Discovering the Healthful Side of Fast Food

Fast food can be good food. By choosing carefully, you can enjoy burgers while still meeting recommended daily dietary allowances for all important vitamins and minerals.

A fast-food burger on a bun, plus a salad and a small, low-fat milk shake, an 8-ounce cup of milk, a small cola, or plain old water may not sound like great nutrition, but the version served up in fast-food restaurants can actually be relatively low in fat and relatively high in valuable nutrients.

Choosing wisely at the drive-through

The greatest problem with fast food is very big servings. More food means more calories — and more you. Several people recently have filed lawsuits charging the fast-food restaurants made them overeat, which, in turn, made them overweight.

At least one such suit was tossed out of court, but that doesn’t mean another won’t be filed down the road. So the question of the day becomes, does a smart cookie like you check your brains at the door when you enter a fast-food restaurant — or do you have the intelligence to choose wisely regardless of where you plunk yourself down for a meal?

Eating smart is a skill you can exercise in any location. For example, Table 18-1 compares the nutrient values of three basic McDonald’s meals. All three meals derive about 30 percent of their calories from fat (although all three dish up about one-third the percent Daily Value for artery-clogging saturated fat).

Nutrient (% Daily Value) Burger, Salad, Milk (490 Calories) Burger, Salad, Parfait (520 Calories) Burger, Salad, Small Cola (540 Calories)
Calories from fat 33% 30% 26%
Saturated fat 30.5% 34% 29%
Cholesterol 16% 15% 13%
Dietary fiber 31% 31% 31%
Vitamin A 132% 155% 122%
Vitamin C 60% 67% 56%
Calcium 65% 45% 35%

McDonald’s Corporation, as of November 21, 2005

They’re relatively low in cholesterol and provide plenty of vitamin A, vitamin C, and bone-building calcium. And the servings are reasonable:

  • The burger is the basic, small, no-frills hamburger.
  • The salad is a Caesar salad (no chicken) with one packet of Newman’s Own low-fat balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
  • The parfait is the Fruit ’n Yogurt without granola.
  • The milk is an 8-ounce container of low-fat (l percent) milk.
  • The cola is a 16-ounce cup (small).

The initials DV stand for Daily Value, a nutritional guideline suggesting how much of each nutrient you need each day on a 2,000-calorie diet. Stop! Before you bite into that burger, remember that the following chart is only a guide.

Menus and ingredients may change, so check the nutrition brochure at your local burger haven, and do it every single time. You never know when something new will pop up on your plate.

Finding fast-food ingredient guides

Fast-food restaurants now make nutrition information available. McDonald’s even puts its numbers on the food wrapper. If your local eatery doesn’t have brochures on hand or post them on the wall, don’t be shy: Write, call, or click for a copy.

Note: Companies that don’t give you a mailing address usually have a “write us” e-mail form on their Web sites.

  • Arby’s
    Consumer Affairs Department
    1000 Corporate Dr.
    Fort Lauderdale, FL 33334
    Phone 800-487-2729
  • Burger King Corporation
    5505 Blue Lagoon Dr.
    Miami, FL 33126
    Phone 305-378-3535
  • Dunkin’ Donuts
    Consumer Care
    130 Royall St.
    Canton, MA 02021
    Phone 800-859-5339
  • McDonald’s
    2111 McDonald’s Dr.
    Oak Brook, IL 60523
    Phone 877-623-3663
  • Pizza Hut
    14841 Dallas Pkwy.
    Dallas, TX 75254
    Phone 800-948-8488
  • Subway
    325 Bic Dr.
    Milford, CT 06460
    Phone 800-888-4848 or 203-877-4281
  • Wendy’s
    Customer Service Department
    4288 W. Dublin-Granville Rd.
    Dublin, OH 43017
    Phone: 614-764-3100

Fingers too fatigued to troll through the separate sites? Check out Slide your mouse to the right side of the page and run it down the list of fast food restaurants. Choose one. Click. Choose your dish. Click. Up comes the most complete nutrition analysis known to man. Or woman.