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Fighting fat: most fast food chains offer slim pickins for healthy eaters, but a square meal is possible.

For health-conscious travelers, or those just wanting to grab a quick meal, it's never been easy to find something appetizing to eat at the fast food outlets that spring up like weeds along every major traffic artery.

According to a 1991 Gallup poll, about one fifth of the population looks for a restaurant with "healthy" menu items when dining out, and one third said they would order non-meat items if they were available. While less than one percent of the populace is vegetarian, health concerns are prompting many to make an effort to cut down on high-fat, high-cholesterol foods. The National Restaurant Association predicts that, for the first time ever, consumers this year will spend more at fast food places than they will at full-service restaurants - a whopping $86 billion, according to industry estimates. No wonder McDonald's builds a thousand new restaurants a year.

Getting a decent, healthy meal on the go today often requires intimate knowledge of area eateries, or seeking out ethnic restaurants off the beaten path. These days, however, even the major fast food chains are making strides in introducing new, more health-conscious menu items.

Healthy eating in the chains is not simply a matter of avoiding the traditional gut-busters, however. A study last year by the Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter revealed that Boston Chicken's $5.99 half-chicken plate actually contains more fat and calories than a $4.47 belly-bruiser of a Big Mac, large fries and a chocolate shake. And that's just choosing between two terrible alternatives: The McDonald's meal has 45 grams of fat, 40 grams of sugar, 1,280 milligrams of sodium and 1,140 calories.

Fat, and most crucially the saturated fat contained in animal products, is the primary reason to avoid fast food. According to nutritionists, only 30 percent of dietary calories should be fat. Look at these awesome statistics: According to Bowes and Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used, 55 percent of the calories in a Big Mac comes from fat, together with 83 milligrams of cholesterol. Compare this to beans, which are only four percent fat; potatoes, which are less than one percent fat; and rice, which contains one to five percent fat.

In 1986, Hardee's became the first major chain to abandon beef fat and switch to 100 percent vegetable oil for its fried foods. Now, with the exception of Roy Rogers (which uses beef tallow for its fries), vegetable oil is the standard, showing that progress can be made.

Fast food restaurants would do their patrons' cholesterol counts a favor by offering a low-fat, meatless burger patty. After getting pressure from groups like Farm Sanctuary, the 7,200-plus outlet Burger King chain last year test marketed a meatless burger, "The Griller," in 19 western New York outlets as well as in focus groups, but discontinued it despite its popularity. Franchisee David Kessler remarked that just getting corporate approval to test market the Griller "was like turning the Queen Mary around in a bathtub," and he was ordered to remove the burger from the menu after the tests concluded in December 1993.

Reportedly, the decision to nix the Griller wasn't based on its public reception, but rather on an overall "back to basics" marketing strategy the corporation is employing. During the 1980s, many fast food chains introduced new menu items like chicken nuggets and salads, designed to appeal to health-conscious customers. But more variety meant slower service and higher costs, leading some chains - notably Burger King in its effort to catch up to its rival McDonald's - to retreat to the tried-and-true burgers-and-fries formula, and the introduction of the "value menu" to steer customers toward a limited number of menu items in different combinations. Burger King will accommodate individual requests to custom design a low-fat, low-sodium meal, but a sandwich of white bread, processed cheese and assorted condiments has a limited appeal at best.

The situation is similar at other mainstream fast food joints, with a few notable exceptions. Arby's is experimenting with vegetable pita bread pockets and is looking into other low-fat and meatless options. Wendy's offers salad bars at all of its locations and in its "Super Bar," which includes meatless pasta and Mexican offerings, in some outlets, plus baked potatoes with toppings. Wendy's is also testing a grain-based meatless burger. McDonald's has won raves for its McLean Deluxe, which is 91 percent fat-free and also holds the calorie-loading condiments (but nutritionists still complain that fat makes up 28 percent of the burger's 320 calories). Another entry, Hardee's Real Lean Deluxe, is worse, and gets 35 percent of its calories from fat.

Outside the burger arena, health prospects improve: Most Mexican fast-food places have stopped using lard in refried beans, and there are often several relatively imaginative entrees available at chains like Taco Bell, Del Taco, Taco John's and Chi-Chis. Pizza is a relatively safe bet, and some pizza places, such as Pizza Hut and Round Table, have even made the switch from animal rennet in cheese to vegetable or synthetic coagulants. Kentucky Fried Chicken (or KFC, as it prefers to be called these days), has more than the usual number of vegetable side dishes (such as corn on the cob, "vegetable medley," macaroni and cheese, and pasta salad), although some (baked beans, red beans and rice, "mean greens," garden rice, and green beans) do contain meat or meat stock.

It's easy to feel virtuous ordering the oat bran muffin at Hardee's, but be aware that you're ingesting 440 calories and 18 grams of fat - as much as a Quarter Pounder. Burger King's egg, cheese and sausage Breakfast Buddies may appear to be a safe bet because they weigh only three ounces, but they carry 16 grams of fat each.

A number of the more ubiquitous mainstream sit-down type places are getting into the act as well. Ponderosa restaurants, for example, offer an extensive food bar that includes fresh fruit, salads and cooked vegetables.

Subway Shops, the nation's fastest-growing fast food chain, has broken new ground with the introduction of the "All-Vegetarian Turkey Sub," a submarine sandwich featuring gluten-based vegetarian turkey slices and American-style soy cheese (which does contain trace amounts of dairy products), both from White Wave. The sandwich is currently offered at several Subway outlets in the Boulder, Colorado area, with plans for possible expansion to other Colorado and Southern California outlets if it proves successful. The chain, which offers whole wheat bread at most stores, also offers a veggie-and-cheese sub featuring an array of vegetables and rennet-less cheese, plus a salad with the same ingredients. Perhaps more than any of its competitors, Subway deserves recognition for making a credible effort to address the needs of healthy eaters.

With fast food becoming such a mainstay of the American diet, there's no direction to go but up when it comes to health-conscious choices.

CONTACT: Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1501 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036/(202)332-9110; Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter, 203 Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA 02111/(617)482-3530.

LESLIE PARDUE is a freelance writer based in Woodstock, New York.
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Author:Pardue, Leslie
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Date:Apr 1, 1995
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