of the Health section staff to taste some of this healthier fare. While none of the meals rated four stars, most testers were surprised at how good the food tasted.

"I'd buy this and eat it," was the consensus for all the items tasted -- even the veggie burger from Burger King (although we do admit that the toppings, especially the ample dollop of mayonnaise, helped account for its appeal).

So as you hit the road this summer -- whether you travel turnpikes, back roads, through airports or train stations -- here's a guide to help you make smart travel food choices when you're tired, hungry, hectored by cranky kids and surrounded only by Golden Arches or other fast-food icons.

But first, two tips:

· Expect high sodium. Even some of the entree salads packed 900 milligrams of sodium and more before adding dressing or croutons. The recommended level is 2,300 milligrams daily for those aged 45 or younger; 1,500 for those older, for African Americans and for people with high blood pressure. Snack on fruit high in potassium (bananas, oranges and raisins) to help balance the sodium.

· Resist the urge to super-size, since doing so can easily add up to a day's worth of calories and more than a day's worth of fat.

Burger King The "have it your way" chain was the first to introduce Morningstar Farms veggie burgers -- a food you can buy in grocery stores -- to its menu. Burger King's patty (with the mayo and other toppings) has 420 calories, including 16 grams of fat, but only three of those grams are saturated and there's no unhealthful trans fat. Our testers liked it. High in protein, the veggie burger also has seven grams of fiber and 1,000 milligrams of sodium.

If you've got a hankering for meat, skip the trendy Angus Steak burger (570 calories) and have the single burger. At 310 calories, 13 grams of fat (five of them saturated), minimal trans fat and half the sodium of the veggie burger, it's a decent alternative.

But for great taste, nearly a day's worth of veggies and fewer calories than most of the burgers, choose the salads. They clock in at around 200 calories, without dressing (which adds 70 to 130 calories per packet) and the garlic parmesan toast (70 calories). Both the Fire-Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad and the Fire-Grilled Chicken Garden Salad earned high marks from our testers. There are also shrimp versions of both, which contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Just skip the Tendercrisp salads, which have fried chicken and about a day's worth of fat.

McDonald's The small burger (260 calories), cheeseburger (310) and Chicken McGrill (400) are the caloric bargains among the sandwiches. Even the fried Filet-o-Fish (400) is an okay choice for a splurge: It packs 18 grams of fat, but 13 of them come from healthful fats. Save 90 calories and nearly two grams of saturated fat by skipping the tartar sauce. Note that most, if not all, of the chain's fried fare has some trans fat.

Try the salads. They include Bacon Ranch With Grilled Chicken, Fruit and Walnut and have 90 to 370 calories. (Skip any salads with crispy chicken, which is fried.) Newman's Own Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing not only tastes great but is a caloric winner at just 40 calories--as much as 100 calories less than some of the creamy, full-fat dressings.

For dessert, reach for the Apple Dippers, slices of apples with Low-Fat Caramel Dip (100 calories) or the Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait (160 calories, 130 without granola).

Subway You know all about Jared Fogle, the Indiana University student who lost 245 pounds and found a job as a spokesman for this chain. But he shed those pounds by eating the six-inch Savory Turkey Breast without mayo, oil or cheese (280 calories; 4.5 grams fat) and the 12-inch veggie sub (460 calories, six grams fat). He didn't eat the high-calorie subs like the Chicken Bacon and Ranch (530 calories, 25 grams fat) or the Meatball Marinara (560 calories, 24 grams of fat). He also reportedly did a lot of walking to help burn calories. Our testers gave high marks to the Savory Turkey Breast and Ham sub on honey oat bread with honey mustard, lettuce and tomato (290 calories and five grams of fat for the six-inch size).

Quiznos They've added flatbread sandwiches to their toasted-sandwich-and-soup combination. Unfortunately, the chicken in the flatbreads is fried unless you ask for it not to be. Our testers liked the roasted chicken flatbread with one slice of cheese and mushrooms. A cup of chicken soup was a bit salty and had mostly pasta and one tiny piece of chicken. Quiznos provides limited nutritional information on its Web site, advising consumers and the press to contact the company for more details. Repeated telephone calls and e-mails to the company were not returned.

Wendy's We tried Mandarin Chicken Salad, Chicken BLT Salad, Mediterranean Chicken Salad and Fresh Fruit Bowl. All were winners (even without the almonds or crispy rice noodles on the Mandarin Chicken Salad and even though one tester wished there were olives in the Mediterranean salad.) All ranged from about 220 to 680 calories. (Avoid the Homestyle Chicken Strips Salad, which has fried chicken tenders.)

Baked potatoes, mixed fruit cups, mandarin oranges and side salads are new options that can be substituted for fries in combo meals. The Ultimate Chicken Grill (360 calories) with a baked potato pleased our testers. Or make a meal out of the stuffed baked potato with cheese for 440 calories, 15 grams of fat (only three of them saturated and zero trans fats). ·

Share your tips or ask questions about healthy nutrition and activity when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club online chat, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. today, on www.washingtonpost.com. Can't join live? E-mail leanplateclub@washpost.com anytime. To learn more, and subscribe to our free e-newsletter, visit www.leanplateclub.com

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