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The best bets from your favorite fast-food chains

It's easy to understand why Americans gravitate toward fast-food chains. Where else can you go when you need to grab a quick bite and have only a 5-spot in your pocket? And when you're traveling, it can be comforting to go into a restaurant where you know exactly what to expect, no matter where you are.

That's the good news. The bad news is that:

  • Americans eat a lot of fast food.
  • At most fast food chains, you'd be hard-pressed to find much in the way of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Fast-food servings tend to be big, and the calorie and fat totals tend to be high.

Recent research has confirmed what we probably all guessed anyway: The more fast food we eat, the more calories we take in -- and the more likely we are to be overweight.

A study of more than 3,000 young adults showed that, over a 15-year period, those who ate fast food more than twice a week gained about 10 pounds more than those who ate fast food less than once a week. The more frequent fast-food eaters also doubled their insulin resistance (an early sign of diabetes).

Another recent study showed that on days when young Americans (4-19 years old) ate fast food, they took in more calories, more total fat, more saturated fat, and more added sugars. They also took in less fiber, less fruit and nonstarchy vegetables, and less milk.

Researcher Shanthy A. Bowman, PhD, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had very similar findings with adults. Adults who ate fast food on two consecutive survey days tended to have higher mean body mass indexes (BMIs) and were more likely to be overweight than those who didn't eat fast food on those two days. It also found that adults took in about 10% more calories on days when they ate fast food.

Bowman says that, because most fast food doesn't contain much fiber, its calories don't make us feel very full afterward, so we tend to eat more later in the day.

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