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Fast Food: Does Healthy Sell?

Salad sales are strong, but we still love our burgers

Know Your Nutrition

One pitfall that could trip up some fast-food customers trying to eat leaner: Just because something sounds healthier doesn't mean that it is.

Take chicken, for example. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that Americans will continue to increase their consumption of poultry in the next 10 years. One reason is that people see chicken as a healthy choice.

But not all chicken qualifies as healthy. In fact, a recent report from Consumer Reports found that some fast-food chicken salads pack more fat and calories than a Big Mac.

Fried chicken has one of the fastest-growing fast food menu items over the past 10 years, according to the NPD Group. Yet it generally has much more fat and calories than grilled chicken. Some restaurants use names like "crispy strips" rather than "fried" to describe these products, which could add to consumers' confusion.

Health-conscious diners may also think that a salad is a better choice than a burger, but that all depends on what you put on top of the salad.

For example, according to the company's web site, Arby's Chicken Club Salad has 530 calories and 33 grams of fat, even before you add dressing. With ranch dressing, the salad climbs to 860 calories and 67 grams of fat, or more than a day's worth of fat.

Arby's is not alone in offering higher-fat and higher-calorie salads. McDonald's has the Crispy Chicken Bacon Ranch Salad, Taco Bell has the Fiesta Taco Salad, and Wendy's has the Home-style Chicken Strips Salad.

All of these chains also feature healthy salads. To be on the safe side, order grilled chicken, not fried, and low-fat dressing. When in doubt, check the nutrition information before ordering.

Changing Behaviors

While more fast-food companies than ever are offering healthy menu options, some health experts think they need to do more.

Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, chairman of the department of nutrition at New York University, wants to see even more healthy foods on menus to help Americans meet the USDA's new Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines call for Americans to eat more produce and whole grains and to limit saturated fats, sugar, alcohol, and salt.

"There are not enough fruits, vegetables, or whole grains, but if consumers start demanding more of these foods, we will see them appear on menus," Nestle says.

David Katz, MD, author of The Way to Eat and associate clinical professor at Yale University, has a more radical idea about how to help health sell.

"We need to encourage the fast-food giants to use their resources to develop parallel franchises totally devoted to serving nutritious foods -- a new-age 'Mickey D's' with fun meals for the whole family, along with play areas and nutrition education," Katz says.

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