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Fast food restaurants have a long love-hate relationship with Americans. They score big points by offering speedy, inexpensive, and tasty meals for a nation of on-the-go people. On the flip side, the high calorie and low nutrition value of most menu items contributes to an ongoing obesity epidemic. Finding healthy fast food options among the super-size packed menus is not as simple as it seems. Why is fast food unhealthy and how does a health conscious consumer make educated choices when fast food is on the menu?

The Food and Drug Administration issued the Menu Labeling Final Rule on December 1, 2014. Restaurants and similar retail food establishments are required to comply with this rule by December 1, 2016, if they meet the criteria. Generally, if a restaurant is part of a chain of twenty or more locations doing business under the same name, offering for sale substantially the same items, etc., they must post the calories on the menus and menu boards, and make more extensive nutrition information available in writing for consumers.

Many restaurants are already in compliance and, as a result, consumers are coming face to face with the true caloric costs of their choices. There is a sticker shock-like response when buyers see that a routine value meal can exceed 1,000 calories! Here are a few tips to help shoppers find healthy fast food options:

Tip #1: Eat Inside the Restaurant

Eating inside the restaurant gives you the chance to review the menu choices more closely and to request more complete nutrition information. Even if you eat quickly, sitting at a table to eat provides an experience that feels more like a real meal. Eating a salad in the car is very difficult to do. Consuming a quick salad inside the restaurant doesn’t take long but pays big nutritional benefits. If you absolutely must eat food while on the run, then go inside to order your food. During peak times, this can be faster than the drive through and allows you the option to review the menu items without the pressure from a line of cars behind you.

Tip #2: Calories Count! – (And the other nutritional information matters, too.)

Check the nutrition information for the amount of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. If you stopped at a locally owned restaurant without written nutrition information, ask questions about how an item is prepared. There are often hidden sugars in many non-sweet foods. Ask if they use sugar in their coleslaw, or spaghetti sauce, or other menu items. Most small establishments are happy to answer questions to help you make a selection you will enjoy.

Tip #3: Skip the Value Bundles

Instead of ordering a pre-determined group of food, build your own meal package, selecting only those foods you really want. Substitute the high fat, sodium, and calorie laden french fries for a fruit cup, baked potato *(go easy on the butter/sour cream!), or side salad. Do not be afraid to customize your items. Ask for no sauce, light sauce, no cheese, no mayonnaise, or any other changes you want. In addition to lowering your calories, there is another benefit to requesting modifications to your food; it forces the staff to make your food fresh, ensuring you don’t get the get the sandwich that has been sitting under the heat lamps for thirty minutes.

Tip #4 Kids Meals aren’t just for Kids

If you are ordering your food to go, make your order a kid’s meal. Believe it or not, the portion size of a children’s meal is a much closer approximation to what a real adult portion should be. The eyes and stomachs of Americans have become accustomed to bigger as better. Selecting the child’s meal allows you to reset your perceptions of what is normal. Most pre-determined children’s meals include some healthier components such as apple slices or yogurt. The serving of french fries in a kids meal is the perfect amount to feed your craving without killing your nutrition plan.

Tip #5 Eat your Vegetables

Salads are a great option to get some of your daily servings of vegetables. Beware of the add-ons. Anything labeled as ‘crispy’ means fried. Grilled chicken is a good protein option. Crispy chicken defeats the purpose of ordering the salad. The biggest threat to a healthy salad is the dressing. Creamy Ranch, Blue Cheese, Thousand Island and other high fat dressings can cause a salad to become the highest calorie menu item. Ask for a light dressing and get it on the side, allowing you to determine the amount you consume.

Tip #6 Don’t Drink Your Calories!

A sixteen-ounce soda adds as much as 240 calories to a meal, before any unlimited refills! All of those calories come from sugar. Fast food beverages come in sizes up to 42 ounces, which is over 600 calories of sugar. Tread lightly on juices, too. A small amount of juice has some nutritional value, but also adds calories from fructose, which is fruit sugar. Water is always an excellent choice. Unsweetened tea and green tea are also good. Diet sodas are controversial as some researchers believe they may fuel the desire for sugar.

With the prominent posting of calorie and nutritional info coming to most fast food restaurants, consumers have the knowledge at hand to make healthier choices. As shoppers select higher nutrition options, the restaurants are likely to respond with more offerings that meet those demands. Vote with your health-conscious dollars and put your money where your mouth is. The result will be healthy fast food options for all of us.