Choosing the Healthiest Options at Fast Food Restaurants

By all accounts, Chicago is among the best food cities in America. It has also repeatedly been flagged as one of the “fattest”. Unsurprisingly so, as the second city is well known for iconic pizza, hot dogs and Italian beef, none of which are traditional top choices for healthy foods. Now, as a health expert and nutritionally conscious foodie who also happens to be a die-hard Chicagoan, I simply can’t place the blame on the city’s talented restaurateurs and chefs.

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We all have the liberty of choosing what to eat and what not to eat.

For instance, I recently had the pleasure of attending a special event honoring the grand opening of a new Buona Beef location. Buona Beef is one of Chicagoland’s more trendy fast food spots, well-known for their mouthwatering Italian beef sandwiches.

Interestingly enough, their newly branded “Skip-The-Gym” menu includes a nice selection of ‘skinny’ Italian beef options, healthy side dishes, and all-natural dressings making it easier for Chicagoans like myself to enjoy their classic cuisine in a healthy way. It’s kind of a bummer if you’re a real Italian beef lover, as ‘skipping the gym’ will require a little less bread dipped in gravy drippings. But, once again, the choice is yours to make.

While fast food restaurants generally have a bad reputation, believe it or not, it is possible to incorporate the stereotypical fast foods you love into a healthy, balanced diet—So long as wise food choices are made. That said, whether you’re a fan of Italian beef, burgers or any other fast foods, here are five simple tips for choosing the healthiest from virtually any restaurant’s menu.

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Pass On the Deep Fried Foods

When dining at fast food restaurant, it’s best to avoid deep fried foods like French fries, fried chicken and fried fish. Even if ‘healthy’ oils are used, the process of deep frying foods at extremely high temperatures can lead to the formation of carcinogenic chemicals (heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) known to promote the development of cancer. Deep fried foods are also unnecessarily high in calories and fat, which can put a real hurt on the waistline.

Avoid Battered and Breaded Foods

Battered and breaded chicken, seafood and even vegetables (mushrooms, onions, and zucchini) tend to absorb sizable amounts of oil when fried causing you to take in way more calories than necessary. These foods are also typically high in sodium, which can really drive your blood pressure levels up. Adding insult to injury, the starch-rich nature of batters and breadings may cause dramatic spikes in blood sugar levels, causing the body to store rather than burn fat.

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Opt for Freshly Prepared Sandwiches

Sandwiches are a staple item at most fast food spots. When choosing a sandwich, opt for one that is freshly prepared (preferably with a high-quality bread or wrap) and be sure to include lots of vegetables, as these foods are packed full of key nutrients and dietary fiber. It’s also best to fill your sandwich with grilled poultry, seafood or lean meat as opposed to processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, sausage, and cold cuts) and care to avoid adding excessive amounts of condiments.

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Choose High-Quality Side Items

When selecting sides at a fast food restaurant, go for nutrient-dense items like fresh, steamed or grilled vegetables, a baked potato without added fat, or high-quality whole grains like quinoa, wild rice or brown rice. Soup is another good option for a side item but it’s best to select broth or vegetable-based soups versus the creamy ones, as these tend to be exceptionally high in unhealthy fats and sodium.

When in Doubt, Enjoy a Good Salad

Fortunately, most fast food chains offer a range of salads containing generous amounts of vegetables, healthy fats and lean protein. Salads can be eaten as either an entree or a hearty side dish. Look for those comprised of filling ingredients like romaine lettuce, kale, spinach, carrot, broccoli, tomato, avocado, berries, apples, nuts, seeds, chicken, and salmon. I also recommend choosing oil-based dressings over creamy ones and limiting your portions to 1-2 tablespoons.

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So, it is possible to include fast foods in a healthy, balanced diet, though it’s better to occasionally do so. Personally, I rarely frequent fast food restaurants and when I do, I’m on a quest to get the most nutritional bang for my buck. Following these easy tips will help you make wise meal choices at any fast food restaurant. You should also investigate the “Nutrition Facts” for your favorite fast foods on restaurant websites in order to plan your meals in advance.

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