Fast foods are often high in fat, calories and sodium. But nutrition statistics show Americans favor fast foods, and many restaurants have altered their menus to make these products more nutritious. Some foods that fall into this category are healthier than others, so you can enjoy them without the guilt.
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Eating fast food occasionally won't necessarily affect your diet as long as you avoid those that are high in calories and unhealthy fats. Pick whole foods over processed varieties and opt for raw greens and veggies whenever possible to get the most benefit from ready-to-eat foods.
Why Are Fast Foods Popular?
Americans have a fondness for foods that can be prepared and served quickly. The benefits of fast food are largely related to its convenience. Many people have a busy lifestyle and time constraints. Short lunch breaks, or getting the kids fed quickly and off to a baseball game, make these foods appealing.
Additionally, young people don't want to bother with food preparation and clean-up, so they choose fast foods as a replacement for home-cooked meals. Financial limitations can make eating in most restaurants too expensive. Sometimes, people prefer the taste of certain fast foods. The good news is that most dining venues now offer a variety of food choices beyond burgers and pizza, including ethnic cuisines, such as Mexican and Chinese.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in October 2018, found that the percentage of adults who consume fast food increases with higher family income but seems to decrease with age. The survey also indicates that men are more likely to eat fast food at lunch, while women prefer to eat fast food as a snack.
Potential Benefits of Fast Food
With a growing number of fast-food chains offering nutritious options for the health-conscious consumer, it's easier to take advantage of the convenience of prepared food without the excess calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar that give fast foods a bad rap. But you need to be diligent in your choices.
Eating the wrong ready-to-eat foods too often can lead to health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity, warns the Center for Young Women's Health (CYWH).
Not too long ago, the trans fat in fast foods was a reason for concern. However, in 2018, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that trans fats derived from partially hydrogenated oil be removed from all foods served in restaurants, according to the CYWH.
Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration states that nutritional information must be listed for standard menu items in larger retail food chains. This includes statements of calorie content for individual and combination meals. Other information, including total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar and protein, must be available upon request.
A June 2018 article in Nutrition Research and Practice has examined the influence of nutritional labeling on parents' food selection for their kids. Based on a survey of 1,980 participants, researchers concluded that the nutritional information encouraged parents to make healthier meal choices for their children, particularly those concerning fast food.
Make Fast Foods Healthier
While lower-calorie foods are not necessarily healthier, the calorie content can be helpful when deciding between fast food options. Keep in mind that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day for adult women and 2,000 to 3,000 for men, depending on age, sex and level of activity. Opt for foods that are low in saturated fat to keep your intake to less than 10 percent of your total calories.
If you're eating fast food more than once a week, try to choose from some of the healthier choices on the menu. The CYWH suggests some ideas that may help:
Salads are always a good choice, and most major fast-food chains offer many healthy combinations of leafy greens and veggies that contain vitamins A, C and K, as well as folate, iron and calcium, according to the USDA. Ditch the toppings and extras, such as croutons. Opt for oil-based dressings like Italian or balsamic vinaigrette instead of creamy salad dressings, such as ranch or blue cheese, which contain saturated fat.
It's OK to eat pizzas once in a while if you make it healthier by replacing meat toppings with vegetables, such as onions, tomatoes, spinach or artichokes. Order thin crust. It's also a good idea to skip the extra cheese option.
Hamburger fast food outlets are abundant and hugely popular. By ordering a grilled chicken sandwich with whole-wheat bread instead of a cheeseburger, you'll get more nutrients and fiber. Have a salad with light dressing as a side dish instead of fries. To cut back on carbs, skip the bun.
Read more: 10 Worst Fast-Food Burgers for Your Waistline
Subway sandwiches can be healthy if you choose a small sub with lean protein, such as grilled turkey. Load it up with plenty of vegetables and a light balsamic dressing or hummus.
According to the USDA, a six-inch Subway sandwich with turkey breast, white bread, lettuce and tomato has 270 calories, 583 milligrams of sodium and 0.88 grams of saturated fat. A six-inch Subway steak and cheese sub with lettuce and tomato, by comparison, delivers 448 calories, 1,090 milligrams of sodium and 5 grams of saturated fat.
Mexican restaurants offer fast foods, such as burritos and tacos, which can provide vitamins and antioxidants from vegetables, as well as protein from lean fish, chicken or beans. Pick low-fat cheese, salsa, sour cream or guacamole for the topping. A side of brown rice provides four times the fiber than white rice per cup, with a similar calorie content, according to the USDA.
Choosing healthy fast food options won't be beneficial if you eat too much, though. If your portion size is too large, pack it up, take it to-go and save it for another meal. Fast foods can only be as beneficial to your health as the wise decisions you're willing to make.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Fast Food Consumption Among Adults in the United States, 2013–2016"
- Center for Young Women's Health: "Fast Food Facts"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Questions and Answers on the Menu and Vending Machines Nutrition Labeling Requirements"
- Nutrition Research and Practice: "Parents' Meal Choices for Their Children at Fast Food and Family Restaurants With Different Menu Labeling Presentations"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Salad"
- USDA FoodData Central: "SUBWAY, Turkey Breast Sub on White Bread With Lettuce and Tomato"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Steak and Cheese Submarine Sandwich, With Lettuce and Tomato"
- USDA: "Nutrition Comparison of White Rice and Cooked Brown Rice"