Waiting for her flight, Sharon had a few eating options: Chili's Grill and Bar, McDonald's, Starbucks, and some non-descript airport bar. With her waistline in mind, Sharon chose Chili's, where after spending at least five minutes meticulously scrutinizing the menu, she decided to play it safe and order the Santa Fe Chicken Salad as a main. She was also proud to have pushed the bread basket aside, but at the insistent request of her husband and two teenage girls, she did agree to eat her share of the Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip with Chips. And while she spent zero calories on a Diet Coke, she couldn't resist grabbing a few spoonfuls of her daughter's Brownie Sunday.
It would certainly have been a different story had she gone to McDonald's, where she always orders the same thing: a Premium Grilled Chicken Classic Sandwich with a small fries, Diet Coke, and no dessert.
Did (hypothetical) Sharon make the right choice?
Had she gone to McDonald's, her usual would have set her back 580 calories. Yet her "smarter" Chili's order quickly added up. Sharon's salad alone contained 690 calories; her ¼ portion of dip and chips contained another 320; and her few small bites of brownie packed a final 137, giving her a Chili's grand total of 1,147 calories—basically double her McDonald's fare.
Like Sharon, many people often assume that somehow fast food is worse for weight than what you might order in a sit-down restaurant. While eating fast food on a regular basis is assuredly not a nutritionally sound plan, there are a few reasons why it may well be a weight-friendlier choice than sit-down dining.
For one thing, fast-food employees are there to assemble—not to cook. Actual cooking, on the other hand, introduces human inconsistencies and allowances. Perhaps the chef used more oil than called for by the recipe. Perhaps the meal didn't look quite right when plated, and so to improve its appearance, the chef piled on more. Or maybe service got backed up, and so, to assuage customer frustration, the manager asked kitchen staff to increase portion sizes—a common practice, according to a restaurant manager patient of mine. Perhaps, too, these reasons explain why investigative reports on restaurant calories, in which meals are sent off to labs for analysis, have regularly demonstrated gross inaccuracy.
What's more, fast-food joints offer fewer choices and fewer extravagances. However, sit down for a restaurant meal, and suddenly you're faced with breadbaskets, specials, appetizers, and desserts that a dedicated wait staff (or hungry dining partner) will try to sell you.
Lastly, most people have pre-established fast-food meals—which they rarely stray from. They know exactly what they'll order before approaching the counter. Sit-down restaurants, with their tantalizing menu descriptors, huge variety of choices, and typical bounty of alcohol options, present a much thornier caloric minefield to navigate.
I'd wager that were someone to do a study comparing the calorie intakes of fast-food patrons versus sit-down diners that, more often than not, far more calories would be consumed in the proverbial seats.
While there's no doubt that minimizing meals out and cooking from scratch are among the healthiest behaviors you could adopt, sometimes eating out is a necessity. When you find yourself in that situation—and if weight's a concern—don't write off fast food as an option. Why not instead spend some time touring the website of your favorite fast-food restaurant, to discover, through posted nutritional information, the least bad option you think you'd actually enjoy? Because when it comes to calories and restaurant meals, fast food may just be your best bet.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April 2013.