Amid reports that one of McDonald's kale salads contains more calories, fat and sodium than a Double Big Mac, some consumers may be wondering if it's possible to make healthier fast food choices without some sort of nutritional science degree.
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Although Dietitians of Canada recommends people cut down on the number of times they eat out and try to prepare food at home more often, the group offers some simple tips for eating healthier in fast food restaurants.
"The most important thing that we tend to focus on is how to make best choices wherever you find yourself," says Kate Comeau, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the organization. "What is the kind of nourishing food that I want to be putting in my body and how close can I get to that at the restaurant that I'm at?"
Get the nutrition facts
Nutrition information for each menu item is increasingly available online for larger restaurant chains, Comeau says. It's usually available in the restaurant as well, although you may have to ask for it.
An easy way to interpret that information at a glance is to look at the sodium and saturated fat daily intake percentages. More than 15 per cent of the recommended daily intake is considered high for both sodium and saturated fat, she says, so try to order something with a lower percentage.
When comparing fast food choices, salads usually provide more nutrients, vitamins and fibre than a burger, even if they both have similar calories and fat, Comeau says.
But "salads aren't created equally," she warns. Take a look at the toppings (e.g., deep-fried croutons or noodles, lots of cheese, bacon bits) that can be nutritional pitfalls, as well as the amount of salad dressing. Comeau suggests getting the dressing on the side so you can add a smaller amount to limit the amount of fat and sodium.
Get a glass of water with your meal, Comeau recommends.
"Sometimes we're thirsty and so we keep eating," because we often mistake thirst for hunger, she says. Water or milk are much healthier fast food beverage choices than pop or iced tea.
Enjoy your meal
Comeau says noisy fast food environments can distract people from paying attention to their meal and listening to their bodies when they feel full.
"Focus on what you're consuming, tasting the food you're consuming and chewing slowly so that you're enjoying the food that you've ordered," she says. "We're often not mindful of the things that we are consuming, so we either over-consume or we're left feeling unsatisfied and then looking for snacks [later]."
Visualize the portions
In a balanced meal, half your plate should be filled with vegetables, one-quarter of it with protein (meat, fish, tofu) and one-quarter grains, Comeau says. It's sometimes possible to maintain that rule when eating out, especially in places like Thai restaurants, which offer vegetables.
If you're eating in a fast food restaurant that simply doesn't have those options, Comeau recommends looking at nutritional balance over the course of the entire day. If you ate a burger for lunch, have a big salad for dinner at night, or grab a bag of mini carrots at the grocery store to eat at work.
It's also important to be conscious of portion sizes, Comeau notes. If you're eating at the sandwich place in the food court, keep in mind that a large panini is often four servings of grains rather than the recommended two per meal. If you've got a large sandwich or burrito, consider wrapping up half of it for later and eating almonds or yogurt to round out the meal.
Use nutrition apps (but with caution)
Apps can be helpful to track the nutritional value of what you're eating, Comeau says, but she warns users to be aware that some are based on user-generated data and the information could be incorrect.
"I've definitely had clients bring me food journals that have been out of whack," she says. "When we look[ed] more carefully, there [were] mistakes within the data itself."
As with any other app that collects personal information, Comeau cautions users to be aware of where their data is going and with whom it's being shared.
She also warns against being obsessive about nutrition tracking apps. "It can become overwhelming for people, especially if they're using it all the time," she says, noting their value is in providing insight so people can reflect on their overall eating patterns.
"It doesn't need to be an every day, to the exact gram [thing]," Comeau says. "It's more of a big picture tool."