Do busy days and evenings lead you to pull through a drive-thru for dinner? Fast food restaurants can be a quick, easy and inexpensive way to get food in your and your family's bellies. But, convenience comes with a few risks as well.
Read below to learn what fast food really is, what's in it and some potential benefits and risks that come with eating your favorite drive-thru meals.
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What Is Fast Food?
Fast food is any restaurant or store that requires customers to select, order and pay for their food items before receiving them, according to the USDA.
It's typically thought of as food meant to be eaten quickly, with food being provided instantly or within a matter of minutes.
"In a post-pandemic world, fast food seems to be any quick-casual dining establishment where you can order food without sitting down, have it delivered, or order takeout," says Caroline Thomason, RD, a Northern Virginia-based dietitian who helps people stop dieting find confidence with food.
Here are some well-known restaurants considered to be fast food:
- Taco Bell
- Panda Express
- Wing Stop
- Boston Market
What's in Fast Food?
While some fast food chains like Chipotle or Panera offer nutritious options like vegetable-packed burrito bowls and salads, most fast food menu options include items such as deep-fried chicken or fish, french fries, burgers and sandwiches.
There's a good reason for it too, even if it isn't the best for our health. "The goal is to get food into a person's hands (or belly) as quickly as possible, and oftentimes, in the most economical way possible," says Lauren Manaker, RDN, LD, registered dietitian and author of Fueling Male Fertility.
"Deep frying foods like chicken tenders, french fries or fillets of fish is highly repeatable and efficient from a restaurant standpoint. The restaurant is easily able to feed their customers without long wait times," says Thomason.
When it comes to nutrients, fast food is typically higher in sodium, added sugars, fat and starches, Thomason says.
From french fries to salad dressings, sodium finds its way into fast food choices in alarming amounts. "Sodium is found in many fast food items because it adds flavor and many people enjoy that taste," says Manaker.
Salt also acts as a preservative, helping to keep food from spoiling.
And if you think you know how much salt is in your food, you probably need to guess higher. Ninety percent of adults underestimated the amount of sodium in their meals by more than 1,000 milligrams, according to a June 2017 study in Appetite. And FYI, you only need a maximum of 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Added Sugars and Refined Carbohydrates
What goes best with a burger and fries? A soda, of course — and with a large cola, you could be racking in 77 grams of added sugars. That's 50 percent more than the recommended limit for added sugar of 50 grams per day, per the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Beyond soft drinks, fast food is often high in added sugars and refined carbohydrates from the buns, breading, deep-fried potatoes and desserts.
"Fast food can be high in saturated fat, thanks to the nature of the foods that are oftentimes served, like cheeseburgers, fried chicken and french fries," says Manaker. While some foods naturally contain saturated fat, like beef burgers and chicken patties or nuggets, they're also fried in oil.
The USDA recommends only 10 percent of your calories come from saturated fats each day. For a 2,000-calorie diet, the limit would fall at 22 grams per day. A McDonald's Quarter Pounder With Cheese and medium fries have 14 grams of saturated fat total, or 73 percent of the recommended daily value.
Even if the restaurant uses unsaturated fat to fry their food (which many eateries do), fat is 9 calories per gram and can cause the calories of the food to add up quickly.
Pros and Cons of Fast Foods
While fast food is often talked about in a negative way, especially in the health community, there are some pretty significant benefits of fast food for you to consider.
"If a person knows how to navigate a fast food menu, it can be a nice solution for busy people," says Manaker.
Most fast-food establishments have jumped on the trend and are beginning to offer more nutritious options for their health-conscious consumers. As of 2020, trans fats were removed from the food supply, per the 2015 ruling by the FDA. You can also find nutrition information online for foods from chain fast food restaurants to help make more informed choices.
Along with the positives are plenty of potential negative effects to eating fast food — think: taking in harmful nutrients, not getting enough healthful nutrients and even the coating on the wrappers.
"High fat, high sodium and high-calorie diets may have negative consequences on your health if consumed regularly," says Thomason. Regularly eating fast food is linked to an increased risk of death from heart disease and type 2 diabetes, per a July 2012 article in Circulation.
"Many fast food options are extremely low in whole grains, fruits and veggies, which are foods that many Americans have trouble getting enough of," says Manaker. If you rely on fast food for several meals each week, you'll miss out on the opportunity to eat more nutritious options.
Then, there's the potential concern for chemicals from wrappers leaching into the food.
"Recent data suggests that many fast food wrappings contain 'forever chemicals,' which can be a concern," says Manaker. These "forever chemicals" are per- or poly-fluorochemicals (PFCs). Exposure to these chemicals is linked to negatively affecting reproductive health, growth and development and liver injury, but more research is needed to confirm these findings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- USDA Economic Research Service: "ERS’s Updated Food Environment Atlas Shows an Increase in Fast Food Restaurants Between 2009 and 2014"
- Appetite: "Consumer underestimation of sodium in fast food restaurant meals: results from a cross-sectional observational study"
- McDonalds: "Quarter Pounder BLT"
- FDA: "Trans Fats"
- Circulation: "Western-Style Fast Food Intake and Cardiometabolic Risk in an Eastern Country"
- CDC: "Perfluorochemicals (PFCs)"