Whether we like it or not, fast food plays a role in our lives. As children we think of greasy, salty meals obtained from the drive thru as a treat, but as we grow we (hopefully) learn to opt for veggies, whole grains and lean protein to both fill our stomachs and satisfy our palates.
No matter your age or dietary preference, there are times when fries and a cheeseburger seem like your only, or best option – whether it’s due to the low cost, your need for a splurge or general convenience. But that doesn’t mean you should sabotage your diet.
Here are five ways to navigate fast food menus to keep your health, and heart, in check.
1. Avoid portion distortion
You’re starving, it’s a great deal, you want to make the most of your guilty pleasure…the excuses are many. But when it comes to fast food it’s imperative to be mindful of your portions. “Do damage control by ‘smart-sizing,’” says Bridget Swinney, a registered dietitian who taught weight loss classes for the American Heart Association. “Order a kid’s size portion.”
Most meals are already above recommended serving sizes, so there is no need to go bigger. And make sure to avoid the words “double” and “extra.” (I’m talking about you, double bacon cheeseburger and extra cheesy quarto formaggio pizza.) Swinney also recommends being smart about sides. “Skip the fries and soda,” she says. “Order a side salad, baked potato or apple slices instead.”
2. Be sauce savvy
Dunking carrots in ranch dressing may seem like an innocent way to eat your veggies, but high-fat toppings and sauces can be almost as caloric and damaging to your heart as an oversized beef patty. A good rule of thumb: Order you meal sans cheese and with sauce on the side.
But this doesn’t mean your meal should be bland. There are plenty of heart-healthy alternatives to the creamy, fatty staples. “Healthier options include avocado, mustard, salsa, jalapenos or just extra lettuce, tomato and onion,” says Swinney. “Tomatoes are an easy way to add nutrition to your sandwich and contain lycopene, which is said to play a role in cancer and heart disease prevention.”
3. Say no to “fried”
Let’s face it: fried foods simply taste good. But unfortunately they don’t have the same affect on your heart as they do on your taste buds. “When foods are fried they soak up the oil, doubling or tripling the calories,” warns Swinney. “While many fast food restaurants now fry with trans fat-free oils, not all do. This means that you could be eating a significant portion of trans fat, which raises LDL cholesterol and may increase the risk of diabetes.”
Excessive consumption of fried foods also leads to clogged arteries and veins, which can result in a heart attack. Opt for baked, grilled or broiled options instead, and stray from other red flag terms like breaded, crunchy and creamy. It may not seem as satisfying, but your heart will thank you.
4. Sip smart
A soda may sound refreshing, but they are sugar-heavy beverages you should drink with caution – even diet. “A number of studies have shown that diet soda may have similar pitfalls to its sugar-sweetened cousin,” says Swinney. “While not conclusive, research suggests they may increase waist size, and your risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.”
Regularly pairing sweet beverages with a sodium-packed meal can wreak havoc on your health. If you can’t kick your soda habit just yet, diet is a better option. But Swinney suggests sticking to water, iced tea, a small juice or low-fat milk. “People who eat out a lot often miss out on their milk, which contains calcium, vitamin D, potassium and magnesium—all important for heart health,” says Swinney.
5. Go in prepared
You’re standing at the register debating a smoothie or chicken fingers. When the cashier looks at you with a twinge of annoyance, asking yet again if you’re ready to order, you blurt out, “I’ll have the chicken fingers.” When entering situations unprepared, it’s easy to make the wrong the decision. Fortunately, most fast food restaurants post nutrition information on their websites and mobile apps. So before you order, scan the nutrition facts, make a heart-healthy decision and order confidently.
Not sure what to look for? “For me the calories are the deal breaker,” says Swinney. “Then I look at saturated and trans fat.” Those with high blood pressure should extra cautious of their sodium intake as well. And if you’re ever uncertain which things are red flags for you, just ask your doctor.
Tara Fuller is an NYC-based health and fitness writer. When not running for charity, training for races or blogging about the latest nutrition news, she is writing for Greatist, Go Red and other online publications.