Is it ever OK to eat fast foods or junk food?
Many of us have been there. We’re a few weeks into a diet and craving a cheeseburger with all the fixins’ or fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, all from our favorite fast-food restaurants.
Whether you crave a fast food meal or junk food from your kitchen cabinet, it’s all similar, nutritionally, according to Julianna Coughlin, RD, dietician at JML Care Center in Falmouth.
“Fast food and junk food are essentially the same thing,” she said. “Fast foods from McDonald’s or Wendy’s and pre-packaged junk food, such as potato chips and other snacks, provide little to no health benefits. They’re fast, easy to get and generally unhealthy.”
Despite the better awareness around nutrition, the fast food industry is going strong in the U.S. A 2013 Gallup poll showed eight out of 10 Americans eat at a fast food restaurant at least monthly, and almost half of them at least weekly. The report also concluded that, while Americans are aware fast foods have little health benefit for them, it appears the low cost, taste or convenience outweighs the health concerns.
The fat, sugar and carbohydrate contents in fast foods are the problem, health-wise, explained Coughlin. These foods contain high levels of saturated and trans fats. These fats increase your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, whereas polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (found in healthier foods) decrease LDL, according to the American Heart Association.
“Some fast foods have over 10 grams of trans fats in one serving,” said Coughlin. “Your goal should be no or minimal trans fats.”
Ways to Minimize the Damage
The amount of sugar, carbohydrates and fats in one of these fast food meals can really spike your blood sugar, especially if you have been dieting, she said. Not only will it throw your metabolism completely for a loop, it can lead to a quick spike and then drop in blood sugar, leaving you feeling tired, irritable and wanting more.
If you absolutely need to respond to your craving, you can do it with some forethought and a little creativity to minimize the unhealthy side effects of fast foods.
Coughlin suggests the following tips:
- Order a kids meal. You can do this at any restaurant, especially fast food places like McDonald’s. It will limit your calories and fat and it’s a pre-portioned amount and they are often healthier options than adult meals because the portions are smaller, and they are lower in fats, carbohydrates and calories. They also offer choices of fruit or yogurt and/or low-fat milk. Note: It’s important to note the nutritional contents of kids’ meals in the various restaurants because they vary from meal to meal and can occasionally be higher in fat than adult meals.
- Order a large helping of salad, vegetables or fruit with your smaller meal. These will provide fiber, fill you up and help to counteract the blood sugar spike you may get from the fast food you ate.
- If you choose an adult meal, eat half and take the rest home for the next day’s lunch.
- Try a healthier restaurant that serves food quickly, such as Panera Bread or Subway. Many of the items at Panera are healthier than in some other fast food restaurants. At Subway, you can order a whole grain bread with lean meat and vegetables.
- When having fast food, try to limit it to once a week or less.
While Coughlin is not a proponent of fast food meals on a regular basis or the idea of allowing “cheat foods” or “cheat” days, she recommends eating a very small portion of the food you crave with an otherwise balanced meal. For example, if you’re craving French toast, have a small slice of it with a healthy breakfast such as oatmeal, fruit or yogurt.