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Whip up healthier versions of your fast-food favorites.

Americans are eating more meals away from home, a trend expert says is helping to increase our calorie intake. In particular, many researchers say that our huge increase in fast-food consumption over the past few years has played a big role in the national obesity epidemic.

"In 1998, studies showed that 25% of all vegetables eaten by Americans were as French fries --and that says a lot right there,” says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, research director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

Indeed, fast-food restaurants are the largest and fastest-growing segment of the "food away from home" sales category, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Industry Pocket Factbook. That's bad news nutritionally, as fast food meals tend to be higher in calories and fat than meals cooked at home.

So does that mean you have to give up your fast-food fix if you want to eat healthfully? No, experts say. One solution is to whip up your own, lower-fat versions of your fast-food favorites (see tips and recipes below).

And when you do hit the drive-thru, just say no to super-sizing, and opt for the menu's healthier choices, says Shanthy Bowman, PhD, a nutritionist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

"Because of the attention fast food has received, many fast-food places are now offering leaner meat choices and more fresh fruits and vegetables as salads," Bowman says.

Have It Your Way

Here are tips for making healthier versions of eight popular fast-food dishes at home. The best part is that you can tailor them to your own tastes.

1. Pizza. When you make pizza at home -- even if you use a store-bought crust – you can use reduced-fat or part-skim cheese, lean meat toppings like lean ham or reduced-fat pepperoni, and plenty of pizza sauce and veggies. Make your pizza dough at home, and you can replace half the white flour with whole-wheat flour to boost fiber and whole-grain nutrients. To add heart-healthy omega-3s, you can even add flaxseed into the mix (replace 1/4 cup of flour with ground flaxseed).

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