8 Tips for Survival in a Food Desert

No, I haven’t lost my mind (well not about this).  No one wants you to eat fast food except for the fast food industry. It’s terrible for you. It makes you fat. It destabilizes economies and nations. It kills the environment. Read Fast Food Nation. See Super Size Me. If you’re really serious about getting or staying in shape, fast food restaurants are not on your path to success.

However, sometimes fast food feels like the only option. Long road trips, coworker lunches, the only place your child or childish companion will eat—these are all situations where you may be forced to enter one of these grand cathedrals to gluttony.

While the fast food companies have generally shown an blatant disregard for their customers’ health, they should be publicly shamed for our nation’s obesity epidemic. We have shamed them just enough that they are begrudgingly offering some menu items that have some nutritional value. They still can’t resist adding a little unneeded fat or extra high-fructose corn syrup just to spice things up, so it’s wise to take a buyer-beware approach when ordering your meal. Here are some tips to make healthier choices and some suggestions about the healthiest (relatively speaking) things to order at some of the major fast food chains.

1. Get less for your money. This may seem counter intuitive, but the so-called value meals really only offer you extra calories, saturated fat, sugar, and other diet killers. While it may seem like an unbelievable deal that you can get twice as many fries for only 19 more cents. Follow Nancy Regan’s advice and “Just say no!”. If you really want to save money, pack a lunch.

2. Discover your inner child. The best place to find a reasonably sized portion for an adult is, sadly, the children’s menu. Bowing to the horrible publicity created by childhood obesity, fast food companies have made the most improvements to their kids’ menus. In many restaurants, the kids’ meal is the only way you can get healthy sides like fruit or carrots. Don’t be ashamed to order the junior hamburger or even the kids’ meal. You might get a free toy in the transaction, Booya!

3. Stick to salads. A big problem with fast food is that many innocent-looking nuggets and patties are loaded with added fats, “flavorful” chemicals, and high-fructose corn syrup, which wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels. So, order the salad. You’re probably not going to be eating organic fruits and vegetables in these salads, but they’re probably less slathered with bad-for-you additives than the other options. Until you get to the dressing. Ask for oil and vinegar or a vinegar-based dressing like Italian. Also, most places give you enough dressing to dress several salads so use only half the packet of dressing or ask for a side cup you can squirt it into, and then dip your fork in the dressing before you take a bite of salad.

4. Beware of “theme” salads. It’s called a salad. It looks like a salad. It has lettuce. It must be a salad…right? Don’t be fooled by clever naming tricks.  A taco salad at most places includes all the unhealthy ingredients you’re trying to avoid. Use common sense when selecting a salad. Make sure all the ingredients are vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins that you recognize.

5. Have it your way. Remember the old Burger King jingle, “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us”? Take them at their word—only don’t hold the pickle and the lettuce, and do hold the mayo and ketchup that includes high-fructose corn syrup. Ask if you can substitute the grilled chicken breast for the breaded chicken breast, wheat buns for white buns, or even lettuce cups for buns. (in California, we call that “protein style.”) Ask for extra veggies. And hold the “cheez,” especially if it’s spelled with a “z.” Tell them you’d rather salt the fries yourself. When you order the “healthy” grilled-chicken or fish sandwiches, make sure they’re not loaded with mayo or special sauces. Ask for salsa or mustard instead. Yes, you’re being picky. But, it’s your health that’s on the line here!

6. Watch what you drink. The most profitable menu items for restaurants are soft drinks. They cost almost nothing to make and what you get in return is tons of sugar and chemicals, and maybe, eventually, diabetes! Try to stick with unsweetened iced tea or water. And to play the broken record again, if you must get soda, get the small size.

7. A milkshake is not a drink. It will often be suggested that you wash down your burgers and fries with a frosty milkshake. Sounds good, right? You can tell yourself you’re getting your calcium! You’re also getting over 1,000 calories if you get a large size at some restaurants. Even the kid sizes come in at 300 plus calories. Your drink shouldn’t have more calories than your meal.

8. Hide from sandwhiches that sound like action movie titles. He grew up in the mean streets of South Boston. A boxing hero that has taken the law into his own hands, and now he’s back to clean up his home. He’s Big Mac! Or my favorite, The Baconator which sounds like a SyFy movie. If it sounds like it could beat you up don’t put it in your body.

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