Saving 500 Fast Food Calories: 8 Tips for Healthier Options

Sometimes you may just need the convenience of a fast food restaurant. As a study highlighted in today’s Cancer Research Update points out, you’ll be faced with more choices than ever. One of the study’s findings was that consumers had over 50 percent more menu items in 2010 to choose from compared to 14 years earlier.

So if you’re watching your calories to maintain a healthy weight – which reduces your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases – here are eight tips to help you quickly navigate the abundance of options. In just one visit, it’s not hard to save 500 calories or more in one visit, while making your meal more nutritious.

1. Avoid entrees that top the list in calories and fat
Estimated Calories Saved: 350-500
McDonald’s: Order a cheeseburger (300 calories, 12 g fat) instead of the Cheddar Bacon Onion Third Pounder (790 calories, 41 grams of fat)

Taco Bell: Go for the Fresco Steak Burrito Supreme® (340 calories and 9 g of fat) instead of the XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito Beef (880 calories, 42 grams of fat)

KFC: Have the Chicken Littles® sandwich without sauce (230 calories, 8 g fat) instead of the Crispy Twister® sandwich (610 calories, 33 g fat)

2. Pick a green salad or fruit as a side
Estimated Calories Saved: 200-400
You can save over up to 400 calories by opting for a side salad or sliced apples instead of French fries or a baked potato, plus you get extra fiber and nutrients that are beneficial for health. Steer clear of mayo-based sides like coleslaw and potato salad.

3. Ask for dressing on the side
Estimated Calories Saved: 150
Dressing can transform a nutritious salad into one of the highest calorie items on the menu. Opt for vinaigrette-based dressings and add it yourself to limit the amount.

4. Select grilled over fried
Estimated Calories Saved: 150-200
Look for grilled chicken and fish rather than fried or “crispy” options that are higher in fat, particularly trans fat, which is the type most harmful to the heart.

5. Ask for a kid’s size
Estimated Calories Saved: 400
Getting a kid’s sized menu item will help control portions. If you want French fries, the kid’s portion has about 100 calories compared to 500 calories in the large.

6. Go for mustard
Estimated Calories Saved: 50-100
Seemingly harmless condiments and toppings can quickly add unnecessary calories, fat and sodium. Flavoring with mustard or salsa will add fewer calories than mayo, cheese or other creamy dressings and sauces. Salsa at Taco Bell adds only 5 calories, while the cilantro dressing contains 90 calories.

7. Choose water
Estimated Calories Saved: 150-310 (small to large)
Sugar in soda and juice don’t have the same effect on satiety (fullness) as food does, and they quickly add calories to a meal. Choose water as your beverage, or if you can’t skip the soda go for the diet option. Order low-fat milk for your kids instead of chocolate milk.

8. Watch out for milkshakes
Estimated Calories Saved: 500-700
A vanilla ice cream cone is about 170 calories, compared to a 16 oz M&M® McFlurry®, which comes in at 930 calories.

The bottom line is that the increase in menu items at fast food restaurants can be daunting, but it also means there are more nutritious options you can choose.

Sonja Goedkoop, MSPH, RD, is a clinical dietitian at the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center. She has a passion for promoting a healthy lifestyle and reducing obesity through improved nutrition and physical activity.


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