Balancing convenience and health
Fast food: Its impact on American culture is as undeniable as it is universally loved. From burgers to pizza, tacos to shakes, French fries to apple pies, fast food’s presence in the human diet is well known, and comes in many varieties and flavors. Sugary, salty, savory and, most importantly, fatty, fast food, though convenient when in a pinch, also has numerous health concerns.
When it comes to vascular health, fast food can have a major impact on your cardiovascular system, and keeping track of the amount of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium is great way to control what you eat. According to the World Heart Federation, the total fat found in fast food is proven to have a link between coronary heart disease, heart attack or even death. Additionally, the high levels of cholesterol found in fast food can often be a result of a diet high in trans and saturated fats, and high sodium levels are often attributed to high blood pressure, or hypertension.
What’s interesting, however, is that, though the effects of fast food are well-known, its repercussions still haven’t been enough to scare buyers from purchasing, with fast food restaurants in the United States raking in nearly $200 billion in 2014 – with an estimate of $223 billion projected for 2020.
With fast food’s impact so saturated in the modern American food market, it’s clear that the industry won’t show a noticeable decline any time soon. With that, the question remains: If fast food is here to stay, can someone at least find a healthy way of eating it? Well, luckily, there are options.
Taking a look at the six most profitable fast food restaurants from 2014 (excluding coffeehouse chains, like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts), we’ll take an inside look at the healthiest alternatives when it comes to orderable meals (i.e. an entrée, a side and a drink) at each restaurant.
#1: McDonald’s ($35.4 billion, 2014)
Eat This: Premium Southwest Salad (No Chicken), Cuties, Bottled Water (250 cal.)
Not This: Double Quarter Pounder w/ Cheese, Large Fries, Large Coke (1580 cal.)
The big one: McDonald’s. The impact of McDonald’s on the American fast food market is nothing short of astounding, with the company raking over $35 billion in 2014. Though their projections have dropped over the past couple of years, peaking in 2013, they still, undeniably, have a permanent place at the top of the fast food hierarchy.
Eating healthy at McDonald’s, though not an easy task, is possible. Over the past decade, the restaurant has shown how health conscious they’ve become, releasing more options utilizing grilled chicken, premium salads, Artisan-inspired sandwiches and more. Their salads, specifically, are an acceptable option – if you’re willing to skip the chicken and limit the amount of dressing, it only has 220 calories. Add in a Cuties brand orange or apple slices, along with bottled water, and the meal will only set you back 235-250 calories in total.
The big thing is to stay away from the fattier, calorie-heavy burgers, fries, sodas and shakes. The large-sized Double Quarter Pounder w/ Cheese still takes the cake as the chain’s least healthy combo, packing in 1,580 calories and 69 grams of total fat (106% of recommended fat in one day).
#2: Subway ($11.9 billion, 2014)
Eat This: 6” Black Forest Ham on Italian (w/ American Cheese, Veggies, Mustard or Vinegar), Baked Lay’s (Plain), Bottled Water (480 cal.)
Not This: 12” Meatball on Italian Herbs & Cheese (w/ Natural Cheddar, Veggies, Mayonnaise or Ranch), Regular Chips, 40 oz. Sweetened Soda (2280 cal.)
Subway comes in second place when excluding Starbucks, earning nearly $12 billion in revenue in 2014. With the basis of Subway’s marketing being health-focused, the chain has a bevy of healthier options to consider when making a meal choice. 6” or 12”? Which type of bread, meat, cheese, veggies and sauces? Which bag of chips, and what to drink? All of these are necessary to consider when making an informed decision for lunch at Subway.
With the exception of their Veggie sub, your best bet for a healthy lunch comes in the form of a 6” Black Forest Ham sub, preferably with American cheese on Italian Bread. For sauces, mustard and vinegar both came up as the best option – adding in the least amount of calories (sometimes even none). For veggies, get as many as you’d like – even when adding in every possible option, it only added around 30-40 calories. Add in a bag of Baked (not fried) Chips and bottled water, and you’ve got a healthy meal just under 500 calories.
While there are multiple options for eating healthy at Subway, there are many paths that aren’t recommended going down at the sandwich chain. The worst path of all would have to be their 12” Meatball sub. With the right combination of bread, cheese and sauces, as well as regular chips and a 40-ounce soda, the meal can reach nearly 2,300. Additionally, the meal packs in 89 grams of total fat and nearly 4,000 milligrams of sodium – 163% of the nationally recommended average.
