Healthier Fast Food?

February 19th, 2014
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Popular Cuisine

Fast food is ubiquitous. In my small town, you can choose from Hardee’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, a KFC/Taco Bell combination, a local fast-food chain known for its hamburgers and milkshakes, and several local pizza restaurants. Within a 15-minute drive, the choice widens to include most nationwide fast-food chains, including Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, and Burger King.

Our area is not unique. Thousands of fast-food restaurants can be found across the country as well as in much of the world. A recent study of nearly 600 teenagers and adults in Minnesota discovered that most respondents ate fast food at least three times a week. Their most common reasons for choosing fast food meals: Fast food is quick (92.3 percent), the restaurants are easy to get to (80.1 percent), the respondents like the taste (69.2 percent), fast food is inexpensive (63.6 percent), and the respondents are “too busy to cook” (53.2 percent).

Fast food may be popular, but is it healthy? It can be, according to Linda Van Horn, professor of preventative medicine at Northwestern University. “You just have to be selective, both about the choice of restaurant and the choices you make when you get there,” Van Horn says. “Some, but not all, fast food restaurants have grilled chicken, salads, low-fat milk, fruit and even oatmeal choices for breakfast.”

Personal Research

I decided to find out if fast food can indeed be healthy. While I loved it as a child, I rarely go to a fast-food restaurant now. My wife and I make tastier hamburgers than most chain restaurant offerings; and if I either want or need to eat out, there are other options that are more appealing to me. My ten-year-old son is a fan of fast food. Peter’s school was closed because of snow the day I had the conference call with the FaithLink editors to decide on this topic, so I took him along for research. He was thrilled to go, because generally fast food is a treat reserved for times when I have other meal plans.

McDonald’s has changed since the last time I was there. Not only did our local franchise physically change, with the old restaurant torn down and a new one replacing it in the last several years, but the menu has changed as well. Peter knew what he wanted: a Happy Meal. He always gets this combination geared to children. I was impressed that Happy Meals now automatically come with a small hamburger, a small order of fries, a bag of apple slices (about half of an apple), a soft drink, and a toy. Although the hamburger and fries might not be the healthiest choices, he also ate a serving of fruit.

While Peter knew what he wanted to order before we arrived, I took longer to decide. I relied on the calorie counts beside the items on the menu to make my choice: a Premium McWrap Sweet Chili Chicken (Grilled) combo meal. I felt pretty good about my choice: The menu said it was only 360 calories. I have had tastier wraps, both in other restaurants and at home, though the accompanying fries were as good as I remember.

How healthy were our choices? According to the nutrition facts on the reverse of the tray liner, my choice was not as healthy as I supposed. While the wrap itself was only 360 calories and had a relatively low nine grams of fat, it had 1,030 milligrams of sodium. My complete lunch, with the accompanying fries and soft drink, totaled 880 calories, 28 grams of fat, and 1,330 milligrams of sodium. Peter’s lunch totaled 505 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 580 milligrams of sodium. The meal was not as healthy as I hoped, but the price was right. Our lunch cost only $8.78—not bad for two people.

Becoming Healthier

Just as I discovered in my firsthand research, many fast-food restaurants are offering food with lower fat and calories. Yet the National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns that “even with these changes, it is hard to eat healthy when you eat out often. Many foods are still cooked with a lot of fat. Many restaurants do not offer any lower-fat foods. Large portions also make it easy to overeat. And few restaurants offer many fruits and vegetables.”

“In general, eat at places that offer salads, soups, and vegetables,” the NIH recommends. Other NIH recommendations: Choose smaller portion sizes; hold cheese, bacon, and other items that add fat and calories; and choose meats that are roasted, grilled, baked, or broiled.

If you want to make fast food healthier for children, choose fruit or vegetables instead of fries. That might not be a popular switch if your children are like my son, but you could split an order of fries with your children in order to control portion size. Choose grilled options instead of fried. The American Heart Association also recommends drinking low-fat milk, juice, or water. “No one ever said that every fast food meal must be eaten with soda,” the association states. “Sodas are loaded with sugars, which have calories your kids don’t need. Nearly all fast food restaurants offer alternatives.”

Making a Difference

Linda Van Horn asserts that consumers can make a difference. “Consumer behavior strongly influences what restaurants choose to serve,” she says, “so if you want healthier choices, choose them and let it be known.”

Mark Bittman, a food writer with The New York Times, agrees that consumers now expect fast-food restaurants to offer healthier options. “In recent years, the fast-food industry has started to heed these new demands,” Bittman writes. “Billions of dollars have been invested in more healthful fast-food options, and the financial incentives justify these expenditures. About half of all the money spent on food in the United States is for meals eaten outside the home. And last year McDonald’s earned $5.5 billion in profits on $88 billion in sales. If a competitor offered a more healthful option that was able to capture just a single percent of that market share, it would make $55 million. Chipotle, the best newcomer of the last generation, has beaten that 1 percent handily. Last year, sales approached $3 billion. In the fourth quarter, they grew by 17 percent over the same period in the previous year.”

Bittman warns that even with a recent surge in new and healthier fast-food restaurants, there is still a crisis in the industry. “Fast food is, at its core, a class issue,” he asserts. “Many people rely on [inexpensive fast food] because they need to, and our country’s fast-food problem won’t be solved—no matter how much innovation in vegan options or high-tech ovens—until the prices come down and this [healthier] sector is no longer niche.”

Fast-food restaurants are not the only option when it comes to quick and inexpensive food. “It’s often cheaper and just as easy to run into a grocery store and buy more nutritious food like a freshly made sandwich on whole-grain bread using fresh turkey or chicken and a piece of fruit,” Van Horn says. “Also, many grocery stores sell packaged salads and soups to go, but again, read the label. When it comes to choosing a quick meal, you can think inside or outside the fast food box.”

Fast Food and Faith

So why is whether or not we eat fast food a faith issue for Christians? Unlike many of our Jewish cousins in the faith, we do not have religious dietary restrictions; we are free to eat anything we like. In a letter to the Christians of Corinth, Paul reminds those early believers that their bodies are “parts of Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). In his letter, the apostle mentions food. He concludes his appeal for healthy living by reminding the Corinthians, “Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?” (verse 19). If we are in Christ, if he lives within us, our bodies are indeed temples of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are gifts from God. And we are better able to do God’s work in the world around us when we are healthy.


Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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