Fast foods are quick and easy substitutes for home cooking. But fast foods are almost always high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt.
Some restaurants still use hydrogenated vegetable oils for frying. These oils contain trans fats. These fats increase your risk for heart disease. Some cities have banned or are trying to ban the use of these fats.
Now, many restaurants are preparing foods using other types of fat. Some offer low-calorie choices instead.
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 fresh fruits and vegetables.
Knowing the amount of calories, fat, and salt in fast foods can help you eat healthier. Many restaurants now offer information about their food. This information is much like the nutrition labels on the food that you buy. If it is not posted in the restaurant, ask an employee for a copy.
In general, eat at places that offer salads, soups, and vegetables. In your salads, avoid high-fat items. Dressing, bacon bits, and shredded cheese all add fat and calories. Choose lettuce and assorted vegetables. Select low-fat or fat-free salad dressings, vinegar, or lemon juice. Ask for salad dressing on the side.
Healthier sandwiches include regular or junior size lean meats. Adding bacon, cheese, or mayo will increase the fat and calories. Ask for vegetables instead. Select whole-grain breads or bagels. Croissants and biscuits have a lot of fat.
If you want a hamburger, get a single meat patty without cheese and sauce. Ask for extra lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Limit how many French fries you eat. Ketchup has a lot of calories from sugar. Ask if you can get a side salad instead of fries.
Look for meats, chicken, and fish that are roasted, grilled, baked, or broiled. Avoid meats that are breaded or fried. If the dish you order comes with a heavy sauce, ask for it on the side and use just a small amount.
With pizza, get less cheese. Also pick low-fat toppings, such as vegetables. You can dab the pizza with a paper napkin to get rid of a lot of the fat from the cheese.
Eat low-fat desserts. A rich dessert can add fun to a well-balanced diet. But eat them only on special occasions.
Order smaller servings when you can. Split some fast-food items to reduce calories and fat. Ask for a "doggy bag." You can also leave the extra food on your plate.
Your food choices can teach your children how to eat healthy, too. Choosing a variety of healthy foods and limiting portion size are key to a healthy diet for anyone.
American Heart Association Nutrition Committee; Lichtenstein AH, Appel LJ, Brands M, Carnethon M, Daniels S, et al. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation. 2006;114:82-96.
Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, Miller NH, Hubbard VS, Nonas CA, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC Guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2013 Nov. 7. pii: S0735-1097(13)06029-4. [Epub ahead of print]
Heimburger DC. Nutrition's interface with health and disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 220.
Mozaffarian D. Nutrition and cardiovascular and metabolic disease. In: Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, et al, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 46.
Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.