Breaking the Fast-Food Cycle

In today's fast-paced world, most Americans rely on fast food every now and again. But for many U.S. citizens, these foods are more than just an occasional indulgence--at least 25 percent eat from popular chain restaurants every day, according to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.

Because fast food tends to be high-fat, high-calorie, and low in nutrition, experts warn that our national eating habits come with a variety of health hazards, including increased risk for obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The first step in breaking the fast-food cycle? Slow down to think about what you're eating.

Crunching the Numbers

In just one fast-food meal, you could meet, or even exceed, your daily calorie and fat requirements. For example, a 45-year-old sedentary woman who's 5 foot 4 inches tall and weighs 145 pounds needs approximately 1,775 calories a day. She should limit her total fat intake to less than 60 grams and her saturated fat intake to less than 20 grams.

If she stops at McDonald's for dinner and eats a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (740 calories, 26 grams total fat, 12 grams of saturated fat), Large Fries (570 calories, 30 grams total fat, 6 grams saturated fat), Large Coke (310 calories), and Apple Pie (270 calories, 12 grams total fat, 3.5 grams saturated fat), she's already exceeded her daily caloric requirement by more than 100 calories, her total fat by 8 grams, and her saturated fat by 1.5 grams. And that was only dinner.

Uncovering the Worst Fast Food Offenders

Based on nutritional information from each chain's website, here's the worst of the worst from popular fast-food restaurants:

  • Do you stop for coffee before work in the morning? Dunkin' Donuts Vanilla Bean Coolatta will cost you a cool 450 calories. If you also enjoy a cinnamon bun, you're tacking on an extra 510 calories.
  • What will it be for a quick lunch in between meetings: Kentucky Fried Chicken's "homemade" Chunky Chicken Pot Pie? KFC's version comes with 770 calories and 42 grams of fat, including 13 grams of saturated fat.
  • If you're craving Pizza Hut's Big New Yorker Sausage pizza, then you're also craving 570 calories, 33 grams of fat, and 14 grams of saturated fat. And that's just one slice!
  • If Mexican suits your preferences, Taco Bell may satisfy at 210 calories a taco. But do you stop at one? Or, do you add on the Mucho Grande Nachos for an extra 1,320 calories and 82 grams of fat, including 25 grams of saturated fat?
  • Subway offers some healthier options, but don't let that fool you. Even a seemingly healthy foot-long Tuna Melt has 768 calories, 42 grams of fat, and 10 grams of saturated fat. If you opt for the 6-inch instead, you'll cut your calories and fat in half.

Finding Healthier Options

According to a recent Temple University study, people who consumed three to six fast-food meals a week weighed significantly more than those who consumed one to two of these meals a week. Along these lines, if you must eat fast food, try to limit your trips to a few times a week.

In addition, there are ways to cheat the fast-food system. The American Heart Association offers the following healthy guidelines for eating on the go:

  • Pass on the super size. Burger King's King Size Onion Rings has 550 calories and 27 grams of fat, including 7 grams of saturated fat.
  • Skip the sides, or try a salad. McDonald's Super Size French Fries has 610 calories and 29 grams of fat, including 5 grams of saturated fat. But McDonald's Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad has only 100 calories and 2.5 grams of fat, including 1.5 grams of saturated fat.
  • Avoid double meat and bacon. Burger King's Double Whopper with cheese has a whopping 1,020 calories and 65 grams of fat, including 25 saturated grams of fat.
  • Eat your sandwich open-faced. By eating only half the bun, you'll eliminate unnecessary calories.
  • Try asking for a wheat bun. If the restaurant offers it, it will help cut down on calories and add to the nutrition content.
  • Skip the mayo. This also applies to calorie-laden dressings and sauces.
  • Drink water. Burger King's King Size Coca Cola Classic has 430 calories. Water is the best alternative, but failing that, opt for diet soda or low-fat milk instead of regular soda.