“Do you want fries with that?”
Of course you want them. Should you get them? Hint: You’re also getting up to 28 grams of fat, including 6 grams of saturated fat and 6 grams of trans fat and 800 milligrams of sodium (salt).
Rep. Hannah Pingree has sponsored an act to require national restaurants in Maine to list calorie counts on their menus. This is a sensible move and a welcome change, though I would be happier if the saturated and trans fat amounts were posted, as well. For years, McDonald’s has provided nutritional information at their restaurants upon request and McDonald’s and Burger King both have Web sites listing a full range of nutritional information. So, why don’t the restaurant chains just post the information?
Short answer: because the calorie counts and fat levels are strikingly high. For example, a Burger King Whopper with cheese, large fries and medium milkshake is 1,720 calories. Replacing the milkshake with a diet soda only brings the total down to 1,280 calories, while triple-patty burgers can hit quadruple-digit calorie counts.
This is the epitome of what we call “high energy density” — a lot of calories per food weight. Since the recommended amount of calories per day is 2,000 to 2,500 for moderately active people, most people have little allowance for any more food that day after such a lunch.
Pingree is right that nutritionists often underestimate the caloric content of restaurant foods. I once heard a chef summarize the reason food tastes so good in restaurants: “Plenty of butter.” And, some nutritionists argue that even the nutrition menus understate the calories, in spite of the fact that the amounts of condiments are
often prescribed by the restaurant chain. But, let’s face it: In this day, everyone knows that fast-food restaurants are not the most healthful of choices.
So, until a time when the nutritional information is posted, when you need to grab a quick healthful meal, your best bet is to get a sandwich with lean meat (turkey), lots of veggies and little condiments.
If you are going to a drive-through, here are some suggestions:
Get a Burger King veggie burger (420 calories and less than 20 percent of the artery-clogging saturated fat) or a grilled chicken sandwich at McDonald’s or Burger King (400 calories if you hold the mayo).
Chicken tenders actually have fewer calories, but higher saturated fat and lower nutrient density. Keep in mind that “crispy” generally means fried. So, although the crispy chicken salad may sound like a healthful choice, you are still over 400 calories, even without the salad dressing.
If you do get a burger, hold the mayo. Asking for sandwiches without mayonnaise will cut out about 20 percent of the calories, as well as 30 percent of the fat and a portion of the cholesterol. Even the honey-mustard sauce — such as in Wendy’s wrap-to-go — which sounds rather benign, sometimes has a mayonnaise base.
Specify the condiments. In my experience, about a third of the time, “hold the mayo” is missed or forgotten.
Order the burger without cheese. Even for large burgers, cheese can be 10 percent of the calories.
I applaud Rep. Pingree for working to help the health-conscious to make informed choices. And, I guess it goes without saying — stay away from the chocolate Oreo shake, unless you are sharing.
Shallee Page is an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maine at Machias.