As someone who writes about health for a living, I probably shouldn't admit this, but I have a secret passion: The In-N-Out Burger "Double Double" (double meat and double cheese) is one of my favorite things in the whole world, just a notch below winning the lottery.
This is not, I hasten to admit, a terribly healthy craving. A Double Double packs 670 calories and 41 grams of fat, which amounts to 63 percent of the daily fat consumption recommended by the U.S. government (based on a 2,000-calorie daily intake). Add an order of french fries and you're up to 1,070 calories and 59 grams of fat -- just over 90 percent of the average person's recommended daily fat intake in one meal. Add a milkshake and ... oh, let's not even go there. If you're on a diet, it just went out the window.
This is not to pick on In-N-Out. Fast-food menus, almost across the board, are minefields for anyone trying to maintain a healthy weight, lose weight, or keep sodium and fat intake within reasonable limits. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which publishes the Nutrition Action Health Letter evaluating many restaurant foods, once urged hospitals to name their coronary care units after Burger King's french fries.
A McDonald's Big Mac and medium fries will set you back 920 calories and 48 grams of fat, 12.5 of which are saturated fat. For some perspective, a person who consumes an average of 2,000 calories a day should eat no more than 65 grams of fat daily -- and 15 of those grams or less should be from saturated fat, the worst kind of artery-clogging fat. Saturated fat is found in animal foods, including meat, whole milk, cheese, butter, and stick margarine.
So, even at a generous 2,000 calories daily -- if you're trying to lose weight you'd be consuming less -- your Big Mac and medium fries just cost you almost half a day's calories and three-quarters of the fat you ought to be consuming. You also just chowed down 83 percent of your saturated fat allotment in one sitting.
At Burger King, a Whopper without cheese packs 670 calories and 40 grams of fat. Cheddar cheese adds 50 calories and 4 grams of fat. Worst is that the real villain -- saturated fat -- is in both sandwiches in abundance. A Whopper without cheese contains 11 grams of the stuff. And you might as well hang a "closed until further notice" sign on your arteries if you have the Whopper with cheese and a medium order of fries. That's 1,200 calories and 67 grams of fat, 19 of them saturated. There's more than your whole day's allotment of both fat and saturated fat in a single, artery-hardening meal.
Picking and choosing
That doesn't mean you can never eat burgers again. "If you've got to have a burger," says Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at CSPI, "get the smallest size possible."
Burgers and fries are far from the only fat bombs out there. Taco Bell's Nachos BellGrande -- more than half a pound of deep-fried corn chips with ground beef, melted cheese, and a tiny sprinkling of chopped tomato -- weigh in at 760 calories. This grande dish also contains 42 grams of fat, including 6 grams of saturated fat, with 1,250 milligrams of sodium -- more than double the fat and half the salt than you need in an entire day! Small wonder the CSPI featured Taco Bell in the "Food Porn" section of its Nutrition Action Health Letter -- under the title "Mucho Grosso."
In sandwiches and burgers, mayonnaise is a hidden fat well worth avoiding. Take the Burger King Tendercrisp Chicken sandwich: With the mayonnaise, it packs 800 calories, 46 grams of fat (including 8 grams of saturated fat, nearly half the recommended daily value) and 1,640 mg of sodium all by itself. But if you hold the mayo, your sandwich is reduced to 590 calories, 1,450 mg of sodium and 22 grams of fat, less than five of them saturated.
And fried fast food is practically guaranteed to deliver more fat and salt than your body needs. A Kentucky Fried Chicken meal consisting of just a chicken breast and drumstick with an order of potato wedges, for example, totals 740 calories, 41 grams of fat, and 2,080 mg of sodium.
Do you really want fries with that?
Those ubiquitous french fries are a big part of the problem, Hurley notes. "Because they're fried in hydrogenated shortening, which contains trans fat, it's like getting another burger with your burger," she says. Trans unsaturated fats, or trans fats, are also found in stick margarine, other fried fast foods, and some cookies and other snack foods. Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol levels -- the "bad" kind -- and lower HDL, the "good" cholesterol that helps keep your arteries clear. The term "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" is code for "trans fat."
If you must have fries -- hey, we all get cravings now and then -- it pays to spend some time reading the nutrition information the fast-food chains supply. (The Web site addresses for the most popular chains are listed below.) It turns out that not all fries are created equal: In fact, some chains -- like Wendy's, McDonald's, and Burger King -- no longer cook their fries in trans fat. Also, differences in preparation produce differences in fat and calories. Wendy's fries, for example, pack 430 calories, 20 grams of fat and just 370 mg of sodium. McDonald's fries are a tad healthier: 380 calories, 19 grams of fat (2.5 grams saturated fat), and 270 mg of sodium. An order of Burger King's medium has 500 calories and 28 grams of fat, and packs 820 mg of sodium.
