Friday, April 16, 2010

Fast-Food Dieting: Can You? Should You?

what you should know about lower-calorie menu items at fast-food restaurants.
by Martica Heaner, Ph.D., M.A., M.Ed.

Is it OK to diet by eating smarter fast-food choices?

A. As Jared of Subway-dieting fame proved, you can lose weight eating fast food. But, as Morgan Spurlock, the star and director of the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, showed, your food choices at fast-food restaurants matter. Spurlock ate nothing but fast food from McDonald’s for every meal for one month. Not only did he gain weight and grow a substantially larger belly, many indicators of his health plummeted—including a worsening of his liver function—likely due to increased fat stored in the liver from the super-high-fat diet.

Of course, that was then and this is now. Most fast-food restaurants took notice of this award-winning exposé and have started offering some low-calorie, low-fat, non-trans-fat or otherwise healthier versions of their foods.

With a little research, you can figure out which foods have fewer calories and less fat. Most every major fast-food chain now provides extensive nutritional information on their Web sites. And in some states and cities, the calorie content of products is listed on the menu boards.

Posted calorie counts can be eye-opening. For example, not many people realize that the average cookie or slice of cake at Starbucks ranges from 300 to 500 calories. Who would have thought that meeting a friend for a midday coffee drink at Starbucks and nibbling on a piece of cake can pack an extra 800 to 1,000 calories into your day? (That’s as much as a Big Mac and fries and can add up to nearly 50 percent of your calorie quota for an entire day!)

When you’re on the road and making a spontaneous food stop, Web site information won’t help, and you may not be in a city that offers detailed nutritional info. So, a helpful resource to carry with you is the book Eat This, Not That, written by the editor of Men’s Health magazine, David Zinczenko. The book contrasts the nutritional and calorie content of a variety of foods at the different major fast-food outlets and guides you to the better option.

Some chains, such as Taco Bell, are making concerted efforts to offer healthier choices, specifically items from its “Fresco” line, including a crunchy taco that contains around 92 calories, and a bean burrito that has only 213. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that these figures may not be reliable. A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association analyzed 39 lower-calorie fast-food items and frozen meals from supermarkets. On average, the fast-food items contained 18 percent more calories than stated on their menus (the frozen meals contained an average of 8 percent more calories). Some of the items came with free side dishes that may not have been included in the published calorie estimate, or portion sizes varied, which accounted for the caloric differences. These discrepancies were mostly within the ranges of deviation allowed by the Food and Drug Administration in packaged foods. But three of the 39 items actually had double the amount of calories stated. While the differences in calories were not found to be statistically significant, if you are closely monitoring calories and get just 50 to 100 more than you calculated, theoretically that could add up to an extra five to 10 pounds gained (or not lost) per year.

Should you diet with fast food?

There are some advantages to dieting with fast food. Mainly, it’s cheap and your portion sizes are determined for you. So it’s easier to control what and how much you eat—as long as you stick to the predetermined healthiest fast-food items.

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that fast food is processed food. Even lower-calorie items may not have as much fiber or other nutrients as you may need. And you may also be getting a dose of preservatives, extra sodium or other undesirable ingredients with your lower-calorie choice. For example, you might miss out on many important nutrients from fruits and vegetables if you eat mostly fast-food fare. The typical vegetable offerings center on lettuce and tomato. If you’re going Mexican, you might stumble across some beans, avocado or peppers (all very nutritious). But for the most part, you are not going to be able to obtain a green, organic, high-fiber diet with these meals.

To ensure that your focus is not only on calories at the expense of nutrition, make sure that you are eating plenty of fresh fruit in addition to your fast food, always order menu items that contain beans if they are offered (high in fiber and plenty of nutrients) and ask for extra vegetables, such as tomatoes, on whatever you order. Try to supplement by eating extra veggies during your other meals.

How to diet eating fast food

You should approach a fast-food diet like any other: Aim to eat fewer calories per day than normal. General recommendations are to reduce the amount of calories that you normally eat by around 250 to 500 calories per day. Of course, this implies that you already know how many calories you take in, on average. If you don’t, read my article here to figure it out. Then take the total you normally eat, subtract 250 to 500, and use the resulting number as your calorie-intake goal while you are dieting. Choose menu items and other foods in your day that total up to this number. Remember to supplement with extra fruits and vegetables, and order beans when you can.

Also, don’t forget to exercise. It is nearly impossible to lose weight in a healthy way if you are not exercising while you do it. Regular cardio activities, such as walking or cycling, and weight lifting can help prevent you from losing muscle mass and can help you lose deep belly fat as you lose weight.

Find all articles by Martica.

Do you have a fitness or weight-loss question for Martica? Send e-mail to Please include Ask Martica in the subject line. Each of our experts responds to one question each week and the responses are posted on Mondays on MSN Health. We regret that we cannot provide a personalized response to every submission.

Martica Heaner, Ph.D., M.A., M.Ed., is a Manhattan-based exercise physiologist and nutritionist, and an award-winning fitness instructor and health writer. She has a Ph.D. in behavioral nutrition and physical activity from Columbia University, and is also a NASM-certified personal trainer. She has written hundreds of articles for publications such as Self , Health , Prevention , The New York Times and others. Martica is the author of eight books, including her latest, Cross-Training for Dummies. (Read her full bio.)

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