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How to Make Your Fast Food Habit Healthier

by Samantha Cassetty, RD /
There's a better way to eat fast food. Digital Vision / Getty Images

The science is in: We Americans love our fast food — a lot. According to results of a new study of more than 8,000 adults, almost 80 percent reported eating fast food at least once a week. And when researchers looked at different income brackets, who was eating all those burgers and fries didn’t change much. "It's not mostly poor people eating fast food in America," said Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study and research scientist at The Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research. Even when income levels went up or down, say due to changes in employment, fast food habits stayed the same.

Rich or poor, 80 percent of Americans eat fast food at least once a week.

Rich or poor, 80 percent of Americans eat fast food at least once a week.

The study reported that long work hours were tied to consuming more KFC, Mickey Ds, and Taco Bell. If your schedule makes fast food a hard habit to break, there are a few key ways to navigate the drive-through menu better. But first, two habits to break:

The Don’ts:

  • Forget the phrase SUPERSIZE. Don’t double up on burgers, upsize your fries or buy in to a giant caloric beverage. Just don’t. Forget the combo orders, too. I’m all for a bargain but believe me, you’ll want to spare yourself the excess sodium, artery-clogging saturated fat, sugar, and calories. Alone, each of these things can raise your risk of chronic illness; together, well, let’s just call this a bad mix.
  • Please pass on the sugary drinks. Even small soda once a week adds up to 7,800 calories over the course of a year. It may not sound like a ton, but it could be the difference between maintaining your weight and ultimately asking yourself, “when did I gain 5 pounds?” In fact, if you’re regularly consuming soda outside of your fast food fix, you should reconsider that, too. If your workplace has a water cooler, you can fill up for free. Make it your beverage of choice.

RELATED: Fast Food Cheat-Sheet: Here’s What to Order at 10 Chains

The Do’s

Even small soda once a week adds up to 7,800 calories over the course of a year.

Even small soda once a week adds up to 7,800 calories over the course of a year.

  • Prioritize produce. I get it, you’re there for the combo burger and fries, but if this is a weekly pit stop, pick the salad 75 percent of the time. The point is, once you’re doing something on a routine basis, it can’t be considered a treat. From Taco Bell to Wendy’s and everywhere else, salads are part of the main menu so make a plant-forward pick most of the time.
  • Repeat the phrase, “I’ll have the single.” Though I don’t consider a fast food burger a nutritional powerhouse, a single burger has sufficient protein to fill you up and isn’t a total calorie bomb. Sure, I’d prefer to see a whole grain bun (fast food chains: Are you listening?), but the small amount of white bread every once in a while won’t do you in. If a single burger sounds too skimpy, steer yourself toward the sides and kids’ menus to look for fruits and veggies. You’ll often find a small salad, a fruit cup or even a whole piece of fruit.
  • Go easy on the fries. I know I’m asking a lot, but hear me out. Even a small order, with nearly as many calories as the burger and all those starchy carbs, won’t do your body any favors. If you can’t live without them, share them with a co-worker. But it’s a good idea to skip the side order most of the time.
  • Read food labels. What does this have to do with eating fast food? The study reports that label readers ate fast food less often. “While I don’t know for sure, my belief is that individuals who care enough to check the ingredients of items before eating them are trying to eat healthier and looking to avoid less healthy options that dominate the menu of fast food restaurants,” says Zagorsky.

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Priming yourself to read labels is a step towards understanding how to eat more healthfully and shop for more nutritious fare. Perhaps then, it’ll be easier to pass by the drive-through and stick with a convenient supermarket pick, such as a pre-packaged salad mix or a veggie-centric frozen meal.

Samantha Cassetty, RD, MS, is a registered dietitian practicing in New York City. She spent six years as the Nutrition Director for Good Housekeeping, where she reached 24 million readers with her healthy eating advice. An author of The Girlfriend Diet and contributor to the New York Times bestseller 7 Years Younger, Samantha’s approachable style has helped millions of people on their healthy eating journey.

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