PUBLISHED: 1:55 PM on Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Fast food needn't be slow poison: Try these tips

Courtesy photo
  The popular combo meals at fast-food restaurants - typically including a sandwich, French fries and a beverage - can exceed an entire day's recommended calorie intake.
Stomachs begin to rumble when the clock strikes noon, sending droves of people to fast-food joints to get their fix.

Hamburgers, French fries, burritos and tacos - there are many choices when it comes to grabbing a quick bite to eat for lunch. But are those fast-food meals good for you?

They can be.

"You have to consciously choose to make healthy choices when eating out," said Michelle Pelkey, a registered dietitian.

Pelkey admits it's tough to make healthy decisions when faced with tasty, high-calorie menu items at a restaurant. She recommends limiting eating out to three times a week to keep calories, cholesterol and weight in check.

Dawn Buchite used to eat pizza or hamburgers while on her lunch break from her desk job. Throughout the day, she'd sip Mountain Dew and munch on pastries, candy bars and her favorite, Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies. Buchite said she felt lethargic when she'd return to work from her lunch, so she decided to try eating better.

"I've been eating junk for quite some time. I just felt terrible and thought, 'I've got to do something,'" she said. "I tried the salad and liked how I felt afterward."

During her workday, Buchite snacks on nuts and cheese sticks, keeping an eye on her calorie intake.

Pelkey said that, on average, a woman should eat about 500 calories per meal while a man should average about 700.

The popular combo meals at fast-food restaurants - typically including a sandwich, French fries and a beverage - can exceed an entire day's recommended calorie intake. Increasingly, fast-food restaurants are offering healthier choices - salads, fruit cups, bottled water and baked chips - to accommodate the recent low-calorie, low-carbohydrate craze.

Pelkey offered some tips for keeping within nutritional guidelines while eating at fast-food restaurants.

• Eat lean meat sandwiches, chicken or turkey, on whole grain bread.

• When eating a taco, don't add sour cream or guacamole. Try adding just salsa.

• Instead of putting mayonnaise on a sandwich, try avocado.

• Get fresh fruit or yogurt instead of fries to accompany your sandwich.

• Drink diet soda, water, skim milk or other sugar-free beverages. Drinking regular soda "adds so many calories for absolutely zero nutritional benefit," Pelkey said.

• Eat kid's meals instead of regular combo meals.

• Avoid fried foods. Take the skin off fried chicken before eating it.

• Always ask for gravy, sauce or salad dressing on the side. "A tablespoon of salad dressing can be more calories than an entire meal," Pelkey said.

• Order thin-crust pizza with half the cheese. Add toppings like ham, chicken or vegetables.

• Add pretzels to meals instead of chips or cookies.

• Eat slowly so you notice when you're full.

Because food portion sizes in restaurants have gotten larger, people eat more than they normally would, Pelkey said. Asking for a to-go box right away and leaving one serving of food on the plate is a tip Pelkey practices herself.

"If there's more food in front of you, you'll eat more," she said.

Skipping meals is a common mistake people make when they're trying to lose weight. Pelkey said people who skip breakfast or lunch tend to eat more for supper and keep snacking during the evening until bedtime.

"It's better to eat more at lunch than end up junking out later," she said.

Pelkey recommends taking the time to eat right, sometimes even planning meals the day before and bringing balanced meals from home.

"Pick some days to eat out. Don't always go to places where you'll be tempted to eat unhealthy," she said.