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Fast-Food Healthy Hacks

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Whether it’s a busy day running errands or rushing around to make it on time for your kids’ extracurricular activities, we can all relate to needing a quick bite to eat while on-the-go. When you’re hungry and time is limited, the flashy bright signs of fast-food restaurants beckon you with a convenient, relatively inexpensive meal. In fact, fast-food consumption statistics show the United States consumes the most fast-food in the world. It is estimated over the course of an adult American’s life, they will spend around $70,500 on fast food or take-out meals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the average burger in the 1950s weighed 3.9 ounces, which is not much bigger than sliders today weighing 2.2 ounces. Today’s fast-food burger has quadrupled in size at a whopping 12 ounces with a serving size of fries ballooning from 2.4 ounces to 6.7 ounces. Supersizing options and extravagant additions such as bacon, cheese and various sauces on sandwiches have not only increased the calories in fast-food meals but include more sodium and saturated fats than ever─with some sandwich combinations exceeding calories, sodium and saturated fats recommended for an entire day. We also cannot discount the increase in sugar consumption with staggering soda serving sizes increasing from 7 to 42 ounces.

The good news is with nutritional knowledge comes power to make healthier choices, which is a win-win for your health. In addition, the restaurant industry continues to provide even more healthy alternatives.

Try these tips for navigating fast-food menus to make healthier choices on-the-go.

Know before you go
Many restaurants provide their menus and nutrition information online. Reviewing the menus of specific restaurants before you pull up to the drive-thru can help you formulate a plan of action to make healthy choices. Remember, failing to plan is planning to fail. Before you arrive at the restaurant or drive-thru, decide what you are going to order to prevent hunger getting the best of you.

Aim for balance
Add color to your meal with salads and fruit. You can easily substitute fried food options with these healthier sides. You can also opt to bring your own fruit or side salad from home.

Down size portions
Portion control is key. Instead of supersizing, try splitting larger portions with your dining partner or even order items off the kid’s menu.

Avoid drinking your calories
A large soda can contain 400-500 calories and a milkshake can have more than 650 calories. If you’re craving something more than water to quench your thirst, order low-fat milk, unsweetened tea or sugar-free soft drinks and skip the high-sugar lemonade, juices and milkshakes.

Be mindful of tasty additions
Any additional toppings ordered also mean additional calories. Try skipping the cheese, fried onions and bacon and order sauces on the side to control calorie consumption. Instead, order extra veggie toppings such as lettuce, tomato, onion or jalapeños to give your entrée a nutritional, flavorful boost.

Build a better salad
When you make a trip to the salad bar, pile on a variety of fresh colorful fruits and vegetables. Kidney and garbanzo beans make for nutritious additions. Limit sour cream or mayonnaise-based foods, such as potato salad and coleslaw, and sparingly use creamy dressings, croutons, cheese and high-fat meats like bacon and salami.

Try to avoid falling into high-calorie pitfalls where salads are served in deep-fried shells or topped with breaded or fried meats. Instead, load your salad with healthy lean proteins like chicken, shrimp, fish, turkey or soy-based items such as tofu.

Add healthy fats including nuts, seeds, oil and avocados to your salad in moderation. To top off your nutrient-rich salad, choose a flavored vinegar with a small amount of oil or reduced-calorie or fat-free dressing. If only regular-calorie dressings are available, limit your serving to 1-2 tablespoons.

Slice up your pizza portions
Having an entire box of pizza at your fingertips can tempt you to derail your healthy eating plan and portion control. When ordering pizza, go light on the cheese and heavy on the vegetables and tomato sauce. Opting for a cauliflower or chickpea crust can also help cut back on calories and extra carbohydrates. Eating a salad first can also help fill you up before you dive into your pizza.

Opt for plant-based
Many restaurants offer vegan or vegetarian plant-based options. Consider ordering a plant-based burger instead of a beef patty while still being mindful of calories, sodium and fat content. 

While the convenience of fast-food can make healthy eating habits challenging, there are still many practical ways to make healthy nutrition choices on-the-go. It is important to remember to give yourself grace when you’re short on time and healthy eating options are limited. Moderation and sustainability is the foundation for any healthy eating plan. It’s not what you do on occasion, but the healthy choices you make every day that count. Remember healthy eating plans are not about deprivation, but liberation through moderation.

To schedule a one-on-one consultation or learn more about Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, visit or call 972.560.2655.

Article provided by Patty Kirk, RDN, LD, and Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services.