Fast Food Taste Tour

The Short Answer:  The fast food companies won’t get serious about healthy food unless they believe they’re going the way of the dinosaurs.  Only buy healthy fast food.


Kicking the Fast Food Companies

There’s no sport in kicking the fast food companies around—that’s been done in works like Fast Food Nation, and Supersize Me.  The ways that fast food can harm health seem unlimited—did you see the recent scare about perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) used to make fast food wrappings grease resistant?  Turns out the PFCs—a possible cause of infertility, thyroid disease, and cancer—are getting into the food.  Ouch! 

We should pause to honor an English woman little known in the US—Helen Steel.  In the ‘80s, as part of an activist group in London, Helen was handing out leaflets that accused McDonald’s of sins including 1) the exploitation of children, 2) inhumane treatment of animals, and 3) endangerment of workers and customer’s health.  McDonald’s decided to make an example by first infiltrating the group and then threatening the members with a libel lawsuit if they didn’t apologize and desist.  Intimidated by the overwhelming power of McDonald’s, most apologized and shut up.  But Helen dug in her heels:

 “It really stuck in my throat to apologize for something that didn’t deserve an apology, and I just thought, ‘Well, I’m going to fight this case come what may...” 

Helen had no resources and just one ally in the beginning, but serving as her own attorney she learned enough law to fight a ten-year court battle that became a public relations nightmare for McDonald’s, produced a book (McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial) plus a documentary, and gave new meaning to the term, “asymmetric warfare”.  Incidentally, the judge found in favor of Helen on the three sins listed above.  (Note to McDonald’s:  Resist the urge to use your corporate muscle to bully poor, single women with names like “Steel”.)

The Darkness of the World

The premise of this blog is that we can discover the best possible diet by using our common sense to integrate three venerable oracles: science, (food) tradition and scripture.  Because the media is unaware or at least unfamiliar with scripture—in contrast to most Americans—it seemed important the wisdom found therein be included.  Though our audience includes people of varied persuasions—some churchgoers, others not—none have protested our use of scripture. 

So perhaps you will allow me to share a thought that came while sitting in church.  I had been thinking about fast food, wanting to bring deeper insight to a food reviled by most, but consumed by many.  At the close of the service we sang a lovely song, Abide With Me; ’Tis Eventide, written by a Presbyterian minister in the 1800s.  The closing verse invokes a feeling we all have in our search for enlightenment:

“The darkness of the world I fear, would in my home abide . . .”

So what was my great thought?  It was to not add to the mountain of criticism already flung at the fast food companies, rather to shine a little light.  Because of their size, these companies have the power to do good also.  McDonald’s became the world’s biggest buyer of apples when they added fresh fruit to their menu.  My beautiful wife suggested that we go taste the healthful foods offered by these companies.  It was the last thought I might have had, but I was intrigued and we set out on a tasting tour.  There were a few requirements: we wanted food that was low in calorie density (one calorie per gram was our goal); more fresh produce than meat; not deep fat fried or even fried; and breads must be whole grain, with more fiber than sugar. 

Fast Food Tasting Tour

We started at the chain with the most outlets: Subway.  The guys running Subway must be smart because they beat the rest of the industry to the health movement with Jared, the guy who lost hundreds of pounds eating Subway sandwiches and exercising, the focus on food with less than six grams of fat, and the addition of whole-grain breads.  Is their food really healthier?  Maybe not; their meats are mostly processed and they have a wall-to-wall display of Frito-Lay chips.  But there is the tuna sub, which we ordered on whole-wheat bread with cucumbers, green peppers, onions, spinach, tomatoes, banana peppers, and vinaigrette dressing.  It was pretty healthy and tasted good.  My only complaint was the amount of mayonnaise mixed with the tuna (a 50:50 mix per the attendant).  Subway offers salads also, but they didn’t look appealing.  The shop was clean and well managed.

Our next stop was Taco Bell, the outlet with the cheapest prices.  You can buy your food fresco style now, which replaces cheese with fresh tomato salsa.  We had the Chicken Fiesta Taco Salad, fresco style.  It didn’t look that good, the tortilla shell was tasteless, and the greens were just iceberg lettuce.  I’ve eaten plenty of their tacos in the past, but I fear Taco Bell is falling behind.

