Is There Such Thing as Healthy Fast Food?

fast food, healthy food options
(Image credit: Tom Denham.)

Last summer, I got to spend some time with an old family friend. This friend has had multiple bypass surgeries and now is suffering from diabetes, but is still reluctant to make changes to his diet. During the time we spent together, I desperately tried to encourage him to make healthier choices. I want him to be around for a long time, and I'm worried he may be eating himself into an early grave.

I'm not even talking about a complete diet overhaul, just some baby steps.

Well, long story short, the only adjustment he made in two weeks was moving from a McDonald's sandwich for lunch every day to having an occasional lunch at Subway. He was proud of himself, but was I thrilled? Absolutely not. Especially after I saw the choices he was making at Subway. But it's his life and these are his choices to make. I cannot make decisions for anyone (nor would I want to). And I still love him just the same.

Why is this coming up now? Well, I was reminded of Jack this week when I saw the results of two different studies. And I thought this information might be helpful for anyone who is struggling to make the right choices from a fast food menu.

Some Surprising Results

Researchers at UCLA released the results of a study this week that found that teens who purchase Subway meals consumed nearly as many calories as those who purchased from McDonald's. One staggering fact, that even surprised me, was the sodium content of the Subway meals. Researchers found that the nutrient profile at Subway was slightly healthier than at McDonald's, but the foods still had about three times the amount of salt recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

The sodium content of meals consumed from Subway averaged 2,149 milligrams, while the McDonald's meals averaged 1,829 mg.

This news may come as a shock to people who believed that Subway was among the "healthy" fast-food chains that seem to be trending as of late. In reality, there are one or two nutritionally sound items on Subway's menu. But healthy options don't matter if you're building a sandwich with red meat, bacon and three types of cheese.

We're Not Improving… Much

And for those "healthy" fast food chains, a study published this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that there have been only marginal improvements in the nutritional quality of fast food menu items over the past 14 years. The researchers rated food items on a 100-point scale. On average, fast food restaurants were rated a 45 in 1997-1998, and that score creeped up to 48 in 2009-2010.

The bottom line is that we should not blindly trust that all options on any restaurant menu are nutritionally sound. In fact, that's rarely the case. Instead, take responsibility for your own health and make informed choices. You'll feel a whole lot better in the long run.

Healthy Bites appears on MyHealthNewsDaily on Wednesdays. Deborah Herlax Enos is a certified nutritionist and a health coach and weight loss expert in the Seattle area with more than 20 years of experience. Read more tips on her blog, Health in a Hurry!

Deborah Enos
Deborah Enos, CN, also known as "The One-Minute Wellness Coach," is The Health Coach for busy, working people. She pares her good-health messages down to simple and fast bullet points that can impact lives in 60 seconds or less. Deborah serves as a board member of the American Heart Association.  In addition to writing the Healthy Bites column for Live Science, Deborah is a regular on FOX Business News, NBC and ABC, and is a frequent contributor to The Costco Connection, Parade Magazine, Self Magazine, Good Housekeeping and USA Today. Deborah is also The One Minute Wellness Coach for The Doctors TV Show.