A study published in the British Medical Journal found that only 15 percent of diners order healthier options at fast food establishments. And in a recent article in Medical News Today, the CEO of the company that runs Hardee's and Carl's Jr. noted that while his restaurants do offer salads and turkey burgers, the best-seller at Hardee's is the Thickburger, served up with two types of cheese, fried onions, mayo, and nearly half a pound of beef.
Based on the data it seems that many consumers don't even enter fast food restaurants when they want a healthier meal, and only one in six pay any attention to the nutrition info the chains must now make available. This is a pattern I’ve seen with many of my clients – if they want to stay on track, they cook or go to places like Chipotle or Panera Bread that serve 'fresh food fast,' but when they’ve made the decision to go to a traditional 'fast food' joint, any notion of nutrition is out the window.
While there are healthier options at every fast food establishment, I find that a lot of my clients tend to turn to fast food for very specific reasons, including when they are upset and want to disconnect from their feelings; and when they need comfort food, because it brings back childhood memories. I rarely, if ever, have clients who go to a fast food joint specifically to get a healthy meal. And those who go with their kids and pick a healthier option while their children chomp on fried food and soda start to grasp the major disconnect. Or they wind up picking at the fries on their kids’ tray - and when the latter happens, it can trigger an entire day of unhealthy eating.
So what’s the solution? One thing I work on with my clients is understanding their patterns. If fast food is indeed synonymous with emotional eating, we work on increasing awareness (e.g. realizing that it's a certain emotion, not hunger that’s driving them to eat), and finding non-food ways to cope. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can break the cycle. I recently had a client who stepped out of line before ordering a fried chicken sandwich and fries because she realized that she was frustrated about work and the temporary relief that meal would bring just wasn't worth it.
So what’s your take on this topic? Do you tend to pull into the drive-thru when you’ve had a miserable day, or are you one of the 15 percent who relies on "better-for-you-" fast food options? Please share your thoughts here or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.