Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Double-Edged Sword of “Healthy” Fast Food


What's on the menu at the big fast food chains lately? Oddly enough, the answer is… "health food!" Even more incongruous, many are marketing their food for weight loss. Healthy weight loss food at Taco Bell and McDonalds? Is this a noble move to be applauded, is it a big corporate money grab, or is it a double edged sword?

Remember Jared Fogle, the Subway guy? He lost 245 pounds while eating at Subway regularly. He simply picked the lower calorie menu items.  Seeing an opportunity, the local store owner pitched Subway corporate with an idea. Before long, Jared was the company spokesperson in their nationwide advertising campaigns which became known as The Subway Diet.

Sales doubled to 8.2 billion. How much the increase came from the weight loss ads is unknown, but there's little doubt that using weight loss as a marketing platform was a boon for the sandwich maker. Other fast food chains picked up the weight loss torch where Subway left off.

The latest is the Taco Bell Drive through diet, with their own skinny spokesperson: Christine! The ads, which are admittedly conservative, perhaps due to more stringent FTC laws, say Christine lost 54 lbs over 2 years by reducing her calories to 1250 a day, and choosing Taco Bell's new lower calorie "Fresco" items.

These include "7 diet items with 150 to 240 calories and under 9 grams of fat." For example, there's a chicken soft taco with only 170 calories and 4 grams of fat.

For people who refuse to give up eating at fast food restaurants, this is arguably a positive thing. Take my brother for example, He's not a total junk food junkie, but left to his own devices, he WILL make a beeline to Taco Bell and McDonalds.

I went to McDonalds with him a few months ago (I was dragged there), and he was about to order a bacon cheeseburger. I glanced at the menu and said, "That's 790 calories!" I glanced down at his belly then continued, "Look, they have chicken wraps. Why don't you have one of those?" Without questioning me, he agreed, apparently happy to get any McDonalds fix.

Right there at the counter they had the nutrition information sheets:

McDonald's honey mustard grilled chicken wrap: 260 calories, 9 grams fat, 27 grams of carbs, 18 grams of protein.

That saved him 530 calories. Am I happy there was something with only 260 calories on the menu? Absolutely. Do I applaud the fast food restaurants for offering lower calorie choices? You bet. But the big question is: are these really "healthy choices?"

A few journalists and bloggers recently answered, "These fast food diet items are NOT healthy, they're only 'healthi-ER.'"

I think they're both mistaken. I think this food is not healthy nor is it healthier. It's only lower in calories. If you eat lower calorie food, that can help you lose weight and if you lose weight, that can improve your health. But what if your definition of healthy food includes nutrition, nutrient density and absence of artificial ingredients?

Let's take a look at that very low calorie chicken wrap. Is it really healthier just because it's got 1/3 the calories of a bacon cheeseburger?

 

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Here's the ingredients straight from McDonald's website:

McDonald's Grilled Chicken Breast Filet (wrap): Chicken breast filets with rib meat, water, seasoning (salt, sugar, food starch-modified, maltodextrin, spices, dextrose, autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed [corn gluten, soy, wheat gluten] proteins, garlic powder, paprika, chicken fat, chicken broth, natural flavors (plant and animal source), caramel color, polysorbate 80, xanthan gum, onion powder, extractives of paprika), modified potato starch, and sodium phosphates. CONTAINS: SOY AND WHEAT. Prepared with Liquid Margarine: Liquid soybean oil, water, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oils, salt, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (preservative), artificial flavor, citric acid, vitamin A palmitate, beta carotene (color). (and don't forget the 800 mg of sodium).

HOLY CRAP! Shouldn't chicken breast be just one ingredient… chicken breast?

This is not food. It's more like what author Michael Pollan would call an "edible food-like substance."

What about the honey mustard sauce? The first ingredient after water is… SUGAR!

The flour tortilla ingredients? Enriched bleached wheat flour, also made with vegetable shortening (may contain one or more of the following: hydrogenated soybean oil, soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, hydrogenated cottonseed oil with mono- and diglycerides added), contains 2% or less of the following: sugar, leavening (sodium aluminum sulfate, calcium sulfate, sodium phosphate, baking soda, corn starch, monocalcium phosphate), salt, wheat gluten, dough conditioners, sodium metabisulfite, distilled monoglycerides.

Trans fats? Sugar? Aluminum? Stuff you can't pronounce and have to look up to find out it's preservatives and disinfectants?

Don't confuse the issues: weight loss and health…. Calories and nutrition. There IS a difference, and that is what makes "healthy" fast food a double edged sword at best.

Some people, like my brother, simply aren't going to give up fast food completely. If I can get him to make better bad choices, that could help him control his weight. If that works, then I'm pleased that the fast food restaurants have such choices to offer.

But if you wanted to make a good choice - a healthy choice - you'd forget about "driving through" anywhere on a regular basis. You'd shop for whole, fresh, natural real food, keep a well-stocked kitchen… and learn how to cook.

The Subway diet, the Drive Through diet, or the Weight Watchers approved McDonalds menu (yes its true, what a pair that is!) Don't kid yourself – this is not only not healthy, it's not healthier – it's lower calorie junk food.

"Welcome to our restaurant sir. Would you like a large plate of dog poo or a small plate of dog poo?"

"No thank you, I will take neither. No matter what the serving size, crap is still crap."

 

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