In the summer of 2002 Caesar Barber, 56, a maintenance worker who tips the scales at about 270 pounds, claimed (Fast food Gang) McDonald’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken, were to blame for his obesity-related health problems. A diabetic, Barber has already suffered two heart attacks. How do the fast-food chains fit in?
Barber reportedly feasted at these establishments four or five times per week, even after his first heart attack. He says the fast-food franchises were negligent in informing him of the consequences of consuming their greasy, salty fare on a regular basis and he filed suit. Seem far-fetched?
“They never explained to me what I was eating,” Barber said on Good Morning America. His lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, followed up by clarifying that the multibillion-dollar junk food industry has an obligation to warn consumers of the dangers of eating from their menus.
Menus filled with food high in fat, salt, sugar, and saturated fat, despite studies that show a link between consuming such foods and obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancers, and high cholesterol. But before you laugh, remember Big Tobacco? No one suspected juries would one day award monetary compensation to smokers either.
We count on health departments to ensure sanitation in fast food restaurants but who’s looking out for our nutrition interests when it comes to the fare they serve? No one, according to legal experts. Lawyers have long been cooking up a strategy to hold the food industry at least partly responsible for obesity.
Three previous lawsuits alleging negligent or misleading practices in the food industry are already on the books. McDonald’s has settled a lawsuit and apologized for wrongly identifying its french fries as a vegetarian when they were actually cooked in beef tallow. A similar suit was filed against Pizza Hut for allegedly using beef fat in its Veggie Lover’s Pizza and a class-action lawsuit against the makers of the corn and rice puff snack food Pirates Booty is underway for significantly under-representing the product’s fat content.
Good, reliable information about what we’re being offered and are eating is virtually nonexistent. And if you’re eating out four times per week, which the National Restaurant Association says is average, it’s burger buyer beware since USDA surveys find that food eaten outside the home is nutritionally worse than home-cooked food in practically every way.
Seems meals eaten out are on average 20 percent fattier and 15 percent higher in saturated fat, which promotes heart disease. They’re also higher in sodium and cholesterol and considerably lower in calcium, fiber, and iron since they generally fall short in the fruit, vegetable, and dairy departments.
Healthy Fast Food
Are we destined to ban fast food forever for fear of needing not only a physician but good legal tender, too?
We asked Cindy Moore, M.S., R.D., an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman and director of nutrition therapy at Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “There are things you can eat under the classification of fast food that can still be healthy,” Moore says. But when we’re talking traditional fast foods: burger, taco, fried chicken and pizza joints, the choices may be limited. Look for these healthy staples:
- Grilled chicken sandwiches (hold the mayo)
- Salads (watch the dressing)
- Baked potato (topped with salsa or chili)
- Small plain hamburgers
- Chicken or bean burrito
- Veggie burger (available in select markets at Burger King and McDonald’s)
If you’re hitting the pizza parlor, order thin crust, whole-wheat if they have it and top your pizza with veggies. Ask for half the cheese to save on even more fat and calories. At a sandwich shop, snag the six-inch sub, not the foot long. Try lean turkey or roast beef between whole-wheat bread for more fiber. Either way, pile on extra vegetables. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people with the highest fruit and veggie consumption had the lowest risk of stroke and heart disease.
What about the nutritional values at each fast food eatery? They’re supposed to be available by law if the consumer asks to see them. Scan the wall by the counter. Some places post them.
otherwise, you’ll have to ask. What to check out? “We should be looking at the total calories and total amount of fat and possibly the fiber content,” Moore says. In terms of weight control, look for calories, fat, and calories from fat.
If no such calories-from-fat column exists, multiply the number of fat grams by nine (if 10 is easier to mentally calculate, try that). This gives you the number of calories from fat.
So, What figure signals a red flag?
Consider most women are eating somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 calories during their three daily meals (about 37 to 55 grams of fat), that’s roughly 500 to 650 calories and 12 to 18 grams of fat per meal. If your sandwich, side, and soda blow your counts for the entire day—and most will—you’re probably not making the healthiest choice. Look for meals that fall in the lower fat and calorie range.
“Also, most fast food meals are going to have sodium ranges into the thousands,” says Andrea Platzman, M.S., R.D., an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman in private practice in New York City. That’s just the nature of the fast-food beast. The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day—yet another reason to avoid regular consumption of the worst fast-food offenders. Scan the nutrition values for menu items with lower sodium counts. “I recommend drinking a lot more water on days that you are eating fast food to flush out the sodium,” Platzman says. Bottled water is becoming increasingly available at some franchises. Always opt for it. Soda is simply empty calories.
The numero uno fast food item to steer clear of is probably French fries. Fried onion rings are an unfortunate close second. Disappointing, we know. But since they’re fried, their fat, calorie, and saturated fat numbers are really astronomical. What about McDonald’s yet again changing their fry fat and cutting the saturated kind by 17 percent and trans-fatty acids in half, we ask hopefully? “I laugh about that because they got a lot of PR about it, but you know, it’s fried,” Platzman says. They’ll have the same amount of calories and fat.
No matter what they’re frying it in, it’s still a fried food. Basically they’re making an unhealthier choice a teeny bit better. Changing the oil is a move in the right direction, especially for a company whose virtual reputation is synonymous with French fries. Obviously, they’re not likely to switch over to say, carrot sticks any time soon. “It’s sort of their way of contributing to the health cause.” In terms of anyone running out for a daily fry fix since they’re “healthier” now—sorry, no dice.
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What else should we avoid like the deep fryer?
