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Healthy Fast Food: Can You Indulge Without Guilt?

More chains offering healthy fast-food alternatives

How Nutritious Is It? continued...

Hurley also gives high marks to Subway, which, strictly speaking, is in the "quick casual" rather than fast-food restaurant category. She praises Subway for pioneering and promoting healthy, delicious sandwiches with fewer than 6 grams of fat.

Eating out used to be an occasional thing, but today Americans consume about one-third of their total calories in restaurants, says Margo Wootan, DSc, CSPI's nutrition policy director.

"Both adults and children eat about twice as many calories out compared to eating at home," she says. "And they eat more saturated fat, and less calcium, fiber, fruits and vegetables."

She says that healthy fast-food choices often are not obvious, and that consumers need information in order to make good decisions. "One of the policies we're working on is to get the chains -- both (sit-down) restaurants and fast food -- to list calories on their menus or menu boards," she tells WebMD.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokesperson, advises limiting visits to fast-food restaurants to a few times a week. "All foods fit, including an occasional burger and fries," she says. "You just can't be living there. Most of the time, try to fill up on salads or grilled chicken." Given the epidemic of obesity among children, Zelman advises parents to request healthy substitutions for kids' meals, like a small salad instead of fries. "You might have to pay a little more, but you don't have to get the standard kid meal," she says.

And by all means, the nutrition experts say, stay away from the chains' "value pricing" promotions, which offer huge portions for a few cents more than regular portions.

"Who doesn't like a bargain?" Hurley asks. "But once it's on your tray, it will probably make it to your mouth."

Future Fare

Of course, this latest healthy fast-food trend could end up going the way of the McLean burger, but industry observers say there are some promising signs.

"Garden Sensations probably accounted for 10 percent of Wendy's sales when it first rolled out early in 2002," Butkus says. "That could have been a honeymoon period, but everybody would like to have an extra 10 percent of sales. If this trend is successful, the chains will roll out more products, promote more chicken products and look for ways to make kids' meals healthier."

And there have been other developments, including:

  • In England, McDonald's offers a bag of apples and grapes to customers. The fruit can be purchased separately or substituted for French fries in Happy Meals.
  • McDonald's is testing all-white meat Chicken McNuggets.
  • Kentucky Fried Chicken will introduce more non-fried products.
  • Jack in the Box plans to open an "Innovation Center" in 2004 to develop lighter products to attract more female customers.
  • Fast-food chains are paying attention to the appeal of "quick casual" restaurants like Panera Bread, Cosi, and Au Bon Pain, that serve fresh, non-fried foods. Butkus says the fast-food chains might borrow menu ideas.
  • CSPI, noting the dangerous increase in obesity among children, is pushing the chains to stop targeting children with ads for unhealthy foods. "We'd like for them to be good corporate citizens," Wootan says, "but if not, we'd like the government to step in and limit the advertising to children of foods that are low in nutrition and high in calories, saturated fat and sugar."

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