While often delicious at the moment, fast food has a long-lasting impact on our overall health—from our nutritional intake to how we manage weight gain. Though treating yourself to a salty, fatty, carb-heavy meal once in a blue moon isn’t a big deal, consistent consumption of these foods can cause issues. However, far too many Americans make it a habit, according to data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As they found, an estimated 36.6% of adults consumed fast food on any given day from 2013 to 2016.
There are many dangers of having lunch or dinner frequently at your local drive-thru, but the biggest one is simple: fast food can mean fast calories, says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND, the associate clinical profession emeritus for the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. As he explains, fast food meals tend to be high in three things that most people already eat in excess: fat, salt, and sugar. (Related: Need fast meals? Check out our list of 100 Easiest Recipes You Can Make).
With very little vegetables or other nutrient-dense ingredients, Ayoob says fast food fills us up quickly, then leaves us feeling hungry shortly after. It can also zap our energy, so we aren’t motivated to make it to a workout class or go for a long walk. Think about it: when you have a balanced breakfast, you get a burst of motivation to power through your day. But if you only eat a sugary pastry or a cheese-and-bacon-loaded breakfast sandwich with added mayonnaise, you probably feel tired and sluggish.
The good news? You don’t have to rule out fast food from your diet completely. Instead, Ayoob challenges consumers to think critically about what they order. And—ahem—not just what you’re craving.
“Most fast food places offer plenty of lower-calorie options, but the problem is when people decide to go to one, they’ve often already decided on what they want,” he says.
Because the higher-calorie options are easier to eat—a.k.a. no utensils are required—people often choose them out of convenience sake, too. After all, you shouldn’t drive while eating a salad. Ayoob’s suggestion is simple: forget the ‘bundled’ meal options, and order a la carte. Like turning to one of these 7 Healthiest McDonald’s Orders, According to a Dietitian.
“Get the smallest version of the item you want: the burger, the fries, etcetera,” he says. “And drink water, a sugar-free beverage or low-fat milk, instead of soda or milkshakes.”