I’ve never been a fan of Wendy’s square hamburger patty but we got a surprise:  Wendy’s does salad better than anyone else.  We had the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, and it was an attractive, tasty dish.  The greens were mixed, the Pomegranate Vinaigrette dressing and toasted pecans were delicious.  The restaurant was clean and attractive; I’d come just for the salads.

Carl’s Jr. has changed; I thought it was a hamburger outlet (remember the Famous Star, or the Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger?) but the menu we saw was mainly Mexican food:  burritos, enchiladas, taco salad, etc.  Carl’s hasn’t gotten serious about healthier foods.  We ordered the Cranberry, Apple, Walnut Grilled Chicken Salad, I think, it was okay, but the cranberries and walnuts were missing.  Did I get the order wrong, or were they cutting costs?  I don’t know but it wasn’t in the class of Wendy’s salads.  On the other hand, the YouTube Charbroiled Turkey Burger advertisement featuring Miss Turkey shows they understand their audience. 

Our last stop was McDonald’s, the favorite fast food of kids, thanks to Ronald.  McDonald’s has a line of salads plus the Fruit and Walnut Salad, a snack.  We were full of salad so tried the Chipotle BBQ Snack Wrap.  It was good but of marginal healthiness (white flour tortilla, too much chicken, too few greens).  On further thought, it was like all their food:  too many calories, not enough wholesome stuff.  We tried a new drink, a strawberry-lemonade freeze.  It was beautiful to see, but sickly sweet with synthetic flavors that left a chemical aftertaste.  Mark Bittman reported a similar outcome earlier this year when they added oatmeal, titled the “bowl full of wholesome”, to their menu.  McDonald’s has the resources to really make a difference in the world but lacks the will to promote anything not sickly sweet.

We skipped KFC because I couldn’t find anything on their website that looked good.  I have enjoyed their cole slaw and baked beans in the past but both have too much added sugar, 17 or 18 grams, about 4-1/2 tsp per serving. 

A word about the people that work in the fast food outlets:  they’re good kids, they work hard for very little money and most smile when they talk to you.  Their life is hard but they don’t complain—I came away with a greater respect for them.

I had planned to make the Healthy Change for fast food similar to sugary drinks—to limit it to once a week or less.  Unfortunately, I doubt the fast food companies will make serious changes unless they sense a real chance they’re headed the way of the dinosaurs.   Here's one way to make the darkness of the world go away:

Please comment and share experience finding healthy food away from home. 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (30)

Avoid them all together....if there is a town with a fast food restaurant, then there is a grocery store. 90% of the time we go there. I do wish at times there was a drive thru though. Our local store ( Wegmans - consistently in the top 5 of stores listed in Forbes) has a variety of healthy choices to choose from for on the run...or sit in. I am sure they are not the only one across the nation. Even something as simple as Lunchables are changing...there are ones that have a whole serving of fruit and whole grain bread/crackers that almost meet the more fiber than sugar requirement ( right now there are equal- but I have written and called Kraft-for what is worth). Because we have such a large family, restaurants are a treat in our family, mostly for birthdays- then it is the Friendly's, Perkins kindda place. I seriously can not remember the last time we went to a fast food place.
It takes planning, I am not the best at that and often find myself grabbing apples or other fruit at a store for grumpy little ones. I aspire to a friend that never leaves the house without her diaper bag and cooler packed with water and healthy foods....
Skip, I have been reading more about the importance of sleep and health. Maybe I am extremely interested in this because of my lack of it. Mothers tend to lose sleep, from my experience, from month 6 prenatal and never regain it. I know this is a food/ nutritional blog....but yesterday I was reading D&C 88 and finally understood why Mom always said the Word of Wisdom starts in Section 88 rather than 89 ( see vs 124). Could this be the precursor, preparatory to getting us ready for section 89? "Line upon line'......"Idk. Any thoughts on sleep and health? Any research you can direct me to?

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

I was pleasantly surprised that Arby's has a good selection: they offer several sandwiches on wheat bread and with quality ingredients. It's not perfect, but good enough for the occasional meal, and they're filling enough to eat half and save half while on the road. I'm also a huge fan of Chipotle, which isn't strictly fast food, but neither is Subway, really.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterajbc

I'm a fan of the Wendy's chili. It's has a homemade look and taste (nice big chunks of tomato, whole beans, peppers). I eat it without the optional cheese--it's tasty and very filling.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercabesh

Chick-Fil-A has a side salad that is always fresh and delicious. It has lots of veggies and no meat with a side of sunflower seeds. Also, it is reasonably priced. They have fruit cups available as well.

