Fast Food Salads: Are They Really A Better Choice?
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Fast Food Salads: Are They Really A Better Choice?

Image for fast food salads While most people think that the salads offered at fast food restaurants are healthy, nutritious choices, the truth may be quite different. Fast food salads vary widely in the nutrition category. While some salads are reasonable choices, many fast food restaurants soup up their salads with a variety of less-healthy, fat- and sodium-laden items, such as fried chicken, creamy full fat dressings, sour cream, and lots of cheese, bacon, nuts, fried croutons, and taco chips or shells. Less prevalent or completely absent are the nutritious, high-fiber salad items such as beans, chick peas, and a wide variety of fresh vegetables.

Here’s a brief comparison of the nutritional news from several popular salads, as compared to a basic burger-and-fries meal at the top fast food restaurants:

Menu item

Weight (g)

Calories

Calories from fat

Sat. Fat

(g)

Cholesterol (mg)

Sodium (mg)

Ttl. Carbs (g)

Fiber (g)

Protein (g)

Burger King

TenderGrill Chicken Garden Salad

292

240

80

3.5

80

720

8

4

33

Burger King Hamburger & Small Fries

195

520

220

7.5

40

940

56

3

17

McDonald’s Crispy Chicken Caesar Salad

312

300

120

4

55

1020

22

3

25

McDonald’s Hamburger and Small Fries

173

500

200

6.0

25

660

61

5

15

Wendy’s Chicken BLT Salad

452

680

410

13

125

1480

37

4

37

Wendy’s Hamburger & Medium Fries

360

840

360

10

65

1310

90

7

31

Au Bon Pain Chicken Caesar Salad

255

300

120

7

70

830

18

3

26

Compare this information with this very general information about what an average adult should eat during the course of an entire day:

Calories

Fat Calories

Sat. Fat calories

Cholesterol (mg)

Sodium (mg)

Carbohydrates

(g)

Fiber (g)

Protein

(g)

2000

400-700 (20%-35% of total calories)

200

(should be less than 10% of total calories)

200-300

2400

About 300

21-38

About 50-60

Sometimes fast food restaurants are the only option. When you have to dine and dash, here are some good choices to make in the salad department:

Menu item

Calories

Calories from fat

Sat. Fat

(g)

Cholesterol (mg)

Sodium (mg)

Ttl. Carbs (g)

Fiber (g)

Protein (g)

Burger King

Side Garden Salad

With Light Italian Salad Dressing

135

99

1.5

0

440

8

1

1

McDonald’s

Caesar Salad Without Chicken

With Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing

130

60

2.5

10

910

13

3

7

Wendy’s

Side Salad With Fat-free French Dressing

115

0

0

0

235

27

2

1

So, what’s a hungry person to do? Here are some suggestions for doctoring up the available salads to optimize their nutritional statistics:

Beware Deceptive Information

While all of the fast food restaurants have nutritional information available on all of their menu offerings, some of the information can be a bit misleading. For example, some of the information only gives nutritional statistics on the actual salad, leaving off the information about dressing, croutons, cheese, or other packets of ingredients that are included with your salad. Make sure you read the information carefully.

Remember: an Iceberg Sank the Titanic

Choose more complex greens than plain old iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is calorie-free, but it’s also nearly nutrition- and fiber-free. Worst of all, it’s essentially flavor-free, leading you down the path to high-fat temptation by encouraging you to add more flavorful (and higher fat, sodium, and calorie) ingredients to your salad in order to make it more palatable and satisfying.

Paint With a Broad Palette of Color

The greater the variety of colors in the vegetables in your salad, the greater the variety of nutrients. Go for a wide variety of greens (including different types of lettuces, spinach, peppers), oranges (carrots), and reds (tomatoes and red peppers).

Skip the Meat

Try ordering your salad without meat. Or, if you really want the meat, choose to have it grilled (not fried) and consider eating only half of what’s included with your salad.

Remember: Dynamite Comes in Small Packages

So if you want to avoid exploding your healthy eating plan, say no to those little packets of parmesan cheese, croutons, or Chinese noodles. They may look innocent (and yummy), but these extras are a serious source of fat, calories, and sodium. Ask your server to leave them off of your order—once you get them to your table, they’re just going to tempt you.

Don’t Douse, Dress

Ask if there’s a low- or no-fat dressing available, and substitute that for the one that comes with the salad you’ve ordered. Use the smallest amount possible to flavor (not drench!) your salad. Some restaurants have plain packets of vinegar or lemon juice available; consider sprinkling these on your greens instead of dressing.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know . . .

All of the major fast food restaurants have websites that detail the nutritional stats on each of their menu items. Read the available nutritional information about various fast food salads and other offerings. If you read about the choices in advance, and plan your attack, you might be more successful at making healthy choices.

RESOURCES:

American Dietetic Association
http://www.eatright.org/Public

Au Bon Pain
http://www.aubonpain.com/nutrition.html

Burger King Food and Nutrition
http://www.burgerking.com

McDonald's Nutrition Information
http://www.mcdonalds.com

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
http://www2.niddk.nih.gov/

Wendy’s International, Inc.
http://www.wendys.com/

References

How to make fast food friendlier. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3033900 . Accessed March 4, 2007.

Fast-food and quick serve salad entress. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website. Available at: http://www.pcrm.org/news/health030508_2.pdf . Accessed March 4, 2007.

Healthy food: healthy restaurant eating. Helpguide.org webstie. Available at: http://www.helpguide.org/life/fast_food_nutrition.htm . Accessed March 4, 2007.

Fast food. MedlinePlus website. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002462.htm . Accessed on March 4, 2007.



Last reviewed February 2007 by Janet H. Greenhut, MD, MPH

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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