Fast-food restaurants' breakfasts are nearly as loaded with fat and calories as their burgers and nachos. A McDonald's sausage biscuit with egg has 510 calories and 33 grams of fat, including 14 grams of saturated fat, and 1,170 mg of sodium: That's more calories than two Subway turkey breast sandwiches and half a day's worth of saturated fat. Add an order of hash browns and you're up to 660 calories, 42 grams of fat (15.5 saturated), and 1,480 mg of sodium.
What about the Burger King Croissan'wich, with sausage, egg, and cheese? More bad news: It may have less calories than the McDonald's biscuit concoction but it's got just about as much fat. The lineup: 380 calories, 24 grams of fat, 10 of them saturated. That's more calories and saturated fat than you'd get in a cup of rich vanilla ice cream!
Healthier fast-food alternatives
Are there healthier fast-food alternatives? Absolutely. To get a relatively low-fat, low-calorie fast-food meal, avoid anything that's deep-fried or dripping with gobs of cheese, mayonnaise, or mayo-based dressing.
Hurley says the best bets at fast-food restaurants are the grilled chicken sandwiches and the salads. Hold the mayo on the chicken sandwiches and keep an eye on those salad dressings: At Wendy's, for example, a single packet of salad dressing ranges from 70 calories and no fat (Fat-Free French) to 230 calories and 24 grams of fat (Blue Cheese).
Hurley is also a fan of McDonald's Fruit 'n' Yogurt Parfait, a relatively new addition to the menu consisting of low-fat yogurt, low-fat granola, strawberries, and blueberries. "It's delicious, and it's a real attempt to get people to eat healthy," she says.
Another idea is to skip the burger, taco, and fried-chicken joints entirely and head for a place like Subway. The sandwich chain offers eight "Under 6 Sandwiches," each containing under 6 grams of fat, with calorie counts ranging from 230 to 380. They come either without mayo or with the low-fat variety. Hurley also praises Subway for using low-fat mayo to prepare its tuna, making it lighter in fat and calories than most deli tuna sandwiches. Nothing is perfect, however, and most of these sandwiches packs at least 1,000 mg or more of sodium. "That's not good," CSPI notes on its Web site, "but it's no worse than pizza, burgers, or just about any other fast food."
Another worthy piece of advice is to plan ahead. All the major chains post detailed nutrition information on their Web sites, so you can plan what to order -- and what to avoid -- before walking in the door. Failing that, many outlets now have nutrition information posted in the store. Make an informed choice -- and bon apptit!
You can get information on the calorie, fat, and salt content of various fast foods on the Web sites below:
Arby's nutrition index http://www.arbys.com
Burger King nutrition index http://www.burgerking.com
Carl's Jr. nutrition index http://www.carlsjr.com
Kentucky Fried Chicken nutrition index http://www.kfc.com
McDonald's nutrition index http://www.mcdonalds.com
Subway nutrition index http://www.subway.com
Taco Bell nutrition http://www.tacobell.com
Wendy's nutrition index http://www.wendys.com
Center for Science in the Public Interest Nutrition Action HealthLetter http://www.cspinet.org/nah An excellent resource for anyone interested in diet and nutrition, healthy recipes, honest food labeling and advertising, and safer and more nutritious foods. Its monthly publication, the Nutrition Action Health Letter, is packed with excellent articles on nutrition and also features regular investigations into fast-food chains.
Interview with Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)
Center for Science in the Public Interest Nutrition Action Health Letter
The Wellness Nutrition Counter: The Essential Guide to Complete Nutritional Information for Over 6,000 Foods and Products, by Sheldon Margen, MD, Rebus Inc. 1997
U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2000: Choose Sensibly. http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2000/document/choose.htm
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. Chapter 6: Fats. http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/html/chapter6.htm#table8
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. Key Recommendations for the General Population. http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/recommendations.htm
American Heart Association. Association releases new diet and lifestyle recommendations. June 2006. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3040209
Nemours Foundation. Figuring Out Fat and Calories. http://kidshealth.org/teen/food_fitness/nutrition/fat_calories.html
Consumer Reports. French-fry face-off. August 2009. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/august-2009/food/french-fries/overview/french-fry-face-off-ov.htm