And as an added bonus they are closed on Sundays so I try to eat there whenever we have a choice and I always tell them that I spend money there because they have healthy options and are closed on Sundays.That is how I'm voting with my dollars.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia

Heather, thanks for raising an important point—sleep—which is very connected to nutrition. Our society has made the mistake of linking ambition to "burning the midnight oil". A post on "sleep" is planned for week #40 but here are a couple of pointers:

1. There's a book, "Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival", that speaks to the importance of sleeping in the dark. Your melatonin is an important self-made antioxidant that counters cortisol (the main daytime stress chemical). The pineal needs dark to produce melatonin—think of it as the hormone that "dances in the dark"—plus adequate sleep. Avoid night lights.

2. For all, too little sleep translates to a need for stimulants and unhealthy snacking. For those prone to diabetes, various studies link inadequate sleep to glucose intolerance and increased insulin resistance. Adequate sleep, 8-9 hours, is critical.

3. Snoring and related obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a problem for some, but only their spouse knows. See the N.Y. Times article found here: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/10/searching-for-a-snoring-solution/

4. Overweight is linked to lost sleep (think of new moms, up at night). A study in Annals of Internal Medicine, titled “Insufficient Sleep Undermines Dietary Efforts to Reduce Adiposity”, showed subject who got adequate sleep (8.5 hr.) tended to lose fat when reducing weight; subject getting 5.5 hours of sleep tended to lose muscle tissue and feel greater hunger pangs.

5. A link between lost sleep and osteoporosis has also been made. See the study, "Melatonin effects on bone: experimental facts and clinical prespectives."

Organize your life to get adequate sleep (I know this isn't easy), sleep in the dark, and recognize snoring as a health problem for everyone in the bed. Best to you.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSkip

What a relief that fast food joints have their nutrition info posted in store and online. Not only are fast food places awful when it comes to healthy food, when you look at the food offered at any chain restaurant - Macaroni Grill, Chili's, Applebees etc. - most items are so full of fat, calories, sodium and sugar it makes me sick just to see the numbers! I make it a point to try and find something healthy on the menu no matter where I am - but mostly I try and stay away from the chains altogether.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAng


My kids have been well trained by you and know that fast food isn't healthy. Recently we were on a road trip and stopped to fuel up at an exit in Nevada that literally only had McDonald's and Taco Bell. We got in the drive thru for McDonald's (it was breakfast time and we thought egg sandwiches might be the best of our options) and our 5 year old yelled "Mom! What are we doing?!! Don't you know this makes your tummy fat!" Little kids are sometimes our best teachers.

I think it's harder to eat healthy on road trips but we like to bring a cooler along and stop at Trader Joe's and grab some prepacked salads and snacks, the kids still feel like they're having something special and it's a whole lot healthier than most of your options on the road.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke

It was really hard for me to completely cut out fast food in my life. I love to go out for lunch on Friday's just so I can get away from the office. I decided to pick better places when I do eat fast food. I love Panera and Jason's Deli. We also have a company right next to my office called White Wave (they sell all different types of organic foods), who has a catering company in their building. I love hitting up their salad bar. I feel like a better person for making a better decision. And you know what, I haven't at all missed going to McDonald's, Wendy's or any of those other fast food places. Thanks for helping me be a better and healthier person.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLulu

I try to avoid fast food chains but on road trips and while traveling it can be difficult. In addition to the questionable nutritional value of these places I am dismayed by the over packaging. Does every thing need to be in its own plastic or Styrofoam container ? Like some of the other comments I try to pack my own food for road trips. If I must eat on the run I find Starbuck's has some healthy, yummy alternatives to fast food.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Louros

My husband and I avoid fast food joints as much as possible, although we do like the occasional Subway sandwich. On whole grain bread with plenty of sandwiches, of course. Or Quizno's. But if we HAVE to go to a fast-food burger place, it's usually Wendy's (my husband's aunts keep giving us Wendy's gift cards for Christmas). I just might go for one of their salads sometime.

