Fast food doesn’t have to be a diet disaster

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BROOKINGS – Eating healthy can be tough, especially when on a tight schedule and fast-food is the only option. But fast-food doesn’t have to be a disaster for your diet. There are several tips, tricks and things to keep in mind that can make finding a healthy meal, even at a fast-food restaurant, a little bit easier. 

The Register talked to three local nutrition experts who offered advice to help you make wise choices when ordering. 

Find a balance 

A key part of finding healthy options while you’re sitting in a drive-through is taking a look at the meal as a whole. Then, you can assess what areas the meal is lacking nutritionally. 

“Focus on food group balance,” said Katy VanderWal, registered dietitian at Brookings Health System. “This can be hard at a fast-food place because many meals only include two or three food groups.”

But, small adjustments like ordering a parfait or side salad can help balance your meal by adding fruits and vegetables. Otherwise, the meal may contain only proteins, carbohydrates and fats and sugars.

“Look for ways you can add nutrient-dense ingredients to your meals,” said Jenna Christianson, a nutrition and exercise science graduate student at South Dakota State University. “Make vegetables the main star of your meal to ensure you’re consuming a variety of nutrients, eating an adequate amount of fiber and helping maintain a good blood sugar balance. 

“Next, prioritize consuming an adequate amount of protein along with healthy fats to help you fuel your body and also feel satiated longer when you’re at a fast-food place.” 

Be mindful of add-ons

Ordering a chicken sandwich is not always bad, and it might seem like a healthier option based off of calorie count alone. But, pieces of the puzzle that are often forgotten are the add-ons. These can come in many forms, such as ranch, mayo, dressings, extra cheese or bacon and they add extra calories and fats.  

“You have to watch the special sauces,” said Kendra Kattlemann, department head of health and nutritional sciences at SDSU. “They tend to rack up a lot of unnoticed calories.” 

Many fast-food places include the number of calories in each item on the menu board, but what these numbers fail to incorporate is the extra “stuff” we like to add to the entrée. 

“More or less, just be aware of what’s in what you’re having and also what you are adding to it,” VanderWal said. “For example, if you’re a French fry person and you add ranch, you might be adding 300 or 400 calories of ranch to your already 300 or 400 calories of fries.” 

Make minor switches

Don’t worry, eating healthy doesn’t mean doing away with burgers, sandwiches and fries and replacing them with salads every time. There are plenty of ways to still order those typically “unhealthy” meals, just with fewer calories.

“Hydrating with water is a go-to option versus sugar-sweetened beverages such a pop, iced tea and flavored milk,” Christianson said. “If you’re not in the mood for water alone, you can always ask for a lemon on the side, or unsweetened coffee and teas are always great options.” 

Grilled items are also generally a healthier option compared to their deep-fried or breaded counterparts, VanderWal said. Switching from fried chicken nuggets to grilled ones can make a major difference in the nutritional value of a meal.

“When ordering a pizza, try and get extra veggies or thin crust,” Kattelmann said. “Also, a tomato-based sauce will usually be better for you than an alfredo sauce. And getting a side salad with the pizza can help fill you up so you don’t eat half a pizza alone.”

As always, portion control and not over-eating is a great way to cut back on calories, along with keeping these tricks in mind, our experts advised. So next time think about how balanced the meal is, what add-ons to avoid and how to make small changes before ordering. 


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