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June 6, 2013 | 4 minute read

Making Your Fast Food Nutritious: It’s Possible

Over the last few decades, health and nutrition have become national priorities, and at the same time, fast food restaurants been placed under the microscope, often being blamed for the current rates of obesity.bigstock-restaurant-icon-25578467

However, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the nutritional quality of menu offerings at eight fast food restaurant chains increased over a 14-year period (from 1997/1998 to 2009/2010). The researchers obtained ingredient and nutrition information from the University of Minnesota Nutrition Coordinating Center for all foods sold by the restaurant chains. The nutrition information was updated biannually during the 14 years.

Numerous public health strategies, such as government menu labeling regulations, are encouraging fast food restaurants to improve the nutritional quality of their menu offerings. Several fast food restaurants are also taking their own initiative to offer healthier menu options for you and your families.

And more than ever, many fast food restaurants are flexible and accommodating to customers regarding special requests. For example, I always special order my burrito by asking for “no sour cream” – and there is a button on the cash register for that exact request! I make almost all of my meals healthier by asking for these kinds of modifications.We at Healthy Dining work with hundreds of restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, to find menu choices with vibrant fruits and vegetables, hearty whole grains and flavorful lean proteins. The Healthy Dining menu choices also meet nutrition benchmarks for calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium.  We believe that education about healthful eating habits may create a demand for more healthful food choices, which in turn, may encourage restaurants to continue to offer more healthful options.

Here are some tips that you can use when dining at fast food eateries:

Plan ahead:

•    Visit HealthyDiningFinder.com to find a variety of dietitian-approved healthy options; you can search by city or ZIP code to see all the restaurants close to you with  Healthy Dining, Sodium Savvy and Kids LiveWell options.

•    If you are on the go, the Healthy Dining Finder mobile site is a handy tool that not only serves as a restaurant finder but also saves time by providing a list of healthy menu options at each establishment. Make it a bookmark for quick and easy access in your phone (iPhone users can download the HealthPartners yumPower app to access their favorite Healthy Dining restaurants)

Tips for Eating on the Go:

•    Request salad dressing on the side so you can add a smaller amount.

•    Box up half of your meal to-go: portion sizes can be quite large, and this way you can save the second half for another meal.

•    Request fruit or veggies (like a side salad) instead of French fries or other fried items.

•     Watch out for high calorie additions such as: cheese, sour cream, salad dressing (look for a light or fat-free option) and sauces.

•    Skip the whipped cream on your coffee beverages (¼ cup of whipped cream is 100 calories and 6.2 grams of saturated fat).

•    Choose beans and/or tofu (vegetarian protein) options more often.

•    Replace your sugar-sweetened beverage with a non-calorie substitute like water or unsweetened iced tea.

•    Ask for a whole grain option (like whole wheat bread or tortilla) for sandwiches and wraps.

•    Look for lean cuts of meat (like turkey or chicken) or fish – not fried, of course.

Fast food restaurants are in a great position to help improve the diet quality of the US population by simply improving the nutritional quality of their menu offerings.  I also can’t help but wonder: if my special requested burrito with no sour cream – or even less – would be just as satisfying to other customers. Maybe restaurants can make healthier versions the “default” menu item?

When small, incremental changes are made to recipes, the new version may taste just as good (or better!). At the same time, removing some of the calories, saturated fat and sodium from the marketplace could result in meaningful population health gains with a decrease in both the rates and costs associated with obesity, chronic disease and cancer. This could be a win-win scenario!

Anjali Patel, MPH, RD, is the Manager of Research at Healthy Dining. She has a passion for applying research to practical programs and strategies that make a positive impact on Americans’ health.

AICR is a proud partner with Healthy Dining, an organization working to help diners eat healthier.

This post was updated on June 10 to correct editing errors.

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