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Stroke Smart Magazine

September/October 2008

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Smarter Fast Food
What You Need to Know to Make Healthy Choices

By Pete Lewis

Either out of necessity or as an indulgence, Americans love to dine out. But restaurants — from fast-food hamburger joints and pizzaparlors to sit-down, full-service places—present a major challenge for anyone trying to eat healthy.

The problem with restaurants can be summed up with two words: too much.

“There’s too much fat, too much salt and too many calories, but it all comes down to too  much food,” said Deb Vevea, a registered dietitian at North Memorial in Robbinsdale, Minn. “Quantity is the number one problem with restaurants. [Restaurants want] to come off like [they’re] giving you a good value so they give you too much food.”

A single meal at a restaurant may contain more salt, fat and calories than you need all day, said Susan Buckley, a registered dietitian at South Denver Cardiology Associates. The secret is to make healthy choices about what you order and intelligent decisions about how much you eat.

“Most restaurants use a lot of highly processed food,” Buckley said. “We get 70 percent of our salt, not from the salt shaker, but from processed food. A person over 50 probably should eat no more than 1,500 milligrams of salt a day. One meal at a restaurant can easily contain 3,000 to 4,000 milligrams of salt.”

The first step to eating healthy at restaurants is to educate yourself about the food you eat. Today, there’s no excuse for not having a basic understanding about the amount of calories, fat and salt in different foods. Some restaurants provide nutritional information about the items on their menus, but you may have to ask for the information. In addition, many books and websites provide easy-to-understand information about specific meals found at popular restaurants.

Don’t make general assumptions about menu items. Even what appears to be a healthy choice, like a salad, could be a problem. Restaurant salads are usually big, come with too much dressing, or contain high-salt and high-fat items such as bacon and cheese. Never be afraid to ask that certain ingredients be removed, replaced, or put on the side.

“Know the healthy choices and walk in the door with a healthy attitude,” Vevea said. Once you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll be able to make smarter choices when you eat out.

5 Healthy Fast Food Tips

  • Learn about food before you order. Try:
  • Be the first one to order so that you won’t be persuaded by what others in your party order.
  • Ask that your meal be prepared a certain way or without certain ingredients.
  • Split a meal with a friend.
  • Order a take-home container with your meal, cut your meal in half, wrap it up and put it aside  before you take your first bite.


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