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So just saying “fast food” makes me feel like I just ate 1,000 empty, fat-laden calories.  And, yes there’s a ton of data demonstrating the fact that as the economy struggles and fast food marketeers dig-in, many find it tough to avoid the caloric tractor beam of the ubiquitous “value menu.”  Clearly fast food is an easy choice, and that’s what makes it so dangerous from a health and fitness perspective.

As I’ve stated in the past, I’m a realist, and not a fan of those who bark hard-core diet and fitness rules from their perch, as they stand next to their personal trainer and chef.  Life’s crazy, and I think it’s better to think through your dietary strategy, so that when you are tempted by a quick service restaurant (sounds healthier already), you make good choices and remain in control.  So, please just consider my first tip a “given” when it comes to nutrition.

1)  The more you can be in control of the ingredients and portion size you consume the better.  This means fastfood should be eaten, only when necessary.  Many of their products are “factory made” and assembled on site – – never a good option.  And even when making better choices, I suggest limiting your visits, if for no other reason, so that you don’t build a ‘fast food habit.’  However, when you do opt for quick service dining, here are a few tips to consider:

2)  Select restaurants with fresh ingredients prepared on site, where you can control what goes into your meal.  A fellow blogger and inspiration, Robert, who chronicles his journey on Truthology.net recently posted a photo of a very healthy meal he put together at Chipotle.  While you can consume a scary >1,000 calorie, high sodium burrito at Chipotle, if you’re like Robert and make good choices, you can eat quite healthy at this establishment.  I know there are regional limits to wholesome and healthy quick service choices, but I would add Daphne’s California Greek Cafe, Wahoo’s Fish Taco, Togos (a better version of Subway) and Yoshinoya to my list of restaurants that provide me with healthier quickserve choices.

3)  If you’re traveling, or in a new town, be careful, and avoid the large chains if possible.  Large chains like McDonalds are too driven by the masses and Wall St. total shareholder return to make things easy on someone looking for something tasty and healthy.  Yes, Micky D’s has done a lot over the past few years to add to their health menu, but those items are right there next to the McRib and all of their other factory made items. And while Taco Bell would allow you to bark some “customizations” to the person preparing your meal, their products are rethermalized (boil in a bag), have high fat and sodium, and that company has proven that there are almost no limits to what they will do to achieve healthy margins on unhealthy products (e.g. genetically engineered meats).  When traveling, I will usually look for a Japanese (sushi) or Mediterranean options (lean meat and hummus), or default to a Subway as my last resort (since there is always one within a 100 feet of you, when you’re traveling in the US).

4)  If you find yourself in one of the big chain restaurants, because the kids have broken you down and they have to have their “nuggets”, stay strong and make good choices.  This means look for lean meats, no french fries, and please don’t super-size anything.  I have just started following a fellow-blogger (Jason Cole) as he begins his journey under the handle “No Fries For 365”, and I definitely think he’s onto something.  An example of a meal I would order at a large chain would be the Six Dollar Burger at Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s, no cheese, protein wrap.”  It’s lean, Angus beef, prepared fresh, and relatively speaking a good choice.  When they say, “would you like the combo?”, my answer is “No.  A side salad and water will be fine thanks.”

Again, I know there are many who never eat fast food, and I try to limit my access and intake as much as possible.  However, I think it’s better to have a plan, so that you can survive and thrive regardless.

Small steps add up!