#3: Burger King ($8.6 billion, 2014)
Eat This: Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich (w/o Mayonnaise), Mott’s Natural Applesauce, Bottled Water (370 cal.)
Not This: Double Bacon King, Large Fries, 40 oz. Barq’s Root Beer (1900 cal.)
Burger King comes in at #3, with $8.6 billion coming in from 2014 revenue. Burger King, though not the biggest advertiser of health-focused options, still has a few alternatives to consider when making an informed decision of lunchtime. Their Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich is only 320 calories, if you’re willing to skip the mayonnaise. Additionally, if you add a cup of Mott’s Natural Applesauce and a bottled water, the meal only comes to 370 calories, total.
Burger King, as a restaurant, however, isn’t one to shy away from out of the ordinary creations – this past year, they’ve created products such as the Whopperito and Cheetos-flavored Chicken Fries, all packing in calories in the high hundreds. Their latest creation, the Double Bacon King, for example, has over 1,000 calories. Add in a large order of fries and a 40-ounce cup of Barq’s Root Beer, and you’ll have a meal topping 1,900 calories and 88 grams of total fat.
#4: Wendy’s ($8.6 billion, 2014)
Eat This: Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad (Half-Size), Apple Slices, Bottled Water (275 cal.)
Not This: Dave’s Triple, Large Natural-Cut Fries, 32 oz. Coca-Cola (2000 cal.)
Wendy’s came in fourth, bringing in $8.6 billion dollars in revenue from 2014. Though Wendy’s may have many options when it comes to burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads, sides and Frosties, there aren’t many standouts when it comes to health-conscious entrees. One of the better options comes in the form of their Mediterranean Chicken Salad, if you get the half-size portion. With apple slices and bottled water, it comes in just shy of 300 calories.
The restaurant’s unhealthiest combo comes in the form of the Dave’s Triple burger. Along with a large order of fries and a 32-ounce Coca-Cola, the meal crams in 2000 calories, 100 grams of total fat and 2,625 milligrams of sodium – 111% of the daily recommended average.
#5: Taco Bell ($8.2 billion, 2014)
Eat This: Power Menu Burrito (Veggie), Cheese Roll-Up, Bottled Water (610 cal.)
Not This: DoubleDilla (Steak w/ Chips & Salsa) and 40 oz. Mountain Dew (1470 cal.)
Taco Bell is the fifth most popular fast food restaurant in America, bringing in $8.2 billion in 2014. Though Taco Bell, to most, is known for its vast menu of Mexican entrees, such as tacos, burritos, quesadillas and nachos, they have developed a more health-focused mindset, launching a new Cantina menu with specialty veggie-heavy burritos and bowls. A Veggie Cantina Bowl, made fresco (no cheese or sour cream), features less than 400 calories. Add in a Cheese Roll-Up on the side and bottled water to drink, and the meal features roughly 500-600 calories.
While Taco Bell has made many healthy additions to their menu, there are still many unhealthy options – though not as high as other similar restaurants. Their Steak DoubleDilla is the worst offender – with the entrée’s included chips and fire-roasted salsa, it packs in over 900 calories. With a 40-ounce Mountain Dew Baja Blast, the meal comes in at 1,480 calories, 44 grams of total fat and 2,170 milligrams of sodium – 90% of the daily-recommended limit.
#6: Chick-fil-A ($5.8 billion, 2014)
Eat This: Grilled Market Salad, Medium Fruit Cup w/ Blueberries, Bottled Water (370 cal.)
Not This: Spicy Chicken Deluxe Sandwich, Large Waffle Cut Fries, 21 oz. Coca-Cola (1340 cal.)
Chick-fil-A is seen by many to be one of the more up-and-coming chains on the American fast food market, and hungry customers are taking notice. In just 2014, the company brought in $5.8 billion. One of the reasons customers are lining up in droves is for the chain’s variety of healthy options for dining. One of the many options comes in the form of their Grilled Market Salad. If you opt for the medium fruit cup w/ blueberries and bottled water, the meal comes to 370 calories.
There are easy ways to indulge in unhealthy alternatives, however. The restaurant’s Spicy Chicken Deluxe Sandwich, paired with a large order of Waffle Cut Fries and a 21-ounce Coca-Cola to drink can add up to 1,340 calories, 54 grams of total fat and 2,070 milligrams of sodium – nearly 90% of the daily-recommended limit.