Fast food. We all have a love/hate relationship with it. We love how easy, convenient and good it is, but it has one blatant flaw: it’s not healthy. In fact, eating fast food can have severe negative effects on cholesterol, heart health and blood pressure. But why exactly is fast food so bad for you? Are there ways to still eat fast food but avoid the health risk? Keep reading to find more about how fast food affects your health and how you can decrease the risk.
So What’s Wrong With Fast Food Anyway?
Most people are aware of the fact that fast food is unhealthy but are unclear as to exactly why it is so bad for you. To help bring some clarity, the Canadian Journal of Cardiology did a study to show the exact effects of fast food on our health.
The study involved 28 non-smoking, healthy men between the ages of 18 and 50. It compared the effects of fast food to a Mediterranean-based meal. The men were first given the Mediterranean meal after fasting for 12 hours. The meal consisted of salmon, almonds, and vegetables baked in olive oil. After a week and another 12 hour fast, the men consumed a fast food sausage, egg and cheese muffin sandwich and three hash browns.
The function of the men’s blood vessels was measured after each 12 hour fast, and again every two and four hours after the meal. The results showed that the men’s arteries were 24% less dilated after consuming the fast food meal than when they were fasting. This means that the likelihood of blocked blood flow in the arteries greatly increased after eating just one fast food meal. Imagine the effects of eating one every day!
There are three main reasons why fast food is so unhealthy:
- The calories.
- The sodium.
- The fat.
The average person should consume about 2000 calories a day, eating about 400-600 per meal plus a few healthy snacks in between meals. Fast food contains a lot more calories than a normal meal. One fast food meal typically contains about half of the recommended daily calories. For example, a McDonald’s Big Mac has 550 calories. Add to that a small French fry for 230 calories, and a medium Coke for 210 calories, and that one meal consists of almost 1000 calories. Because it has so many extra calories, you will want to eat fast food sparingly and in moderation to minimize health risks.
While sodium is essential to living, too much sodium can have negative effects on health such as high blood pressure, obesity and osteoporosis. The recommended daily intake of sodium is 1200-1500mg, but many fast food items nearly contain those amounts by themselves. The Big Mac contains 970mg of sodium and a small fry contains 160, nearly adding up to the entire daily recommended amount of sodium in just one meal.
Some fat is essential for good health. However, there are two types of fat — saturated fat and a type of unsaturated fat called trans fat — highly present in fast food that have negative effects if too much is consumed. Both types of fat can lead to increased cholesterol levels in the blood. High cholesterol can contribute to problems like heart attack, stroke, or cardiovascular disease.
Choosing Healthier Fast Food
While most fast food is unhealthy, many restaurants have added some alternatives to their menu to promote a healthier lifestyle. For example, some places now offer fruit cups instead of French fries or milk instead of soda. Even if there are limited options for healthy choices, there are still some measures you can take to help make your meal less of a health risk.
- Read the descriptions of the food item before ordering. If the description says something is deep-fried, batter-dipped, breaded or covered in sauce, it is probably not the healthiest option available. Try something grilled, something lean or something with vegetables instead.
- Leave off extra condiments or other “dressings.” Fast food restaurants often add special sauces to their food to enhance flavor. However, these sauces are usually high in calories and packed with fat. Ask for sauce to be left off or on the side so you can control the quantity.
- Drink water. Soda is very high in calories, and the sizes of beverages at fast food chains tend to be much larger than what you would normally drink. Opt for water instead of soda, but if you do get soda, go for a smaller size to avoid drinking more than you need.
- Limit yourself. Try to avoid fast food whenever possible. Say no to upsizing and stop eating once you are full. Also try to avoid restaurants with buffets, as you will be tempted to keep going back for more.
Things to Avoid
In addition to the above measures that can be taken to make fast food a little healthier, there are also some items that should be avoided altogether.
- Salt. Fast food items are already extra-salty so adding more salt just makes matters worse. As mentioned above, adults should not consume more than 1500mg of sodium a day. However, a study by the New York City Health Department looked at the sodium levels in 6,580 fast food meals and the results were astonishing. About 57% of the meals exceeded 1500mg of sodium. Fried chicken chains were the worst offenders with 83% of meals over 1500mg sodium and 55% exceeding 2300mg. Remember that too much sodium can cause a variety of health problems, so think twice before adding on more salt.
- Bacon. It can be tempting to add bacon to your cheeseburger, salad or sandwich, but doing so actually decreases the health value of your meal. Bacon is high in fat and calories, and while it tastes good, it doesn’t bring any nutritional value to the meal. Try adding on pickles, onions or tomatoes for extra flavor that is healthier than bacon.
The Healthiest Fast Food Chains
Though many fast food chains should be frequented in moderation, some are healthier than others. In March 2009, Health Magazine released a list of what they believe to be the healthiest fast food chains:
- Panera Bread
- Jason’s Deli
- Au Bon Pain
- Noodles and Company
- Corner Bakery Café
Surprisingly, even McDonald’s made the top 10 because it offers several healthier choices like grilled chicken or fruit instead of fries. This just goes to show that any fast food can be made healthier depending on your choices.
While fast food can be detrimental to health, it does not need to be avoided completely. As long as it is eaten in moderation and your lifestyle is otherwise healthy, fast food will have minimal effects on your health. To learn more about how fast food may be affecting your well-being, talk to your doctor.