Fast Foods

child eating

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By the end of this lesson you will:

  • Learn the target of Fast Food Restaurants
  • List two concerns about eating frequently at Fast Food Restaurants
  • Identify three ways of eating healthy at Fast Food Restaurants

Activity 1


Where are the Fast Food Restaurants?

Fast Foods Restaurants are all around us. Almost everywhere you look you'll see a familiar sign symbolizing our fast food nation. You find them on the corners of streets, off the side of interstates, airports, malls, schools, gas stations, your local shopping center, and even in hospitals. There is no way of getting around them. In 1970 Americans spent $6 billion on french fries alone. In the year 2000, Americans spent over $110 billion! More money is spent on french fries than on higher education, personal computers, or new cars! Looking at how our society has become faster paced, it is no wonder less time is spent preparing meals in the home.

Today, eating out definitely is part of our fast paced lifestyle, not just a special treat as it was in years past. The average American eats out 198 times a year, nearly four times a week!

Fast food is mainly targeted to children. The restaurants are advertising toys to children; this will bring them in. Some fast food restaurants are the world's largest distributors of toys. A survey of American school children found that 96% could identify Ronald McDonald. Once the children are in the restaurant, they buy the fast food to get a toy. The high fat foods taste good to these youngsters, which in turn makes them believe that fast food is quick, easy and satisfying. Fast food restaurants are now making "value" meals for children which have increased in portion sizes. So, what happens when eating fast food becomes routine? Well, let's take a look at what we're eating.

What Are We Really Eating?

When you decide to eat out at a fast food restaurant, ask for a list of nutrition facts. Most restaurants have these available in a brochure, or printed out on a poster. Keep in mind how many nutrients you're getting, and how much you really need for the whole day. French fries are often the food with the most fat on your tray. French fries at most fast food restaurants are deep fried in vegetable oil giving the fries their well-known taste. A medium order of fries has 22 grams of fat and 450 calories. You can order a plain baked potato that has 0 grams of fat, 310 calories and vitamin C. If you "super size" your order of fries, you have just increased the amount of fat to 29 grams! A Big Mac will contain 32 grams of fat while a Big X'tra with cheese will give you a total of 46 grams of fat.

What Are Some Concerns About Frequent Eating at Fast Food Restaurants?

  • Too much fat: Too much fat in the diet contributes to high blood cholesterol levels. This can cause hardening of the arteries, coronary heart disease and stroke. High-fat diets may also contribute to a greater risk for some types of cancer, particularly cancers of the breast and colon.
  • Too much cholesterol: The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. Too much cholesterol in the diet can lead to high blood cholesterol levels.
  • Too many calories. Many foods served in fast food restaurants are high in calories. Extra calories eaten daily will increase your weight. Remember, 3500 calories equals one pound. Too many calories can lead to obesity, which can later turn into other diseases such as heart attack, high blood pressure, and often diabetes.
  • Too much sodium: Everyone needs some sodium in the diet to replace routine losses. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences/ National Research Council has estimated that an "adequate and safe" intake of sodium for healthy adults is 1,100 to 3,300 milligrams a day, the equivalent of approximately 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Americans, on average, consume at least twice that amount -- 2,300 to 6,900 milligrams of sodium daily. Consuming high amounts of sodium can cause high blood pressure.

Take a look at a few favorites to see what we're eating:

  • Egg McMuffin = 235 mg Cholesterol
  • 4 piece chicken McNuggets = 19 grams of fat
  • 9 piece chicken McNuggets = 26 grams of fat
  • Quarterpounder with cheese = 30 grams of fat
  • Big Mac = 1110 mg of Sodium*
  • Garden salad = 120 mg of sodium

* Most of the sodium we consume in our diet does not come from the salt shaker on the table. In fact, only 1/3 of the sodium we consume comes from table salt. Most sodium is found in processed foods such as canned foods, frozen dinners, and most snack foods. We often eat a lot of these types of foods today because they are quick and easy. Remember to read the food label next time you reach for one of these foods. Look for the word "Sodium" on the label!

Let's take a look at some common fast food meals...