Leave the fried greasy shell from a taco salad behind. Remember it this way: inside, ok, shell, no way. Together the duo tallies 850 calories and 52 grams of fat, you’ll cut those numbers in half by forgoing the shell. Obviously skip the mayonnaise and special sauces that are likely mayo-based. Order sandwiches plain or with mustard only. Slathering your healthy grilled chicken sandwich with fattening mayo (the way McDonald’s serves it up) defeats the purpose.
Remember the fast-food slogan from Burger King, “Have it your way”? Take it to heart when ordering. Also, check that chicken sandwiches are indeed grilled. Some are fried or unbelievably breaded and then grilled, adding needless calories. Ask to be sure.
One pitfall of the fast-food salad is that it’s iceberg lettuce-based, not one of the most nutrient-rich produce items by a long shot. In order of ingredients, the McDonald’s Chef Salad, for instance, contains lettuce, julienne ham, turkey, chopped egg, cheese, chopped tomatoes, and green onion. “I’m assuming it’s in order of weight, which means it’s mostly going to be iceberg lettuce and the meats and very little veggies,” Moore says. Some of Wendy’s garden salads do include more vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots. A good strategy is to opt for the most vegetable-dense choices.
Still, salads are one of the healthiest options. Ask for low-fat or fat-free dressing, or choose vinaigrette over creamy varieties. If you don’t like the taste of fat-free, mix regularly with fat-free and you’ll still save some fat and calories.
Another item to steer clear of at the fast-food counter is the fish sandwich.
“I know fish is a big deal lately, but not at a fast food place,” Platzman says. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found women who down a higher intake of omega-3s, found in fatty fish, have a lower risk of coronary heart disease. Problem is, omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon and tuna, aren’t what’s being fried up for your filet of fish meal. Instead, these fish are white fish like flounder or fluke, not the kind that wards off heart disease. Besides that, they’re fried and they top the charts at 470 calories and 26 grams of fat. Need we say more?
Of course, the biggest, cheesiest double burgers topped with bacon are going to be the worst offenders when it comes to calories, fat, and saturated fat. Avoid supersizes or whatever phrasing is used. “Almost 100 percent of the time that implies a beverage that may be high in sugar. Usually, accompanied by a high calorie, high-fat side dishes like fries or onion rings and includes a large size sandwich,”. Moore says: “These meals provide many more calories and fat grams than people really need. We can be talking anywhere from about 800 to 1,700 calories per meal.”
Other keywords to watch out for: fried, cheesier, extra, breaded, value, more and bigger. “We need to look beyond the super value meal,” Moore says. “Although it may give us more food for our dollar, we have to look at where that food is going to lead us. It may just be an inexpensive way to become obese.” Take fries. Portion size keeps expanding.
In the 1950s and 1960s, McDonald’s had only one size of French fries. Equivalent to today’s small, it had about 200 calories. In the 1970s, according to Restaurant Confidential (Workman, 2002), McDonald’s introduced a 320-calorie large. But, as each decade makes way to the next, last decade’s large fry became this decade’s small. By 2000, the newest 7-ounce super size fry topped out at 610 calories. Wow!
The good, the bad and the really, really bad
Ironically, as consumers become more and more health-conscious, fast food restaurants have abandoned some of the improvements they started making in the early 1990s.
McDonald’s ditched its McLean Deluxe burger and switched from low-fat shakes and ice cream to full-fat versions. Taco Bell banished its Border Lights lower-fat menu and KFC abandoned Tender Roast rotisserie chicken—a non-fried alternative.
Now, until fast-food consumers demand a variety of healthier fare and follow up by buying it, these establishments will continue to offer the typically high-fat, high- calorie foods.
Because of folks like Mr. Barber, and lawyers who go out on a limb, one day we’ll read this on the boxes of big burgers and super-duper fries: WARNING: The Surgeon General advises that regularly eating high-fat, high-calorie fast foods can increase your risk for obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, and some cancers. Heck, is that such a bad thing?
Cheers and jeers for fast food eateries
Fruit ’n Yogurt Parfait (280 calories, 4 grams of fat)
Salad shaker garden salad (100 calories, 6 grams of fat)
Big Mac (590 calories, 34 grams of fat)
Supersize fries (610 calories, 29 grams of fat)
Large shake (1,010 calories, 29 grams of fat)
BK veggie burger (330 calories, 10 grams of fat)
Chicken club sandwich (740 calories, 44 grams of fat)
Double whopper with cheese (1,020 calories, 65 grams of fat)
Mandarin chicken salad (100 calories, 2 grams of fat)
Chili (210 calories 7 grams of fat)
Baked potato (310 calories, 0 grams of fat)
Grilled chicken sandwich (300 calories, 7 grams of fat)
Classic triple (1,030 calories, 65 grams of fat)
Chicken beef soft taco (210 calories, 10 grams of fat)
Bean burrito (370 calories, 12 grams of fat)
Mucho Grande nachos (1,320 calories, 82 grams of fat)
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Corn on the cob (150 calories, 2 grams of fat)
BBQ baked beans (190 calories, 3 grams of fat)
Tender roast chicken sandwich—no sauce (270 calories, 5 grams of fat)
Popcorn chicken (620 calories, 40 grams of fat)
Chunky chicken pot pie (770 calories, 42 grams of fat)
Pizza Hut (by the slice)
Hand-tossed veggie lover’s (180 calories, 5 grams of fat)
Stuffed crust meat lover’s (410 calories, 21 grams of fat)
Big New Yorker sausage (570 calories, 33 grams of fat)
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