Fast Food: A Nighttime Trend? (cont.)

To fight this trap, Farrell says, "Really preplan. Have a balanced breakfast and lunch." Even eating an afternoon snack will help to curb the excessive night hunger that leads to fatty food cravings.

Working a late shift may complicate dinner planning. But preparing at least a couple of meals ahead of time on Sunday will cut down on fast food during the week. "Plan ahead and know what you're having for dinner before you walk in the door at night," Farrell says. "If you come home from work and say, 'What am I going to have for dinner?' chances are you're not going to take the time to run to the store and get some chicken or fish to grill. You just want something quick."

Emotional Eating

What about people who make a night run to the nearest burger joint for emotional reasons? "It's a very challenging habit. It's difficult for people to break that," Jamieson-Petonic says. Finding another activity -- such as taking a walk or exercising at home -- can help.

"The biggest key is to have a plan in place," Farrell says, "to come up with activities other than food." To that end, she helps clients to map out an agenda -- hour by hour, for an entire evening -- so that they don't resort to eating. They read, take a bubble bath, organize photo albums, or do sewing projects, she says. They may even call a friend to ease loneliness.

When it comes to food, Farrell says, "Really, at the end of the day, we should be winding down. That's not when we should be fueling up."

Making Healthier Food Choices

If you do go to fast-food restaurants at night, Farrell says, "Be proactive and make a healthy compromise. A lot of fast-food restaurants do offer lower-fat options these days."

For example, pick a salad, but don't pour the dressing liberally. "There are normally three or four servings in a packet. It can be as much fat and calories as a very high-fat burger," Jamieson-Petonic says. Instead, keep dressing on the side and use your fork to sprinkle it onto the salad.

If you're craving something heartier, take a cue from the renegade cows that appear in Chik-fil-A commercials: "Eat Mor Chikin." A grilled chicken breast sandwich -- not fried chicken -- is a healthy choice, especially if you hold the mayo and request a whole-wheat bun and lettuce and tomato, Jamieson-Petonic says.

"Chili is also a really good choice," she says. "It's a good source of protein and a great source of dietary fiber." A baked potato also makes good nutrition sense as a source of complex carbohydrates and fiber if you eat the skin, she adds. "But I'd say go easy on the butter and sour cream."

Substitutions can help, too. For example, Taco Bell offers a fresco-style option to replace sauces and cheese with salsa in tacos or burritos.

Keep a Watchful Eye on Ads

Even when you're bombarded with advertising, it's always smart to keep one eye on the hard nutrition facts, which can be found on the chains' web sites.

For example, KFC offers a smaller-size "Snackers" chicken sandwich. McDonald's introduced its "Snack Wrap" -- fried chicken, cheese, lettuce, and ranch dressing rolled into a tortilla. "These smaller items are designed for people on the go. Portable food is big because people want to grab something and be on their way," Cebrzynski says. What's more, their small size tempts people to buy more than one.

But smaller doesn't always mean better. The Snack Wrap's 330 calories are lower than the 420 calories in a Premium Grilled Chicken Classic Sandwich. But Jamieson-Petonic says the Snack Wrap has more fat -- 16 grams of total fat compared to 9 grams of fat in the chicken sandwich.

"I was thinking, "A Snack Wrap, this is going to be something lower in fat and healthier,'" she says. "That's not necessarily so."

Published Oct. 9, 2006.

SOURCES: Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. Gregg Cebrzynski, marketing editor, Nation's Restaurant News. Will Bortz, Taco Bell spokesman. Bob Bertini, Wendy's spokesman. Danya Proud, McDonald's spokesperson. "Technomic Top 100 Company US Sales Trends, 2005," Technomic, Chicago. McDonald's web site. Schlosser, E. Fast Food Nation, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

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