Fast Food Meals

Quarterpound Cheeseburger, Large Fries, 16 oz. soda (McDonald's)
This meal: Recommended daily intake:
1,166 calories
51 g fat
95 mg cholesterol
2,000-2,700 calories
No more than 50-80 g
No more than 300 mg

4 slices Sausage and Mushroom Pizza, 16 oz. soda (Domino's)
This meal: Recommended daily intake:
1,000 calories
28 g fat
62 mg cholesterol
2,302 mg sodium
2,000-2,700 calories
No more than 50-80 g
No more than 300 mg
No more than 1,100-3,300 mg

2 pieces Fried Chicken (Breast and Wing), Buttermilk Biscuit, Mashed Potatoes and Gravy, Corn-on-the-Cob, 16 oz. soda (KFC)
This meal: Recommended daily intake:
1,232 calories
57 g fat
157 mg cholesterol
2,276 mg sodium
2,000-2,700 calories
No more than 50-80 g
No more than 300 mg
No more than 1,100-3,300 mg

Taco Salad, 16 oz. soda (Taco Bell)
This meal: Recommended daily intake:
1,057 calories
55 g fat
80 mg cholesterol
1,620 mg sodium
2,000-2,700 calories
No more than 50-80 g
No more than 300 mg
No more than 1,100-3,300 mg

Portion Sizes:

How much should you eat?

Watch your portion sizes! The amount you eat or drink plays an important role in your energy balance strategy. You may be eating more than you realize. Some common food portions can equal the amount that is recommended for the whole day. For example, one bagel may weigh up to 5 ounces, which equals the entire day’s allotment of grains for someone on a 1600 calorie diet using MyPyramid Plan.

A good way to see how big your portions really are is to measure the size of bowls, glasses, cups, and plates you usually use. This can help you choose sensible portions. To see what 1 cup, ½ cup, or 1 ounce of some different foods looks like, click on the food gallery links below and find some of the foods in each group that you eat.

MyPyramid Food Groups Food Galleries





Meat and beans
Meat and Beans

MyPyramid Plan helps you manage your daily intake by recommending the amount of food you need from each group. Your portions need not match individual MyPyramid amounts — they can be larger or smaller. But, to stay within your energy needs, the total amount you eat during the day should match the total amount recommended for each group.

The chart below gives a 1-day example for the grain group. Five ounces of grain foods are recommended for the 1600 calorie MyPyramid Plan.


Total for the day:

Food Item

1/2 cup cooked
2 slices of whole wheat bread
1 cup of cooked noodles

Counts As
1 oz of grains
2 oz of grains
2 oz of grains

5 oz of grains

Note: This chart only shows food choices in the grain group, it is not a complete menu for the day.

Choose foods for a healthier you:

When making decisions on what to order, choose foods that are nutrient dense. For example, soda is not a nutrient dense drink. Soda will not contribute to the essential nutrients that your body needs. Milk will supply the body with protein, calcium and riboflavin (a B vitamin). When you eat out check to see if milk is available. Skim milk or 1% milk is your best choice.

  • What makes a food nutrient dense? A food is nutrient dense if the vitamin and mineral content is more than its energy or calorie content. Some examples are lean meats, beans, oranges, carrots, broccoli, whole-wheat bread, and whole-grain breakfast cereals.
  • What makes a food energy dense? Energy dense foods contribute more calories than they do nutrients such as chips, sodas, cookies and ice cream. Remember to balance healthy nutrient dense foods with energy dense foods.

Making Nutrient-Dense Food Choices

Here are some foods that contain extra calories from solid fats and added sugars and some “smarter” replacements. Choices on the right side are more nutrient-dense — lower in solid fats and added sugars. Try these new ideas instead of your usual choices. This guide gives sample ideas — it is not a complete list. Use the Nutrition Facts label to help identify more alternatives.

Instead of…

Replace with…

Milk Group
Sweetened fruit yogurt, Whole milk Natural or processed cheese

Plain fat-free yogurt with fresh fruit, Lowfat or fat-free milk, Lowfat or reduced- fat cheese

Meat Group
Beef (chuck, rib, brisket), Chicken with skin, Lunch meats (such as bologna), Hot dogs (regular), Bacon or sausage, Refried beans

Beef (loin, round), fat trimmed off Chicken without skin, Lowfat lunch meats (95% to 97% fat free), Hot dogs (lower fat), Canadian bacon or lean ham, Cooked or canned kidney or pinto beans

Grain Group
Granola, Sweetened cereals, Pasta with cheese sauce, Pasta with white sauce (alfredo), Croissants or pastries

