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 their options more nutritious.
Some foods that fall into this category have more nutrients than others, so you can enjoy them in moderation.
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Eating fast food occasionally won't necessarily affect your health 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 fast foods.
Why Are Fast Foods Popular?
Americans enjoy 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 make these foods appealing.
At the same time, eating in sit-down restaurants can be expensive, and people prefer the taste of certain fast foods. The good news is that most fast-food restaurants now offer a variety of food choices beyond just burgers and pizza.
Potential Benefits of Fast Food
1. Availability of Nutrition Info
One benefit of fast food is the availability of nutritional information. The FDA requires that nutritional information must be listed for standard menu items in larger retail food chains. This includes information on calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar and protein.
You can typically find the nutrition info posted on menu boards as well as online on restaurant websites. Knowing the nutrition of the foods you're about to order can help you make more informed and health-conscious choices.
2. Changes in Cooking Techniques
Another positive change in the fast-food world is the availability of foods prepared using healthier cooking methods. For example, many fast-food eateries now include grilled chicken breast or broiled fish on their menu, rather than just deep-fried choices.
3. Nutritious Alternatives
More nutritious items are often available on fast food menus. Look for fresh salads, low-fat yogurt, fruit cups and wheat buns to replace some of the higher fat and lower fiber menu options.
Keep in mind that these options still have the ability to take a wrong turn when paired with less-nutritious selections, such as having fried chicken on your whole-wheat bun, high-fat salad dressing on your salad, or high-sugar candies mixed into your yogurt.
4. Children's Meals
Some restaurants now offer more nutritious, kid-friendly alternatives on their menus. For example, low-fat milk is an option for kids' meals in place of sugary sodas at some chains. You can also opt for apple slices instead of high-fat French fries in many cases.
Based on a survey of 1,980 participants, researchers concluded that seeing nutritional information encouraged parents to make better meal choices for their children, particularly those concerning fast food, per a June 2018 article in Nutrition Research and Practice.
5. They No Longer Have Trans Fats
Not too long ago, the trans fat in fast foods was a reason for concern. Trans fats are linked to higher levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and an increased risk of chronic disease, per the FDA. But in 2015, the FDA ruled that trans fats derived from partially hydrogenated oil be removed from all foods served in restaurants.
The Bottom Line
With a growing number of fast-food chains offering nutritious options for health-conscious eaters, 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. Still, you should be careful when making your choices, as even the seemingly healthy fast-food options can be paired with ingredients that aren't good for you.
- 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"
- FDA: Trans Fat
- USDA: 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans