Secrets to reading the menu

Even though most fast food is bad for your health because of its high-fat, high-calorie and high-salt content, there are ways to eat a relatively healthful meal at a fast-food restaurant – if you know a few tricks.

When fast-food chains promote menu items as healthful, the claims are often exaggerated.
TRAP 1. Chicken meals. Chicken is frequently touted as a healthful alternative to beef – but beware of the preparation method. Example: Wendy’s Chicken Caesar Salad topped with Caesar dressing and croutons delivers 540 calories and 32.5 g of total fat.
Solution: Order Wendy’s Ultimate Chicken Grill Sandwich (with honey mustard sauce) at 211 calories and 7 g of total fat.
Another option: At Wendy’s, you can order a plain baked potato and top it with a small (three-ounce) order of chili, for a total of 350 calories and 2.5 g of total fat. Potatoes are a good source of potassium, which has been linked to reduced stroke risk.
Bonus: The fiber in the chili, mostly from beans, slows down the absorption of the sugar that naturally occurs in a baked potato. When sugar is absorbed too quickly, it leads to a spike in insulin (a blood sugar–reducing hormone). These surges in sugar and insulin create metabolic stress in the body.
TRAP 2. Salad dressing. The salad dressing used on a fast-food salad can add more calories than most people realize. Example: Without dressing, the McDonald’s Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy Chicken has 350 calories and 4 g of total fat. If you choose the Newman’s Own Ranch Dressing for the salad, it adds another 170 calories and 3 g of total fat.
Solution: Switch to Newman’s Own Low-Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing with 40 calories and 1 g of total fat.
TRAP 3. Calories from cheese. Many people forget about the cheese in fast foods. Example: Taco Bell’s Chalupa Nacho Cheese with beef, which is heavy on ground beef and cheese, contains 370 calories and 22 g of total fat.
Solution: Order items from Taco Bell “fresco” style – this means the food will be dressed with salsa instead of cheese and sauce. If you order Taco Bell’s Bean Burrito fresco-style (340 calories and 9 g of total fat), you’ll get a serving of beans, which contain protective antioxidants and help control appetite.
TRAP 4. No vegetables. Aside from a few salads, most fast-food restaurants do not offer any vegetables on their menus.
Solution: If you’re eating at Kentucky Fried Chicken, you can get a low-calorie, low-fat meal with a vegetable and legume by ordering a side order of corn (three-inch size, without butter) and baked beans. This combination contains 290 calories and 2.5 g of total fat.
Alternative: Order a six-inch Veggie Delite, made with Italian or wheat bread and no cheese or dressing (230 calories and 3 g of total fat), from Subway. With this sandwich, you can choose from a variety of vegetables to get a meal that contains antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Downsize, don’t supersize. A single serving at most fast-food restaurants provides enough fat and calories for two meals. To avoid this calorie load, order a child’s meal… or share one regular-sized food item while adding a side order of soup and/or a small salad.

Give up – or cut back – on soft drinks. If you drink a lot of soft drinks (typically 140 calories per 12-ounce serving), you can lose at least half a pound a week by simply drinking water, seltzer or unsweetened iced tea instead. As an alternative, consider adding a dash of Sprite, 7UP or lemonade to seltzer for extra flavor.

Helpful: If you must have a sweet, large-sized drink, fill the cup halfway with club soda or seltzer and the rest with your favorite soft drink – this cuts calories by 50%.
Caution: Avoid diet soda. It can trigger sugar cravings.

Like most fast-food eateries, a number of restaurant chains with table service also have added more healthful foods to their menus. Best options include…
Ruby Tuesday’s “Smart Eating” menu includes White Bean Chicken Chili. Calories: 223… total fat: 7 g.

P.F. Chang’s standard vegetarian menu offers a steamed Buddha’s Feast for a main dish. Calories: 200… total fat: 1.5 g.

Applebee’s Teriyaki Steak 'n Shrimp Skewers with Rice Pilaf and Vegetables. Calories: 370… total fat: 7 g.
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