Putting the Brakes on Fast Food

Eating light when you're on the go is no picnic. Consider this: The average fast-food "value" meal weighs in at 1,200 calories, 53 grams of total fat, and a large dose of salt (sodium). In just a few speedy bites, you'll consume more than half your fat, calorie, and sodium allotment for the entire day.

With "heavy-weight" offerings like these, it's no wonder Americans are getting heftier and the country is ranking right up there among those with the highest rates for heart disease. Still, you don't have to give up fast food to get your diet on the right track.

"Just make your fast-food meals healthier by ordering wisely," says Donna Kernodle, R.D., a dietitian in Pfafftown, N.C.

Think small portions or share

To keep calories, sodium, and fat under control, don't order a "supersize" or "value" meal unless you plan to share it with someone. These meals contain too many calories for one person.

"Two adults can easily share those meals and have enough food," Kernodle says.

Or, if you're by yourself, order items à la carte and get the smallest size, such as the smallest hamburger. It may cost you a bit more, but you'll be less likely to overeat because there's less to finish.

And don't let the glossy photos of the big meals sway you. You won't feel deprived or walk away hungry.

Bypass the extras

Also, skip mayonnaise-based condiments and extra cheese. They are sources of hidden fat, sodium, and calories. Ask for fat-free dressing for your salad. Skip dessert, and just like you might do in a sit-down restaurant, wrap up your fast-food leftovers and save them for another meal.

At fast-food restaurants that allow you to "create" your own sandwich, healthy choices are low-fat meats such as chicken, turkey, or ham; fresh vegetables; whole-grain bread; and low-fat or nonfat spreads.

Or, instead of ordering a meal, order just an entrée, then add side dishes, such as a salad and vegetables, at home.

"Preparing your own side dishes gives you more control over the nutrition in your meal," Kernodle says.

With beverages, get into the habit of choosing low-fat milk, water, or a sugar-free soft drink, not empty-calorie soft drinks or calorie-laden milkshakes. Request that coffee drinks, such as cappuccino or latte, be made with skim or low-fat milk.

Get the facts

Determine how many calories you need each day by looking at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Choose My Plate website.

To help you order wisely, ask for a nutrition brochure or go online before you head to the restaurant. Most fast-food establishments have Web sites that provide nutrition information. Choose the restaurants that offer healthier menus.

"Knowing the facts—such as how many grams of fat and calories are actually in that fast-food salad versus the hamburger with cheese—can help make the selection process easier," Kernodle says.