Food Tips

Is Fast Food *Really* Getting Healthier?

In the interest of keeping up with changing diet trends and maintaining a competitive edge, many fast-food chains are adding “healthy” options to their menus. But are these new drive-through items really better for you?

By Keri Gans, RD

Times are changing—people are demanding healthier, more sustainable options at restaurants, in grocery stores, and even on drive-through menus. And it seems that recently, fast-food chains have been trying pretty hard to keep up with the times, looking for ways to improve the nutrition on their menu.

Just last week, McDonald’s announced three new items that will be available throughout Southern California: Chobani Greek yogurt and two breakfast bowls. The Chobani yogurt will be used in their existing parfaits and fruit smoothies. One breakfast bowl will include egg whites, sauteed baby spinach and kale, Parmesan cheese, and fresh bruschetta. And the other bowl will have crispy hash browns, scrambled eggs, ground chicken chorizo, shredded cheddar jack cheese, pico de gallo, and spicy salsa.

It’s a probably a safe guess that McDonald’s realized kale and Greek yogurt are hot trends at the moment and didn’t want to miss out—smart. The addition of Greek yogurt is good to see as previously the parfait and smoothies were lacking in protein, making them mostly just high in sugar. Can’t argue with adding spinach and kale to anything, but without a complete nutrition analysis, the verdict is out. And let’s be honest, crispy hash browns are still hash browns whether they’re served in a bowl or next to an Egg McMuffin.

Last March, McDonald’s also announced that they would stop using meat from chickens raised with antibiotics, even though the direct harm to humans of eating antibiotic-fed meat is still up for debate. But let’s be real, a 10-piece serving of Chicken McNuggets (no matter the source of the chicken) with creamy ranch dressing still has 42g total fat, 7g saturated fat, and 1070mg sodium. Better for you? Not so sure.

However, there are a few options on their menu that really are healthier—you just need to look for them.

  • Egg White Delight McMuffin: 250 calories, 8g total fat, 4.5g saturated fat, 740mg sodium, 17g protein, 1g fiber
  • Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken (and low-fat balsamic vinaigrette): 370 calories, 13g total fat, 4.5g saturated fat, 1320mg sodium, 33g protein, 6g fiber
  • Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich: 360 calories, 6g total fat, 1.5g saturated fat, 960mg sodium, 33g protein, 3g fiber

Arby’s take on “healthy” alternatives is a little different. On February 29 (a date that comes along just every four years), the fast-food chain introduced a one-day-only vegetarian menu to each of its 3,400 outlets nationwide. Basically, in honor of “leap day,” they offered any of their items without meat, with just cheese and veggies. Ummm? This sounds more like something anyone could do themselves—not exactly a new, healthy menu item.

Last May, Taco Bell also hopped on the bandwagon by announcing that they will begin to remove all artificial colors and ingredients from their food. Yes to no more Yellow No. 6! But artificial colors and ingredients are not responsible for a single order of the Nachos BellGrande costing 759 calories, 39g total fat, 6g saturated fat, and 1320mg sodium (that’s more than half your daily allowance of sodium). Ouch. To be fair, Taco Bell’s Fresco menu, whose items represent a 25 percent reduction in total fat, provides some better options. For example, the Fresco Bean Burrito has only 350 calories, 9g total fat, 2.5g saturated fat, 9g fiber, 13g protein, and 1040mg sodium.

The bottom line is this: It’s wonderful that the fast-food industry seems to be trying to do better. But it’s still your responsibility to make the best choices. If you hardly ever eat in a fast-food restaurant and maintain a pretty healthy diet, then this is moot. The rare times you go, honestly, just eat whatever you want. But if you find yourself a frequent customer, read the menu closely and look for the items that provide the least amount of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar. Aim for items that are closer to 400 calories and that provide some fiber. You got this!

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