THE BLOG
06/17/2013 08:33 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

Fast Food 2020: My Dream Plan for Healthier Eating Establishments

Americans love fast food. In fact, we may be addicted to it. A 2010 study in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that easily accessible, high calorie, high fat foods (similar to many food choices in fast food establishments) have the same effect on the brain as heroin. Even though the CDC released a report in February saying that we're eating less fast food, the report didn't show decreases in consumption in either the pediatric or obese populations. and at the end of the day, we're still eating much more of it today than 20 years ago.

Many have asked if the fast food industry is to blame for our growing waistlines. My answer is no. We became an obese nation based on a complex set of factors that may include genetics, where you live, how much sleep you get, where you work, even whether your parents are divorced. Above and beyond that, we eat too much of the wrong things and way too little of the right things, and if we want to stick around on our planet for awhile, we have to change our habits and take responsibility for our health.

Does fast food play a role in these factors? Yes, but they're not the only factor. However, the traditional fast food players, perhaps more than any other entity trying to change our weight and ultimately our health -- have power in numbers. Not in the vast variety of them, but in how many of us that are walking through the fast food doors every day. The real questions are, what have they done so far to help us make better choices, and more importantly, is it enough?

The fast food industry has done a lot to improve the nutritional status of their menus. They've provided higher quality meal options by offering grilled sandwiches, salads, fruit, baked chips, and bottled water. They have also provided information to consumers on the nutritional aspects of their foods (I'm not talking ingredients of course, I'm just talking numbers) as well as smaller portions in some of their "special" menus. Further, many fast food restaurants have dedicated areas on their website that focuses on making healthier choices at their establishment. So what more can the fast food industry do? As it turns out, quite a bit.

A 2010 study in the American Journal of Cardiology assessed whether taking a cholesterol-lowering statin could help offset a fast food meal of a cheeseburger and a milkshake. Results showed that the statin actually helped in reducing the harmful effects of the unhealthy meal. Should fast food restaurants start putting a statin on everyone's tray? Well, I don't think we're ready to go that extreme, but in the next seven years, I bet we could reach the following goals!

Redefine the "value" menu

The current value menu at any fast food restaurant focuses on lots of food for minimal cash. The word "value" is clearly defined as getting a lot of something, in this example, calories, saturated fat, simple sugars, sodium and refined grain, for not a lot of money. The consumer thinks they are saving money and getting a great deal but the joke is on them. Too many value meals will actually cost you in the end. Your risk of becoming obese and subsequently forming obesity-related chronic diseases goes up. In the end, your health care costs will take the extra money (that you saved with all those value meals) from your wallet.

But what if we looked at the word value in a different light? What if the word value was defined by nutrients and disease-preventing attributes? A "value" meal or menu would then focus on nutrient density -- that is, getting the most nutrients for the least amount of calories. What I call foods that provide bang for your nutritional buck. Instead of getting two cheeseburgers, a 24-ounce cola and a large fry, the value menu could offer a 4-ounce grilled chicken sandwich with grilled mushrooms or onions on a 100 percent whole grain bun with a side of fresh fruit and water. The second example contains a lot of nutrients, not a lot of calories, fat and sugar. This is just one example to demonstrate the point, but if the price point stayed the same, it would be interesting to see if sales of nutrient "value" menus matched their low nutrient counterparts.

Provide more transparency in the nutritional information

Providing numbers to the consumers' meals are great, but overall, the way in which these numbers are communicated can be improved. For example, many fast food websites have their nutritional information defaulted to the smallest portion available. If I went to a fast food website and wanted to add fries to my meal, the ones I visited defaulted to the small fry. I had to actually click on a different portion to see different numbers. While the process does not seem that daunting, the added step could create a barrier for individuals that may not be computer savvy or simply not notice the added steps needed. Fast food establishments can also do a better job of linking the numbers to nutritional standards. For example, a "healthy" wrap at a popular fast food restaurant has more than one-half of the daily recommended amount of sodium as set by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This is an opportunity here to communicate this to the consumer, and perhaps, educate on the benefits of lowering overall salt consumption. On another site, the nutrition information was provided based on the serving designated but did not add in "optional" items such as bacon. A 2013 study found that we are underestimating the total calorie content of fast food meals, especially large ones. Wouldn't it be great if assessing the nutrient content of our food was just a little easier?

Help consumers understand that food is more than calories

Although many fast food establishments have lower calorie menus (such as an under 400 menu) the nutritional quality of the offered food options may not be top notch. It's time to look beyond just calories. It's been well documented that foods high in sugar, saturated fat and sodium can significantly increase our risk for disease. Let's keep the calorie counts but focus on other nutrients in food we need to be concerned about as well. Fast food establishments can do this by displaying key information on their menu board for specific items such as saturated fat in burgers, sugar content in soda's and sodium levels in fried chicken or French fries.

Offer more vegetarian options

I'm not talking about cheese-laden bean burritos. I'm talking about lentil burgers, vegetable stir fries, and even -- gasp -- grilled tofu on a whole wheat roll. I know it sounds crazy, but so did vegan restaurants 20 years ago.

Offer less soda and juice, more tea, coffee and water

With all the calories and increased blood sugar effects coming from the traditionally ordered menu options, offering more healthy drinks (and marketing them too) that don't cause the same ill effects and, in fact, actually improve health could make a big difference. One interesting study however found further blood sugar spikes occurred with caffeinated beverages after fast food meals. So have your caffeine heavy coffee at another time in the day and choose decaf with your fast food lunch or dinner. Finally, don't load your coffee with creamer and sugar. Help your taste buds enjoy drinks that aren't liquid candy!

Although these suggestions can never replace the benefits that come with cooking and eating at home, at least we can do something that can make eating healthier at fast food establishments easier for all consumers.

Courtney Staruch and Jasmine El-Nabli Contributed to this blog.

For more by Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D., click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

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