Just in time for American Heart Month, the latest fast food buzz is making my R.D. heart swell with joy: Lower-calorie menu options are driving sales, according to a five-year study of 21 major fast food chains. To put this into perspective: French fry sales from the largest chains declined by 50 million servings.
While this appears to be good news, calories aren’t the only thing that count when making on-the-go food choices. Feel empowered to make even healthier selections by following these tips:
1. Consider your waist and your heart: A recent Spanish study found no association between fried food consumption and the risk of coronary heart disease. Criticisms on this research have ranged from claims that American restaurants tend to reuse oil, which increases the likelihood of trans fat formation, to the fact that we can’t draw comparisons between the typical American and Mediterranean diets. When it comes to weight loss, this simple fact holds true: Fried foods absorb fat during the cooking process and contain more calories. And, just as a chicken nugget coating gets crispy, saturated and trans fats can harden your arteries and decrease the elasticity needed to pump blood to your heart.
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2. Watch the sodium: Current dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day (which is equivalent to 1 teaspoon), while the American Heart Association says to max out at 1,500 mg. Last year, I was asked to review under-500 calorie choices at California Pizza Kitchen and learned that nearly all but one of the soups and salads (including half-portion salads and cup-sized soups) had more than 500 mg sodium per serving, with one bowl of soup boasting 1,354 mg—hello, bloat! Too much salt will contribute to fluid retention and puffiness, which is undesirable all around—especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
3. Skip the drive-thru: This concept is the opposite of how I counsel anyone to eat a meal. Your brain needs about 20 minutes to receive the satiety signals that let you know you’re full. Sit down at a table to eat, portion your food attractively onto a plate, and turn off any distraction that might contribute to overeating (like texting about who is getting kicked off The Bachelor). Take your time chewing so you can actually taste what’s going into your mouth and enjoy every single bite.
4. Protect your frame: Excessive protein, caffeine, and sodium (translation: double burger, diet soda, and fries) can negatively impact your bone mass, which peaks around age 18 and stops building at age 30 for women. Remember, when you drink diet soda to cut calories, you’re also displacing other nutrient-rich choices that do your body—and bones—good.
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5. Stay focused: Read the menu or visualize one entree item you’re really craving before you go to the restaurant, then what a healthy portion looks like. When you arrive, plan to consume the serving size that you pictured and request a healthy side dish with it so you won’t be tempted to order or consume more than you intended.
I admit: I went to Burger King just last week. After passing security in the airport, the only “restaurants” in my terminal were BK, Pizza Hut, a typical newsstand, and a cold to-go station laden with sugary yogurt parfaits and torpedo-sized sandwiches with more bread than filling. I joined the Burger King line and asked for a low-fat milk (yes, the ones that are meant to accompany a kid’s meal). “That’s it?” the cashier asked. “That’s it,” I replied. Then I pulled an apple out of my purse, bought some almonds at the newsstand, and sat down at my gate to my mini-meal before boarding.
Thérèse Bonanni, R.D., C.D.N., is a New York City-based clinical dietitian, nutrition counselor, freelance writer, and recipe developer and former editor for Prevention magazine. She created and developed recipes for The O2 Diet, Slim Calm Sexy Diet, and The New You and Improved Diet books, which have appeared on The Rachael Ray Show and Access Hollywood. Her work has appeared in Women's Health, Men's Health, and other national media outlets. Contact her @TBonanniRD.