Healthy Fast Food: Can You Indulge Without Guilt?

Last Editorial Review: 5/14/2003

More chains offering healthy fast-food alternatives

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael W. Smith, MD

With their ability to provide good-tasting, inexpensive meals in a hurry, fast-food restaurants have changed the eating habits of millions of Americans. Now there's something new on their menus: lower-fat and lower-calorie salads, sandwiches, and desserts that are both tasty and nutritious.

Wendy's has Garden Sensations salads, McDonald's has Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait, Burger King has a Veggie Burger, and Arby's has a Light Menu. Every month seems to bring an announcement of something new. Among the latest: Premium Salads with Newman's Own dressings at McDonald's.

Healthy fast food isn't a new idea. Several chains have long offered salads. McDonald's even introduced a McLean burger in the early 90s, but it didn't catch on. But nutritious fare now seems to be a trend, driven by hopes of greater profits, according to industry observers.

Chains hope that by targeting the growing number of health-conscious consumers -- namely, women -- they can bolster sluggish sales, says market analyst Walter Butkus, a partner in the firm Restaurant Research.

That said, he says that the chains aren't about to change their core menu of burgers and fries, and will continue to focus on their main customer base: men ages 18 to 24.

"They're not so worried about their health," Butkus says of this group. "They want cheaper eats that taste good and that they can get on the go."

But competition for those customers is stiff.

"The fast food business has matured," Butkus tells WebMD. "There's not much growth in sales or additional units, so they're offering add-on products like salads to appeal to women and people a bit older."

But just how healthy are these new offerings, coming from restaurants renowned for juicy burgers and deep-fried potatoes?

Jayne Hurley, a senior nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest who wrote a recent CSPI report on the best and worst fast foods, was pleased to find some truly healthy fast food. Her top picks are McDonald's Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait, Burger King's BK Veggie Burger and Chicken Whopper Jr., and Wendy's Garden Sensations salads.

"I never thought you'd find luscious strawberries and blueberries layered with low-fat yogurt and granola at McDonald's"

Here's her analysis of those dishes:

  • McDonald's Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait (380 calories, 5 fat grams, just 2 of which are saturated fat). "In my wildest dreams, I never thought you'd find luscious strawberries and blueberries layered with low-fat yogurt and granola at McDonald's," she says. "As opposed to some foods that just have an absence of bad, this has a lot of things that are good for you, and it's delicious as well." She cites the calcium in yogurt, the fiber and nutrients in fruit, and fiber in granola. Order the smaller snack size, and you cut the calories in half.
  • Burger King's BK Veggie Burger (330 calories, 13 fat grams, 2 of which are saturated fat). "It's the first time a major burger chain put a meatless sandwich on the menu," she says. "They deserve an enormous amount of credit for taking that step. Personally, I don't think it's the best-tasting veggie burger that's come down the pike, but once you put it between a bun with lettuce, tomato and all the other fixings, it's fine."
  • Burger King Chicken Whopper Jr. (370 calories, 23 fat grams, 3 of which are saturated fat). Hurley commends the sandwich for its true grilled flavor but cautions against ordering the full-sized version, which packs 580 calories.
  • Wendy's Garden Sensations (calories and fat vary). "Prior to these salads, fast food salads were iceberg lettuce with cheese on top," Hurley says. "Now Wendy's offers a base of dark leafy greens topped with interesting, high-end salad ingredients that make them more tempting."

Hurley also gives high marks to Subway, which, strictly speaking, is in the "quick casual" rather than fast-food restaurant category. She praises Subway for pioneering and promoting healthy, delicious sandwiches with fewer than 6 grams of fat.

Eating out used to be an occasional thing, but today Americans consume about one-third of their total calories in restaurants, says Margo Wootan, DSc, CSPI's nutrition policy director.

"Both adults and children eat about twice as many calories out compared to eating at home," she says. "And they eat more saturated fat, and less calcium, fiber, fruits and vegetables."

She says that healthy fast-food choices often are not obvious, and that consumers need information in order to make good decisions. "One of the policies we're working on is to get the chains -- both (sit-down) restaurants and fast food -- to list calories on their menus or menu boards," she tells WebMD.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokesperson, advises limiting visits to fast-food restaurants to a few times a week. "All foods fit, including an occasional burger and fries," she says. "You just can't be living there. Most of the time, try to fill up on salads or grilled chicken." Given the epidemic of obesity among children, Zelman advises parents to request healthy substitutions for kids' meals, like a small salad instead of fries. "You might have to pay a little more, but you don't have to get the standard kid meal," she says.

And by all means, the nutrition experts say, stay away from the chains' "value pricing" promotions, which offer huge portions for a few cents more than regular portions.

"Who doesn't like a bargain?" Hurley asks. "But once it's on your tray, it will probably make it to your mouth."

Future Fare

Of course, this latest healthy fast-food trend could end up going the way of the McLean burger, but industry observers say there are some promising signs.

"Garden Sensations probably accounted for 10 percent of Wendy's sales when it first rolled out early in 2002," Butkus says. "That could have been a honeymoon period, but everybody would like to have an extra 10 percent of sales. If this trend is successful, the chains will roll out more products, promote more chicken products and look for ways to make kids' meals healthier."

And there have been other developments, including:

  • In England, McDonald's offers a bag of apples and grapes to customers. The fruit can be purchased separately or substituted for French fries in Happy Meals.
  • McDonald's is testing all-white meat Chicken McNuggets.
  • Kentucky Fried Chicken will introduce more non-fried products.
  • Jack in the Box plans to open an "Innovation Center" in 2004 to develop lighter products to attract more female customers.
  • Fast-food chains are paying attention to the appeal of "quick casual" restaurants like Panera Bread, Cosi, and Au Bon Pain, that serve fresh, non-fried foods. Butkus says the fast-food chains might borrow menu ideas.
  • CSPI, noting the dangerous increase in obesity among children, is pushing the chains to stop targeting children with ads for unhealthy foods. "We'd like for them to be good corporate citizens," Wootan says, "but if not, we'd like the government to step in and limit the advertising to children of foods that are low in nutrition and high in calories, saturated fat and sugar."

One sure way to know what you're getting at the fast-food counter, nutrition experts say, is to consult the restaurant's nutrition guide. A little knowledge can help you plan your menu selections before you succumb to those yummy-smelling French fries.

These guides, provided by several fast-food chains, contain so much information that they can be daunting. But remember that you don't have to weigh every single value. Zelman advises making choices based on the number of calories and amount of fat. Simply seeing the difference between a Big Mac and a regular hamburger -- 590 vs. 280 calories, and 34 vs. 10 grams of fat -- might tip the scale when you go to place your order. And don't forget, you can ask for nutrition guides at the restaurants you visit, or find them online.

Published May 14, 2003.

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