The fast food industry continuously lands in the center of the debate on our country’s obesity epidemic. If you’ve seen Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me,” which skewers fast food, then you know what I’m talking about.
As if in answer to the criticism, fast food restaurants are developing new “healthier” options. McDonald’s has its salads, smoothies and oatmeal; Krispy Kreme is planning to include options such as oatmeal, yogurt and juice; Carl’s Jr is working with Men’s Health on a new turkey burger; and other restaurants, such as Red Robin and Fuddruckers, also offer turkey burgers.
Here’s a question: Are these healthier alternatives better for us than the regular menu items? Perhaps. It depends on your health goals. If you’re concerned about managing your weight, you want to look at calorie counting certainly, but then move beyond that and examine the nutritional offerings of these foods to see how they fit into your overall daily diet.
For instance, a New York Times writer recently blogged about the fact that the oatmeal at McDonald’s contains only 10 calories fewer than a cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin. While this statement is true, it is also misleading.
According to McDonald’s, both their cheeseburger and Egg McMuffin contain 300 calories, while the oatmeal with brown sugar contains 290 calories (260 if you order it without sugar). Considering that most adults consume between 1,800 and 2,000 calories per day, eating a meal at that calorie level is pretty good! Granted we’re not adding in the fries, soda or hash browns that you can order as a side with the burger or breakfast sandwich, but that’s another story — and you don’t have to make that choice!
If you’re more concerned about preventing or managing health issues like diabetes or heart disease, then you’ll want to take a look past calories to the fat and sugar content.
The Egg McMuffin has 5g of saturated fat (25% of an adult’s daily limit) and only 2g of fiber, whereas the oatmeal has the reverse: 2g of saturated fat (from the cream) and 5g of fiber. That’s more fiber than most whole grain breads and cereals can claim! Already the oatmeal is looking like a sensible alternative when at McDonald’s.
Now let’s look at sugar. That same NYTimes blogger wrote that the oatmeal also contains more sugar than a Snickers bar. Again, true but misleading.
A Snickers bar contains 30g sugar, while the oatmeal with brown sugar contains 32g, which can be reduced to 18g when you order it minus the brown sugar. More importantly, that 18g of sugar comes from the fruit (read: added fiber) in the oatmeal, whereas the Snickers bar is pure processed sugar, with no real nutritional value (and 25% of saturated fat and only 1g fiber). Plus, you can control the sugar added to the oatmeal, to give yourself a bit of flavoring but not the full heaping 14g.
The other detriment that has been named against these “healthy fast food” options is the chemicals and additives they contain. Overall, chemicals and additives are not ideal, but some of these ingredients are completely harmless and are used in many foods as preservatives or stabilizers, to help keep the food tasty, stable and safe to eat. When you’re looking for convenience, then you’re probably eating additives, and generally they are considered safe.
Sure, not all self-described healthful options fast food restaurants are adding to their menus will actually be good for you. It’s a wait-and-see situation. But I applaud these restaurants for at least trying to give consumers options. Many cities are pushing restaurants to post nutrition facts (mainly calories and fat) to create the transparency needed for consumers to make the best choices.
The best way, of course, to avoid chemicals and added fat and sugar is to eat foods closer to farm-fresh, foods that you prepare yourself from fresh or frozen ingredients. But when looking to convenience foods, consumers just need to be educated and aware of what they’re eating. Treating yourself to a fast food meal every now and then is fine, as long as you remember to balance it with an overall healthful eating plan and daily exercise.
— Melanie Beach, MS, RD, LDN