Fast food: The expressway to obesity

Dec 8 2010 - 5:39pm

In less than five minutes and for less than five dollars, you can get a meal that tastes good and fills you up. But the trade-off for that convenience may be your health.

"As to how bad fast food is for you -- it depends on what you choose and how often you eat it," said registered dietitian Cynthia White of North Logan. "Fast food is a reality in many people's lives, and some people eat it on a regular basis. You can eat very poorly or fairly well."

On average, Americans eat out four times per week, or over 200 meals per year, according to an expert with the Utah Department of Health.

Patrice Isabella, nutrition coordinator for the state's Department of Health, said a survey of Utah households for 2006 and 2008 shows that 42 percent of adults eat fast food less than once per week, 39 percent eat it one to three times per week, and 19 percent eat it more than three times per week.

"Analysis of the data showed that more overweight and obese people reported eating fast food more than three times a week than those not overweight," she wrote in an e-mail to the Standard-Examiner.

"Twenty-five percent of obese adults reported eating fast food more than three times per week, while only 13.3 percent of not-overweight people reported eating fast food more than three times per week."

Grant Cefalo, registered dietitian at McKay-Dee Hospital, said a study also shows the highest percentage of obese people in the state live in Box Elder County. He thinks that may be because most of the restaurants there serve fast food.

"People who eat fast food tend to weigh more," he said.

Why so bad?

Local experts agree that most people eat poorly at a fast-food joint.

"(Fast food) is bad because of the lack of whole fruits, colorful vegetables, whole grains, too much fat and sodium and possibly sugars, if sweets or sugar drinks are consumed," said Joan Thompson, professor of nutrition at Weber State University. "When you think that two-thirds of meals are eaten out of the home, and fast foods dominate, it is highly unlikely that a well-balanced, low-to-moderate-in-fat, antioxidant-rich diet can be consumed over the course of the day."

Clinical dietitian Rina Jordan, of the Ogden Clinic, said the goals of fast-food restaurants do not promote health.

"Fast food is designed to be fast, inexpensive and attractive enough that people will come back again. They are not designed to be healthy. They're supposed to be convenient," she said. "They've marketed them so well that we're eating there so frequently. A large percentage of our diet (in a fast-food restaurant) is high in saturated fat and trans fat, and low in fiber and not based on whole grains, legumes, fruits and veggies -- generally very unhealthy."

That type of diet, said Ogden Regional Medical Center registered dietitian Katie Wewer, increases bad cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

Better choices

Rod Hansen, associate professor of health promotions at Weber State University, said he tends to agree with the anti-fast-food message of popular food documentaries.

"During 'Super Size (Me)' at one point, they called registered dietitians and asked, 'How often should I be eating at McDonald's?' and 98 percent or more said 'once' or 'never' per month. That's probably true. It just is not good for us," he said.

Hansen admits, though, there are some nutritious out-to-eat choices.

At many restaurants, he said, healthy choices are marked on the menu. Fast-food places that allow you to pick the components of your meal can be healthy, he added.

Wewer likes that many fast-food restaurants have begun to offer apples as a side and fruit in salads: "It's getting better. There are really good salads now. You have to get a low-calorie dressing, but they are pretty tasty. Subway has sandwiches with six grams of fat or less," she said.

White agrees. "There are some good choices such as the Subway-type lower-calorie sandwiches and salads that are clearly identified, even on their napkins. Many restaurants offer dinner-type salads, fruit cups, apple slices and low-fat chili. These items are obviously better than the large hamburger, fries, shake route," she said.

A caution

Jordan said most fast-food consumers come away with more calories than they plan to.

"In response to the press, (fast-food places) offer lower fat and healthier options, mostly to draw us in. There are a plethora of other items to draw our attention and we choose other items," she said.

For example, at Subway, you need to choose a six-inch sandwich without cheese or mayonnaise to get less than six fat grams. Jordan said the typical consumer is too pressured at the drive-through to know about or make those specifications.

She suggests studying nutritional information of your favorite restaurants beforehand, getting low-fat frozen entrees or making meals at home.

Cefalo tells those who choose fast food because it's cheaper that they could make the same meal for less.

It's a challenge. It's so convenient," he said, "You could buy the ingredients and do it cheaper and healthier, but it takes more time."


If you must do fast food, remember this:

* A junior-sized hamburger is better than one with double meat, cheese and bacon. The calories in a kids meal are more appropriate for an adult.

* Load up on veggies at sandwich places. Avoid processed meats and use vinegar instead of mayonnaise.

* Go for a grilled chicken sandwich over breaded chicken -- and hold the mayonnaise.

* Watch the cheese, dressing and breaded chicken on salads -- a low-fat, vinegar-type dressing is best.

* At Mexican places, choose the whole-wheat tortilla or wrap with chicken or beans, extra lettuce and tomatoes -- and hold the sour cream and extra cheese.

* Get a tostada with low-cal dressing over the full salad at CafA(c) Rio or Costa Vida; that cuts the calories in half. Some full-size salads have up to 1,800 calories.

* Fruit is a better side than fries. If you must have fries, choose the smallest size and share them.

* A baked potato topped with chili is a good choice, if you skip the butter and sour cream.

* Choose water or diet soda. Soft drinks have 400-700 calories -- the calorie amount you should be getting for the full meal.

* Watch out at breakfast. Some of the bacon and cheese sandwiches have up to 900 calories.

* Choose dessert yogurt or apples instead of ice cream.

* If you supersize, you'll become supersize.

Sources: Registered dietitians Katie Wewer, Grant Cefalo and Cynthia White

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