How To Eat Healthy at Fast Food Restaurants and Save Calories

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You are in a hurry and only have thirty minutes for a quick lunch. You zip through a fast food drive-thru and then feel guilty later when you realize you may have derailed your diet with hundreds of empty calories and loads of fat and sugar which will sideline your efforts for the next couple of days. You know what? It happens, so try to avoid beating yourself up over it. However, there are several steps you can take in order to make sure your next fast food lunch is a lot healthier and much lower in calories so you can stay focused and on track with your healthy nutritional regimen.

Making healthier choices at fast food restaurants may take some planning, but the rewards are worth the extra effort. Educate yourself about the calorie, fat, sugar and sodium content of different food choices at your favorite fast food restaurants since most of them will have printed brochures you can review before making a decision you might regret later. You can also find this nutritional information on the specific restaurant websites or on fitness websites like the fast food calorie facts right here on ShapeFit. One of the easiest ways to avoid extra calories, sodium, sugar and fat is to order from the heart healthy menu, if available. Many fast food restaurants now offer heart healthy alternatives that contain less fat, less sodium and far fewer calories than their main menu items.

Watch Out for Condiment Calories

Many sandwiches derive up to half of their high calories, fat and sodium content from the condiments they add to it! Ketchup, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise and that “special” sauce or salad dressing that tastes so delectable is usually riddled with tons of extra calories and sugar. Ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce contain fewer calories and fat than creamy sauces, but can add extra calories and sodium to your diet. Laying on the condiments can literally add hundreds of extra calories to your meal. Try to avoid condiments and flavor your burger or chicken sandwich with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles or any combination of these healthy items. Try to avoid adding extra sodium to your diet by choosing not to sprinkle extra salt on your food.

Cut Back on Condiments at Every Meal

Beware of hidden calories at the breakfast table also! That IHOP (or now “IHOB”) breakfast could easily rob you of a week’s worth of hard work in the gym if you’re not careful. You probably never really think about condiments at breakfast, but they can have an impact. The single tablespoon of butter you spread on your pancakes or toast adds more than 100 calories to your dietary intake for the day. A single tablespoon of strawberry jam can add up to 50 or more calories, depending on the brand and sweetening. A single serving of hollandaise sauce on your Eggs Benedict is more than 60 calories. If you are having pancakes for breakfast, you will add more than 410 calories per half-cup of maple syrup. Many nut spreads can also add hundreds of calories to your meal. Read the nutrition labels of all condiments and buy fat-free, low-calorie versions of your favorite condiments for home use but be careful of the overall sugar content in these items since many products will replace the fat calories with sugar to bring down the overall calories content.

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Your skinless baked chicken breast for dinner can pick up nearly 100 calories when you add a mere quarter cup of barbecue sauce. Cheese can count for more than 110 calories depending on the type. For example, one slice of cheddar cheese contains about 113 calories whereas a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese sprinkled over your sandwich or pasta adds a mere 20 calories. In addition to calories and fat, many condiments contain high fructose corn syrup.

You have probably figured out that ketchup contains about 15 calories per tablespoon, but did you know that many brands contain high fructose corn syrup too? Some condiments contain lots of calories and sugar, such as teriyaki sauce. Just three tablespoons of teriyaki sauce has 50 calories. Sour cream can add 80 calories to your meal. When buying condiments for home, select low-fat, low-sodium and sugar-free options.

Watch Out for Side Dishes

Side dishes, such as a salad, French fries, onion rings and chips can really pack on the calories, sodium and fat very quickly! If you eat a regular order of French fries, you are going to consume around 350 calories, 15 grams of fat and 250 mg of sodium. Depending on the restaurant and what type of oil was used to cook them, one side serving of onion rings can contain as much as 500 to 700 calories! Fried cheese sticks, even mozzarella, can have more than 230 calories. Any fried food is a bad choice for a side dish. That healthy salad can be a disaster to your diet if you pour on high calorie dressings, add bacon, cheese and croutons. Vinaigrette is the lowest calorie option, adding about 90 calories per 2 tablespoons. Honey mustard salad dressing can add 120 calories. Ranch and blue cheese dressings weigh in at a whopping 140 to 150 calories per 2 tablespoons. Skip the fried sides and choose salads with low-calorie dressing or a cup of fruit.

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Avoid Liquid Calories

Extra calories in your food is bad enough, but adding empty calories by drinking a sugary soda is worse! Drinks that contain lots of sugar are basically empty calories and spike your insulin levels due to the super high sugar content. They add calories to your diet, but provide virtually zero nutrients. Milkshakes not only contain hundreds of extra calories, they can also be loaded with fat and sugar. One 32 ounce soda can contain as many as 400 empty calories. Your best option is to drink water or unsweetened tea. Add some lemon to your water or tea and choose unsweetened diet drinks if you can’t stand water or tea. Low-fat milk is also an option instead of soda but you still need to watch out for the extra calories and sugar.

Always Read the Label

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the vast majority of Americans want to see more nutrition information on restaurant menus. As a result, most fast food restaurants now provide nutrition and dietary information. Make sure to always spend a couple of minutes and read the nutrition and calorie information on the menu if it is available. If the information is not displayed on the menu or on the counter, ask to see this information before you order. Find out what you are eating and how many calories, fat, sugar and sodium you are adding to your diet before you eat any fast food meal. The average American eats out about 4 times each week. It’s important for your health to really understand the compete macronutrient breakdown of the foods you eat. If your favorite fast food restaurant does not provide nutrition information, you can do a little research on the Internet or just download a diet tracking app on your phone for instant access. Don’t walk blindly into a diet busting calorie nightmare when you have to eat fast food for lunch, so make sure you find out the nutrition information before you pull into that drive-thru!

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About Author

Robin Reichert

I'm an AFPA certified personal trainer, AFPA certified nutrition consultant, NASM certified youth exercise specialist, online fitness coach and freelance writer specializing in health and fitness. I hold a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of San Francisco and a Master of Science in natural health. I'm also an active member of the world's largest association for fitness and wellness professionals. See my profile page for more information!

1 Comment

  1. I’m vegan so I have learned how to eat a bit healthier at many fast food restaurants. Taco Bell is the best! You can “fresco” anything (no cheese or sour cream). Then just add beans instead of meat if you want extra fiber and ask for extra lettuce, tomato and guacamole. At burger places, I get a junior burger, hold the patty, cheese, and mayo (yes, I get strange looks). I ask for extra lettuce, tomato, onions and sometimes extra guacamole too. McDonald’s guacamole is spicy! Just warning you 🙂

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