Fast food is often deemed the single biggest reason Americans are overweight. Nutritional analyses show many items, indeed, are higher in calories, sodium, fat and cholesterol. But experts note that doesn't necessarily mean fast food is bad, only that people should take care to fit the items into balanced, healthy diets.
One way is by ordering more carefully. A growing number of establishments have noticed that consumers are more health-conscious and are tailoring their menus accordingly. The experts say ordering burgers and sandwiches without mayonnaise, focusing on smaller portions or opting for items like chili or a salad as a side dish, can cut caloric intake, fat and cholesterol without completely sacrificing enjoyment.
The Minnesota Attorney General's Office offers examples in its guide “Fast Food Facts,” which tracks the nutritional value of menu items in the most popular fast food restaurants. The guide reveals a combination meal from KFC consisting of two pieces of fried chicken (breast and wing), a buttermilk biscuit, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn-on-the-cob and a 16-ounce soda has 1,232 calories, 57 grams of fat, 157 milligrams of cholesterol and 2,276 milligrams of sodium. That's all the sodium one needs in a day, and more than half of the calories, fat and cholesterol.
Contrast that with an alternative consisting of a wing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw and a 16-ounce diet soda. The healthier selection has only 373 calories, 19 grams of fat, 46 milligrams of cholesterol and 943 milligrams of sodium.
Similar savings can be achieved with a traditional meal of burgers and fries. A quarter-pound cheeseburger, large fries and 16-ounce soda from McDonald's has 1,166 calories, 51 grams of fat, 95 milligrams of cholesterol and 1,450 milligrams of sodium. That's about half the calories, one-third of the cholesterol and all of the fat and sodium one needs daily.
Contrast that to ordering a plain McDonald's hamburger, small fries and a 16-ounce diet soda. The combination has 481 calories, 19 grams of fat, 30 milligrams of cholesterol and 665 milligrams of sodium.
Some fast food items can't be slimmed down. The fragrant Cinnabon cinnamon rolls that have become staples of shopping malls and airports feature margarine and cream-cheese frosting over dough -- a combination that totals 670 calories, the equivalent of three Pepperidge Farm cinnamon rolls.
A single slice of original cheesecake from the popular restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory totals 710 calories. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer advocacy group known for aggressive critiques of restaurant food, says its nutritional analysis shows the cheesecake slice has the same amount of saturated fat as a Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza and two Dairy Queen Banana Splits.
Large portions also distort fast food calorie counts. Most fruit and spice muffins found in delicatessens or restaurants weigh 4 ounces or more and have upward of 430 calories, depending on the flavor. The Center for Science says that's double the FDA's “official serving” of 2 ounces, which would total 190 calories.
“The food industry is selling food in larger portions,” says Marion Nestle, chairman of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. “It's a great sales technique. People buy larger sizes because they perceive them as food value. If they're going to spend all this money on food, especially in a restaurant, they figure they might as well get a lot to eat.”
Though most appear happy with the big portions, a few people are mounting a backlash against convenience food. A group of left-leaning European gourmets founded a movement known as Slow Food in the late 1980s that emphasizes simple, natural foods -- slices of mozzarella cheese, fresh tomatoes, ripe olives and homemade jams -- over heavily processed, mass-marketed items.
The movement -- which preaches eating better-balanced meals, sometimes over a couple of hours -- publishes cookbooks and guides to food, wine and travel from its headquarters south of Turin, Italy. While it doesn't depict itself as strictly a healthy alternative, the movement is gaining followers throughout Europe and North and South America.
“We're fast losing our grasp on the real things in life,” says member Darina Allen, who runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland.