Let me start this discussion off with an old adage: All things in moderation.
When discussing fast food it is important to remember those words. Fast food, if nothing else, is convenient. Who has never stopped at a fast food place while traveling in order to keep progressing on the trip? Or on a very busy day hasn't stopped and grabbed a fast food meal when hunger got too much to handle? Who hasn't swung through a drive-thru in order to feed hungry kids?
Moderation though is the key. If you are so busy that all you ever eat is fast food then you need to reassess your time and priorities. Fast food occasionally, when you follow a healthy diet the rest of the time, isn't a problem. The problem is that as a nation we have become addicted to fast food mainly because of its convenience. And that includes its relatively low cost.
When I was younger and could eat anything I wanted, I was a regular fast food eater. I look back now and think of it as my fast food tour. One chain in the morning for breakfast, another at noon for lunch, and sometimes a third in the evening for dinner. As I've said before I am a human garbage disposal. I like everything. Fish, pizza, hamburgers, chicken, hotdogs, tacos, etc; you name it, I like it. As such I am all about variety. So it was a blessed curse that in my lifetime they developed a fast food chain for every type of food you can think of.
Let me state up front that I am not a proponent of banning fast food. I don't think it should be taxed. I don't think there should be lawsuits against fast food chains. I don't think the government has a right to tell us what we can and can't eat, or even how often we can eat it. Fast food, like everything else, should be left up to the individual to choose. If someone wants to subsist on fast food exclusively, that is their decision. (Spare me the "others' health has a cost to all of us" argument, I don't care, you can't legislate diet.)
What I would like to see is people become smarter about what they do and do not put into their bodies, and for chains to become even more friendly to the health-conscious than they already are.
On the first point, people need to realize what they are doing to themselves and their bodies by eating fast food. And I am not referring to Morgan Spurlock here. He was the guy that made the movie "Supersize Me", where he ate McDonalds everyday for a month, for all three meals. Anyone with half a brain could have predicted the outcome of that experiment. The fact that he became rich and famous from that stunt of a movie is ludicrous.
For years the media has concentrated on what fast food puts into your body: fat, sugar, processed to the hilt food stuffs, high calories, saturated fat, cholesterol, and many other things. The media has fixated on that aspect of fast food. However, I contend that what is worse is what fast food doesn't put into your body: nutrition.
A fast food diet lacks vegetable and fruit intake. It lacks nutritious variety that is important to a balance diet. Most fast food junkies don't consume enough dairy. Even if they eat cheese on their fast food sandwiches it is usually the ultra-processed, American cheese variety. The only vegetable they consume consistently is lettuce. While not bad for you there are so many more nutritious vegetables to be consumed. Potatoes are another vegetable staple of fast food. But normally they are deep-fried which limits the nutrition of the potato, and adds so much fat that the bad out weighs the good.
Fast food eaters also tend to be quite picky. "Hold the tomatoes." "Hold the pickles." "Extra mayo, please." They make unhealthy choices even when customizing their fast food. The combination of the bad stuff you are taking in, coupled with the lack of nutrition in the fast food diet, is a double whammy to the human body. The body begins to crave the nutrition it is starved for, which means the fast food junkie becomes even more hungry and in turns consumes even more fast food. They are starving themselves at the same time that they are eating themselves to death.
Still, people have the choice to eat fast food or not eat it, and they can choose how often to eat it. Maybe they are picky eaters, like was mentioned earlier, or maybe they are just uninformed. (The lazy and impoverished tend toward the fast food diet as well, but that is another topic for another time on another blog!)
That brings us to the lack of healthy choices that fast food chains provide. I do have to give them some credit, they have made some progress in this area over the course of the last couple of decades. Healthier choices in sides, grilled chicken, better beverages, and even salads are now on most fast food chains' menus. However, the problem is that even their healthy choices aren't always so healthy.
First, they still tend to use too much sodium in their food. Part of this is because it is so over processed, that to salvage any flavor they have to add lots of salt. Fast food places seem bent on making things taste better, and therefore sodium and other preservatives are loaded into the food.
Also, they aren't smart about carbs. Even their healthy sandwiches come on white bread buns. Buns that again are loaded with sodium and preservatives, but worse are made from white flour.
Then there is the fact that the sauces and dressing they use tend to be unhealthy. Either they are full of fat, or they are low/no fat but loaded with sugar. Chains need to be smarter about the types of offerings they provide. Try to find a good Italian dressing at a fast food chain sometime. You'll get offered all sorts of high sugar versions; raspberry vinaigrette for example.
Even their salads need work. Lots of lettuce, a couple of tomatoes and a few carrot shavings just doesn't make a nutritious salad. Admittedly, it is still better for you then french fries, but when coupled with unhealthy dressing choices these salads leave a lot to be desired.
Nothing highlights the problem with fast food chains and the over processing of their food stuffs more than the honey packets at a very well known fast food chicken chain. Next time you are at this unnamed chain (say hello to the Colonel for me), ask for honey. Then read the packet. While it has some honey, it also has high fructose corn syrup and preservatives. What is ridiculous about that is that honey NEVER GOES BAD! There is no need to process honey, yet they do.
What I'd like to see from fast food chains is the following:
- Choice of whole wheat buns
- Real cheese (not just American)
- Less preservatives and sodium
- Salads with a bigger variety of vegetables
- Healthy dressings made with olive oil
- Even more healthy side choices
- More healthy sandwich choices
A model for all fast food places is Subway. Subway gives you so many choices, they make it easy to eat healthy. Including whole grain breads, real cheeses, lean meat, and dressings that are healthy and nutritious. The rest need to look at Subway and pattern some things themselves.
In the end, fast food is like any other food: if kept in the right proportion it can be a part of your diet. But convenience shouldn't be paramount to health, and the fast food chains have some work to do themselves in providing healthier choices.