Fast food doesn't have a great reputation. There have been countless studies linking the habitual consumption of fast foods to obesity and cardiovascular diseases, and documentaries like Morgan Spurlock's 2004 Super Size Me have demonized the fast food industry as a whole.
While the moral aspects of industry practices can be debated, perhaps fast food's reputation has been exaggerated, or at least outdated; the Los Angeles Times reported that newer chains like Veggie Grill and LYFE Kitchen emphasizing "mindful fats" and "quality food using locally and sustainably sourced ingredients," as opposed to a stereotypical greasy burger, have changed how we might perceive the pejorative notion of "fast food." Furthermore, the success of these newer, healthier franchises has prompted older, more-established chains like McDonalds to follow suit. With this recent shift toward healthier options, is fast food really all that bad?
Though the recommended number calories per day can vary from person to person, the most commonly cited figure for minimum caloric intake per day is 1200 for women, and 1800 for men.
In a 2009 survey, Health.com ranked America's healthiest fast food restaurants, determined by a committee of health experts, nutritionists and dietitians. Panera Bread came out on top, with it's "Delicious, nutrient-packed combos like a half-Turkey Artichoke on focaccia bread with a bowl of black bean or garden vegetable soup."
Surprisingly, McDonald's broke the top 10, with their "260- to 270-calorie Snack Wraps (choose grilled chicken) for protein without a lot of unwanted carbs." As the experts imply, the key to making any restaurant a healthy option for a meal is wise choices; all the restaurants on the list are also annotated with a "danger zone" menu item.
This sentiment is echoed by the American Heart Association, advising, "Even if you're in good heart health, try to avoid poor food choices, especially the obvious culprits that are deep fried, swimming in cream or butter, showered in salt or glittering with sugar. Even a salad that may seem healthy is just a few dollops of fatty dressing away from being bad for your heart."
A good way of doing this is simple: pay attention to calories listed on the menu. For example, many of the items on LYFE Kitchen's menu are between 400 and 600 calories. McDonald's online menu also allows you sort from least to most calories, from the 250-calorie regular burger to the 780-calorie double quarter pounder with cheese.
"Everything in moderation" is a common dietary adage that is even more commonly broken.
Indulging on the occasional treat isn't the end of the world if you otherwise eat balanced meals and keep somewhat of an active lifestyle. Factoring the occasional treat can even stave off deprivation cravings that inevitably result in an unhealthy binge.
The problem then becomes the issue of temptation, but the more you are exposed to it, the more susceptible you are to partaking. A 2013 Harvard study suggested that environmental factors, such as proximity to fast food restaurants, as well as their convenience, contribute to the compulsion of needing to indulge in these unhealthy foods.
There is also an intersectional issue: fast food restaurants selling cheaper foods – in comparison to the prices of healthier food – tend to be concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, which contributes to a cycle of unhealthy eating habits. In other words: you crave items off McDonald's dollar menu, and don't feel too bogged down by its price.
While there are certainly better options that don't contain quite as much sodium, processed meats and calories, fast food is really neither healthy and unhealthy. What is more salient is a consumer's lifestyle choices and propensity toward restraint.
Writing for the New York Times, Mark Bittman noted that "A meal of real food cooked at home can easily contain more calories" than junk food, and that "The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch." Bittman also thinks there should be less nannying about junk food or fast food, and more discussion about cultural change of "celebrating real food; raising our children in homes that don't program them for fast-produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk; giving them the gift of appreciating the pleasures of nourishing one another and enjoying that nourishment together."