Fighting Fat: Most Fast Food Chains Offer Slim Pickins for Healthy Eaters, but a Square Meal Is Possible
Pardue, Leslie, E Magazine
For health-conscious travelers, or those just wanting to grab a quick meal, it's never been easy to find something appetizing to eat at the fast food outlets that spring up like weeds along every major traffic artery.
According to a 1991 Gallup poll, about one fifth of the population looks for a restaurant with "healthy" menu items when dining out, and one third said they would order non-meat items if they were available. While less than one percent of the populace is vegetarian, health concerns are prompting many to make an effort to cut down on high-fat, high-cholesterol foods. The National Restaurant Association predicts that, for the first time ever, consumers this year will spend more at fast food places than they will at full-service restaurants - a whopping $86 billion, according to industry estimates. No wonder McDonald's builds a thousand new restaurants a year.
Getting a decent, healthy meal on the go today often requires intimate knowledge of area eateries, or seeking out ethnic restaurants off the beaten path. These days, however, even the major fast food chains are making strides in introducing new, more health-conscious menu items.
Healthy eating in the chains is not simply a matter of avoiding the traditional gut-busters, however. A study last year by the Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter revealed that Boston Chicken's $5.99 half-chicken plate actually contains more fat and calories than a $4.47 belly-bruiser of a Big Mac, large fries and a chocolate shake. And that's just choosing between two terrible alternatives: The McDonald's meal has 45 grams of fat, 40 grams of sugar, 1,280 milligrams of sodium and 1,140 calories.
Fat, and most crucially the saturated fat contained in animal products, is the primary reason to avoid fast food. According to nutritionists, only 30 percent of dietary calories should be fat. Look at these awesome statistics: According to Bowes and Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used, 55 percent of the calories in a Big Mac comes from fat, together with 83 milligrams of cholesterol. Compare this to beans, which are only four percent fat; potatoes, which are less than one percent fat; and rice, which contains one to five percent fat.
In 1986, Hardee's became the first major chain to abandon beef fat and switch to 100 percent vegetable oil for its fried foods. Now, with the exception of Roy Rogers (which uses beef tallow for its fries), vegetable oil is the standard, showing that progress can be made.
Fast food restaurants would do their patrons' cholesterol counts a favor by offering a low-fat, meatless burger patty. After getting pressure from groups like Farm Sanctuary, the 7,200-plus outlet Burger King chain last year test marketed a meatless burger, "The Griller," in 19 western New York outlets as well as in focus groups, but discontinued it despite its popularity. Franchisee David Kessler remarked that just getting corporate approval to test market the Griller "was like turning the Queen Mary around in a bathtub," and he was ordered to remove the burger from the menu after the tests concluded in December 1993.
Reportedly, the decision to nix the Griller wasn't based on its public reception, but rather on an overall "back to basics" marketing strategy the corporation is employing. During the 1980s, many fast food chains introduced new menu items like chicken nuggets and salads, designed to appeal to health-conscious customers. But more variety meant slower service and higher costs, leading some chains - notably Burger King in its effort to catch up to its rival McDonald's - to retreat to the tried-and-true burgers-and-fries formula, and the introduction of the "value menu" to steer customers toward a limited number of menu items in different combinations. …