I meant vegetables...whoops ;)

I have little kids who love chicken nuggets and french fries. We make our own at home, and I hate to buy them from fast food places because it grosses me out. To avoid nasty, processed food and screaming children we try to avoid fast food restaurants at all costs. I prefer to bring food with us on the go. My favorite quick, casual eating places are Jason's Deli and Zupas since they focus on salads and sandwiches. You also have some control at both places over what goes in your food. We occasionally visit Chipotle as well. I like that their food is fresh, and they have some fairly good options. My kids love all three places, too.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Laura, you're wise to cook your own chicken nuggets. The product, introduced by McDonald's 30 years ago, has become a favorite with children. Should people eat them? I wouldn't, first because of the Healthy Change that says to avoid deep fat fried foods unless cooked at home (using fresh oil). A judge once referred to McNuggets using the term "McFrankenstein." McDonald's has since reformulated the product, using only white chicken meat. I suspect that the nuggets from McDonalds are better that those made by other manufacturers less in the public eye. I like your solution—when you cook the food you know what's in it.

Regarding Zupas, I asked the beautiful wife if she was up for a tasting tour to the nicer cafe-style, fast-serve restaurants (Panera, Chipotle, Rubio's, Cafe Rio) and she definitely is so stay tuned. Best to you.

June 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Fast food chains could take a lesson from Wendy's and provide a good variety of delicious salads. I think their chicken pecan is better than most restaurant salads. I wrote to tell them so and I hope they keep up those good healthy options because sometimes you just have to opt for convenience, especially when traveling.
McD's salads are disappointing but their fresh fuit smoothies are delish.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

Thanks for the review of restaurants. I try to avoid them all together but its good to know there might be some options available in a pinch.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCherilyn

I know this is a nutrition blog (and I love it), but I have to bring up an aside. There are a lot of ways to vote with your dollars--USE THEM WISELY. Fast food (at our house) is reserved for those emergency evenings that every mom has occasionally, but we do keep a few restrictions in place. For instance, if it has to be chicken nuggets and fries, I'd prefer to get them from the mom and pop burger joint than at McDonalds. McDonalds may very well qualify as lower in fat, but the mom and pop stuff resembles food that might come out of a home kitchen rather than factory-shaped soy/meat burgers. And you will NEVER find us in a Carl's Jr., even if they became the healthiest fast food joint on the planet. Their repeated objectification of and irreverence towards women in their ads disgusts me. It probably won't change anything for Carl's Jr., but my four boys will grow up knowing exactly why we do not patronize establishments with such disrespectful marketing.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertiff

I'm excited to hear about you and your wife visiting the cafe type fast food - this is where I tend to go for my daughter and me when we are on the go (Panera's or Chipotle) but sometimes I wonder if it isn't the illusion of health and not necessarily any healthier - as you point out, it takes quite a bit of study to figure out what the healthy options are and unless you've done that ahead of time, it can be hard if you are in a hurry to make a good choice. I can't remember if it was in Food Inc or an article I read, but someone said something to the effect that so many producers of food make food-like products that mimic real food, but are so full of hidden fats and sugars, it's almost impossible to make a healthy choice and that is really how i feel when I eat out - it looks like food, but what's in it that I don't know about?

June 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

My favorite fast food place is Whole Foods salad and food bar. But even there you need to choose wisely (at least in Franklin, TN). I usually steer clear of the mac & cheese (a southern vegetable), pot pies and "sinful potatoes" (no kidding that is the whole foods label on this dish). Luckily there is always an chicken curry of some sort plus I pile on the tomatoes and beets from the salad bar. I especially like the variety and rotation of dishes that make it possible to have a different meal if you were to go there every day. Skip, thank you for the insightful and well written posts. By the way, what is your take on the e coli epidemic?

June 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchristie

Christie, the E. coli that appeared recently in Germany is scary because, in addition to the deaths, so many, perhaps 1/3, had significant kidney failure. Typically E. coli. is more a threat to children and older people, but there were many women (likely due to salads) sickened this time. It is theorized that these mutations occur more often with cows fed on grains (creates an acid condition in the stomach that supports such mutations) so another reason to return to pastured meat. Like lighting strikes, E coli and other food-borne pathogens are a risk of life but we can improve our chances by eating foods naturally raised and traditionally prepared. Best to you.

June 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

My favorite fast food is Wendy's apple, pecan chicken salad too. I'm very disturbed to hear about PFC's considering I have thyroid and infertility problems. Our family resolution for this year was not to eat at McDonalds (saving money and calories) it's been so much easier than I thought it would be that we're considering adding another fast food chain to our resolution.

June 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

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