Sure, we get it. You forgot to pack your lunch (again). Or your day was so frenzied that you simply didn’t have an ounce of energy left come dinnertime to broil some chicken — or assemble a salad out of all those lonely veggies sitting patiently in the fridge.
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But according to a survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 1 out of every 3 Americans are eating fast food every single day.
What’s the real harm?
“If you’re eating fast food with any sort of regular frequency, you’re typically going to be getting more saturated fat, more sodium, and more sugar than you would if were cooking at home,” says dietitian Lindsay Malone, MS, RD, CSO, LD.
Too much fast food is problematic, she says, not only because of what it contains — but also because of what it’s lacking in nutritional value.
“Typically, you’re not going to get a lot of fruits or vegetables, and what’s available will be lower in nutritional value,” she explains. “For example, iceberg lettuce has less nutritional value than some darker greens, like red leaf lettuce or kale.”
Most of the meals offered at fast-food restaurants are also quite a bit larger than the amount of food that most people would regularly eat, she notes. This typically leads people to eat more, simply because the portions are available to them.
Also, most fast foods are carbohydrate-rich with white, refined flours. This cause spikes in blood sugar, leading us to crash later in the day.
And then there’s what you’re drinking along with it. Many times, Malone says, the the biggest problem with fast food isn’t so much about what we’re eating. Rather, it’s what we’re drinking. For instance, a large soda can easily contain a couple hundred calories with zero nutritional value.
Here’s how to pick healthfully, if you must
If you’re in a situation where fast food is your only option, Malone suggests a few tips for making healthier fast food choices. Try a smaller portion size — like a children’s meal, swapping those fries for a side salad or baked potato. Choosing water or unsweetened iced tea instead of soda also helps limit the damage.
Plus, Malone says it’s important to realize that if we’re eating fast food all of the time, our bodies don’t function optimally.
“You’re going to have that after-lunch slump where you feel like you don’t want to do a whole lot, or you don’t have the energy to play with your kids,” she says. “So, you want to think about food as fuel for your body.”
Smart alternatives to the drive-thru
Of course, we all get into situations where we don’t have a lot of time. But Malone says the best way to avoid the pitfalls of the drive-thru convenience is to plan ahead and bring food items from home when we know that we’ll be running around.
And remember that when it comes to quick and convenient, there are other options available.
“Go into a local grocery store. Utilize their salad bar or their prepared foods section,” she suggests. “They’re going to have some healthier options that provide more nutritional value for the calories that you’re consuming.”