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Dr. Eric Braverman

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Are $5 Fast Food Deals Making Us Fat?

Posted: 09/09/09 05:23 PM ET

It's happened to all of us: you're starving and the only place in town has a giant "M" on the door. Typical fast food options are contrary to your weight loss. Fast food means indigestion, poor metabolism, extra fat, extra salt, and extra sugars. That's because fast food burgers, pizza, fried chicken, and all those french fries are filled with artery-clogging saturated fats that do nothing but line the walls of your insides, staying there and turning into body fat. Worse, these same foods are what I call expanding foods: they have extreme effects on the body and cause a seemingly positive short-term energy boost, while creating a nutritional disaster over time. Once we start to eat expanding foods, we find ourselves craving more of them to restore our energy.

And that's not even taking the numbers into consideration. The average fast food meal--burger, shake, and fries--can go well over the 2,000 calories we are supposed to be limiting ourselves to per day. Your chicken or fish alternative isn't really helping, either. If you want to break the fast food habit for good, just one visit to a Calorie Counter will do the trick. The numbers are astonishing.

Because this data is now so readily available, the fast food industry has finally decided to make some changes and start offering what they think Americans really need. Or have they? It's true that there are new choices available: more salads, more grilled rather than fried options, and even apple slices or fresh carrots that you can swap out instead of fries or potato chips. At Subway, there is whole grain bread, lean meats and veggies. And KFC's new chicken is grilled, not fried. But are these options really healthy?

While the total calories and fat intake might be getting lower, the sodium content still has not been reduced to that large an extent. Some of these "healthy alternative" meals still have close to a full gram of sodium, which is almost half a day's sodium requirement. The salad options at McDonald's are only low calorie if you skip the dressing entirely: some of the dressing packets can have more than 300 calories alone! And the cheese topping on any of these salads are still fat-ladened and low protein. A Burger King veggie burger has almost the same calorie count as a hamburger.

If you're stuck with no where else to turn for a meal, don't despair. I never advocate skipping a meal, even when you're dieting. You need plenty of nutrients to get your metabolism burning fast and hot, and the only way to get them is to eat high quality, nutritious foods. Even at fast food restaurants, choose meals that have lots of nutrient-rich fruits or vegetables, and make sure every meal contains a protein, whether it is an egg or yogurt parfait for breakfast, or grilled chicken in a sandwich or salad for lunch or dinner. Here are some of the healthiest fast food choices:

  1. Subway: Whole-wheat bread, chicken breast or veggie patty with spinach, tomato, olives, green peppers, with a drizzle of the oil and vinegar dressing
  2. Any of McDonald's grilled chicken salads, if you throw away the dressing
  3. McDonald's grilled chicken snack wrap with honey mustard
  4. Wendy's fresh fruit bowl with yogurt
  5. Burger King BK Broiler Chicken Breast Patty Sandwich

And don't let your beverage choice ruin your chances for weight loss, or sabotage your best dieting efforts. Diet sodas are not the answer: even though they have no calories, diet sodas contain phosphates that rot your teeth and bones as they deplete your calcium, raise your blood pressure, and damage your brain chemistry. They can increase your chance of developing osteoporosis, especially if you are over 40. Dr. Earl Mindell notes in his book, Earl Mindell's New Vitamin Bible, that diet soft drinks are especially hazardous to those over 40 because the older kidneys are less able to excess phosphorus, which can lead to the depletion of calcium. Without calcium, bones will weaken.

And while you're at it, skip those fancy vitamin waters, too. While many are low in calories, these new beverages don't pack in the nutrients in the same quantities as whole food sources.

My advice: stick with unsweetened iced tea, and lots of it. Tea is a wonderful zero calorie alternative because it is packed with metabolism-boosting nutrients, and you don't have to drink it hot to get the benefits. Flavor your tea with a little lemon juice, or if you have to, bring along a couple of packets of Truvia, a brand new zero-calorie sweetener that is completely natural and made from the stevia plant. Whatever you do, don't be tempted into pre-sweetened teas: a large serving of McDonald's Sweet Tea has a whopping 230 calories!

The bottom line: be wary of a $5 fast food deal. What's cost effective now might be incredibly expensive to deal with in the future, just in health care dollars alone. But at the same time, if you're careful and smart, you can get a fast food meal that won't break the bank or bust your diet.