Reduced fat granola, Unsweetened cereals with cut-up fruit, Pasta with vegetables (primavera), Pasta with red sauce (marinara), Toast or bread (try whole grain types)

Fruit Group
Apple or berry pie, Sweetened applesauce, Canned fruit packed in syrup

Fresh apple or berries, Unsweetened applesauce, Canned fruit packed in juice or "lite" syrup

Vegetable Group
Deep-fried french fries, Baked potato with cheese sauce, Fried vegetables

Oven-baked “french fries”, Baked potato with salsa, Steamed or roasted vegetables

Solid Fats
Cream cheese, Sour cream, Regular margarine or butter

Light or fat-free cream cheese, Plain lowfat or fat-free yogurt, Light-spread margarines, diet margarine

Added Sugars
Sugar-sweetened soft drinks, Sweetened tea or drinks, Syrup on pancakes or french toast, Candy, cookies, cake, or pastry, Sugar in recipes

Seltzer mixed with 100% fruit juice, Unsweetened tea or water, Unsweetened applesauce or berries as a topping, Fresh or dried fruit, Experiment with reducing amount and adding spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.)

Activity 2

1. Who is the target of most fast food restaurants?

2. Too much of this nutrient can lead to hardening of the arteries, coronary heart disease, or stroke.



You Are the Model of Your Children's Eating Behavior.

Somebody is always watching you, whether it's what you're reading, watching, or what you're eating. Be a good role model. Teach children early that eating a well balanced diet is healthy and fun. If you want to give your child a special treat try one of these fun recipes instead of taking them to the fast food restaurant. Not only will you be spending quality time together, but also you'll be educating your children on how to create these great nutritious snacks/meals.

Peanut Butter Balls
1 cup nonfat dry milk
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup honey or corn syrup
1 cup uncooked oatmeal

Combine all ingredients in bowl, mix well. Knead by hand until blended. Shape into small balls and enjoy!

Quesadilla-Torilla with Cheese
1 soft flour tortilla
2 Tablespoons shredded cheese

Place tortilla on a paper napkin. Sprinkle with shredded cheese. Microwave on high for 30 seconds. Roll or fold the tortilla.

muffinsTwo Grain Muffins
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup white flour
1/3 cup corn meal
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup low fat yogurt, plain or vanilla
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine flours, corn meal, sugar, baking soda and salt. Mix yogurt and egg together in a small bowl. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in melted butter. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake at 350° for 20 to 25 minutes.

Keep in mind that when you do go to fast food restaurants, you can still make healthy choices.

Seven Keys to Eating Healthier in Fast Food Restaurants:

  • Develop a can-do attitude-  Believe that you can have a healthy and enjoyable meal when eating out. Slowly begin to change your ordering habits so you can still eat out and not feel guilty.
  • Decide to eat out-  Frequent eating out means more careful monitoring. For most of us, eating out is hardly a special occasion. We need to factor in our nutrition and health goals.
  • Choose the site-  Find restaurants that offer some healthier options. Remember, eating in chain restaurants lets you learn the menu and plan ahead, no matter where the individual fast food restaurant is located.
  • Have a game plan on your way to the restaurant-  Envision a positive outcome-a healthy and enjoyable meal. Plan your order accordingly and don't be a victim of hasty choices.
  • Order for your stomach, not your eyes-  As you pursue the menu, having planned ahead, watch for foods high in fat, rich and heavy sauces, preparation methods such as frying, and ingredients that add fat like the "special sauce". Also keep in mind the less ordered, the less eaten. Don't fall for the "Super sized" selection. This adds extra calories and fat.
  • Get it made to order-  Don't be afraid to ask to get something made the way YOU want it. If your request is practical-such as leaving off an item, hold the mayo or "special sauce", or dressing on the side-restaurants are usually willing to accommodate.
  • Know when enough is enough-  So many of us were brought up thinking we had to clean our plates. To prevent overeating, order carefully and lightly, drink plenty of non- caloric fluids with the meal such as water or order a non fat milk.

Activity 3

Let's review:

 * 1. Fast foods are often high in cholesterol.

2. "Super sizing" your order of food will not add extra fat.

 * 3. Many foods at fast food restaurants are Energy Dense.


Thank you for completing the Fast Food Education Component.


 * Where are you taking today's lesson?

You have completed the lesson on “Fast Food”.  If you have any questions or comments, please contact your LWP nutritionist who will be glad to answer any of your questions. 

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