You’re famished—or the family’s starving and clamoring for you to pull into the next fast-food drive-through or risk mutiny. Saying a reluctant yes to the double cheeseburger, fries, and biggie cola might make everyone happy…but get a grip. The wrong drive-through choices can rack up over a days’ worth of calories, fat, and sodium in a single meal…and raise everyone’s risk for overweight.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can emerge from the drive-through lane with delicious, satisfying food that will make you and your passengers happy—if you take advantage of healthier options offered by most fast-food chains these days…and if you know how to avoid added-calorie pitfalls.
Your choices do matter. In one 15-year-long study of 3,031 women and men, researchers found that those who ate at fast-food restaurants more than twice each week were ten pounds heavier than those who had fast food less than once a week. They were also twice as likely to have insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.
“It’s extremely difficult to eat in a healthy way at a fast-food restaurant. Despite some of their recent healthful offerings, the menus still tend to include foods high in fat, sugar and calories and low in fiber and nutrients,” says lead author Mark Pereira, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota.
Here’s how to avoid the 1,130-calorie milk shake, the 600-calorie fries and the 700-calorie burger…and instead get a meal that features lean protein, a healthy drink, and even fresh fruit and veggies. We’ve even got a strategy for enjoying fast-food classics without blowing your calorie budget.
Order a salad with broiled or roasted chicken.
Plenty of fast-food chains offer healthy, meal-size salads these days. Your job: Keep the saturated fat and calorie count reasonable by ordering yours with broiled or roasted chicken. Skip any crispy, batter-dipped, or fried toppings like fried chicken, bacon bits, croutons, huge amounts of cheese (a little’s fine) and crunchy noodles. Ask for low-fat dressing and only use half the packet. Here’s why: While a half-pack of fat-free dressing has about 35 calories, a half-pack of blue cheese delivers 180 calories—almost as much as the salad itself.
Love burgers? Ask for the smallest size—no cheese, double veggies.
Ordering a plain burger instead of a cheese burger saves you at least 50 calories, 40 of which come from fat. Ask for twice as much lettuce, tomato and onion (if you’re an onion-lover) and you’ve not only got a more satisfying sandwich, you’ve also just had an extra serving of heart-protecting, cancer-fighting veggies, too. Skip the special sauce or mayo—it’s packed with calories and fat you don’t need. (On one burger chain’s fried-chicken sandwich, the mayo sauce adds an extra 200 calories and 20 grams of fat!) Mustard, hot sauce, or plain ketchup are just as tasty but do minimal damage to your calorie budget.
Veggie burgers on the menu? Take advantage!
Only a few chains offer veggie burgers, and some do so only in certain markets. If you can find one, give it a try. Order it well-done for best flavor, skip the cheese and you’ve got a higher-fiber alternative to the standard beef burger.
Chili? Go for it.
A small chili has got fewer calories—about 200—and less fat than a small burger or bite-sized fried chicken nuggets.
Drink water, unsweetened iced tea or low-fat milk.
A large soda carries a big calorie price tag: at least 400 calories! Getting bottled water helps keep you hydrated; unsweetened tea does, too. Need something more substantial? Order fat-free or 1% milk. It adds about 100 calories to your meal’s total, but provides a substantial serving of bone-building, blood-pressure lowering calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and potassium.
Resist the siren call of the milkshake
One famous chain’s 32-ounce, extra-thick shake packs 1,130 calories! Even a 12-ounce version has over 400 calories.
Scout for healthier sides.
Try a small vegetable salad or a fruit-and-nut salad with your burger instead of fries. But think twice about the baked potato—cheese sauce or sour cream add hundreds of extra calories. Ask for a plain spud, and doctor it up with a shake of salt and pepper.
Walk into a deli or sub shop instead.
Sometimes, waiting in line at the drive-through’s no time saver. Why not park the car and walk into a deli—then ask for a turkey on whole-wheat with lettuce, tomato, and mustard? You’ll get several grams of fiber in the bread, healthy protein in the turkey, and almost no saturated fat—for a sandwich that clocks in at about 350 filling calories. Bonus points: Enjoy it with a small fruit salad or a banana and a bottled water or unsweetened tea.
Skip these calorie traps
Avoid anything with the words “big,” “double,” “triple,” “king,” or “supersized.” A double cheeseburger packs nearly 700 calories; a triple, over 1,000. At one chain, a double quarter-pound cheeseburger has got a half of a day’s calories (730) and nearly a day’s sodium: 1,330 mg. Another popular chain’s whopping big double burger with cheese has 1,060 calories.
Medium, large, or supersized fries.
Love fries? Resist the urge to go big. A “large” order has about 500 calories and a king-size, 600. If you’ve gotta have fries, make it a special once-a-month treat and go for the smallest possible portion of salty, greasy fried potatoes. At most chains, it packs about 250 calories.
Crispy chicken…or fish.
If it’s battered and fried, it’s got tons of calories and fat—even if there’s no bun. While a small order of bite-sized chicken bits has about the same calories as a small plain burger, it can pack nearly twice the fat. (Even a fancy grilled chicken sandwich has more calories than a burger if you get it with sauce and a big bun.) Think twice about the fish, too—nearly all fast-food fin-wiches are fried. The most basic has about 100 more calories than a small burger and twice the fat; bigger, fancier versions have double the calories you’d get in a regular burger. The bottom line: A salad’s still the healthiest option, hands down.
Chains now offer smaller, snack-sized versions of many menu choices. But they’re no healthier and not much lower in calories because they often feature fried foods and high-fat dressings. One chain’s snack-size chicken wrap sandwich has 330 calories—more calories than a day’s worth of snacks, plus 16 grams of fat.
Late-night drive-through binges
Lately, many chains are advertising that their drive-up windows are keeping late hours—and inviting customers to eat a ‘fourth meal’ of the day. Another would text-message late-night menu deals right to your cell phone. Resist! Late-night recreational eating’s a great way to gain weight. And when you’re tired and it’s dark, you may feel more uninhibited and order big. If you’re truly hungry at night—or work a late shift and need a fast-food meal—play by healthy drive-through rules. You’ll be glad you did—and so will your waistline.
Any food that might be high-calorie, if you don’t know for certain.
It’s easy to underestimate the calorie count of a fast-food meal. When researchers quizzed 300 people about how many calories were in the lunch they had just eaten, diners at one chain said 670 when they had really gotten 710. Most chains don’t post calorie counts where you can see them, but they should be able to provide them if you ask (and you can also find them online at the chain’s website.) “It is important to watch carefully what you eat, especially at a fast-food restaurant,” says Gina Wei, M.D., of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and another researcher on the fast-food/weight study. “Knowing the nutritional content is important. Consumers may want to ask for this information.”