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Published October 21, 2013, 07:23 PM

Dietitians offer tips for eating better at fast food restaurants

FARGO – A little research and some common sense can go a long way toward better eating habits, especially when dining out.

By: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM

FARGO – A little research and some common sense can go a long way toward better eating habits, especially when dining out.

Eating away from home in general is less healthy than staying in for meals, according to Lindsay Vettleson, a licensed registered dietitian at IMA Healthcare in Fargo. But it can be even harder to get good nutrition from fast food chains, where many of the options are high in calories, fat and sodium.

“It’s ultimately our choice whether we make a better decision of what we choose when we go out to eat and how much we eat,” she said.

A good rule of thumb is to consider “undressing” your food, Vettleson said. Hold the sauces and mayo, forgo the bacon and cheese and take off the top part of the bun – doing so could save 200 to 300 calories or even more, she said.

Portion control also is important, Vettleson said. Ordering a small sandwich or getting something from the kid’s menu will save calories and fat.

But diners also should pay attention to how their food is prepared. Look for items that are grilled or baked, rather than breaded or fried, to make a big difference in overall nutrition, she said.

Don’t forget about the beverage – a large 44-ounce Coke has 380 calories and 102 grams of sugar, and large shakes at Burger King can contain nearly 1,000 calories.

“Just think of the calories you’re drinking on top of what you’re eating,” she said.

Diet sodas cut out the carbs, Vettleson said. But some studies suggest negative health effects from artificial sweeteners, and diet drinks still lack any nutritional value.

Skip the sweet tea or soda and instead get low-fat milk, fruit juice or plain water, she said.

Fast food diners also should try to get more vegetables through their meals, especially by being smarter about the sides they order, according to Sherri Stastny, a registered dietitian and associate professor at North Dakota State University.

A fast food sandwich alone will contain plenty of carbohydrates, she said, so skip the fries and instead try a side salad to get a serving of vegetables.

Load up a grilled chicken sandwich or small burger with any vegetable available – lettuce, onion, tomatoes or whatever else is on hand – or get a baked potato with broccoli and add a cup of chili if that’s on the menu.

Stastny said chili is a good soup option, and lean turkey or vegetables are the best choice if visiting a sub sandwich joint. At Mexican restaurants, she advises ordering burritos loaded up with vegetables, chicken and other lean protein, beans and salsa – pass on the rice because the tortilla already contains plenty of processed starch.

At bakery restaurants, order a turkey or chicken sandwich on whole grain bread and add whatever vegetables are available, she said. But steer clear of bakery items, which are usually processed and contain “unhealthy” fats.

Diners need to pay attention to what they’re ordering and be more conscious of their overall nutrition, Stastny said.

She gets the Whopper with cheese on occasion when she visits Burger King because she likes it. As a rare indulgence and not a main part of her diet, she said the sandwich fits into her belief that food needs to be both delicious and nutritious, in that order.

“As a registered dietitian, I follow the mantra ‘all in moderation’ – to avoid is difficult and usually results in ‘trouble ahead’ when cravings kick in,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587