6 Heart-Smart Secrets for the Drive-Thru

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: General Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

How to eat healthy just about anywhere

It's no secret that fast-food restaurants are one of the toughest places to find a heart-healthy meal. I also understand the realities of life. Sometimes, it's the only option available. If you find yourself in a fast-food establishment, here are six ways to satisfy your hunger, without hurting your heart.

1. Say no to "supersizing!" Americans now "boast" the highest obesity rate of any industrialized nation on earth; more than half of all adults and about a quarter of all children are obese or overweight. One of the biggest culprits is our portion inflation. The average hamburger in 1970 was the size of a kid's burger meal today. Meanwhile, today's adults are routinely eating quarter-pound burgers—and that's before you add things like bacon, cheese, ketchup and fries. TIP: Order off the children's menu and choose the apple-dippers instead of the fries.

2. Beware the glycemic load. A typical fast-food meal, consisting of a sandwich (sometimes with three layers of bread), French fries (potatoes are notorious high-glycemic starches), and a soda or shake, has an incredible amount of carbohydrates that the body must convert to something, be it fuel for immediate use, stores of fat, or carbohydrates stockpiled in your liver. The pancreas must secrete ridiculous amounts of insulin to adequately digest this kind of food. TIP: Remove the bread, order a side salad instead of fries, and skip the soda or shake. Drink water instead.

3. Watch out for the salad trap. Salads are always a good choice. Raw foods like cucumbers, onions, carrots, and celery contain live enzymes and require less insulin for your body to process than other foods. But that's only if you don't douse your salad in dressing. Dressings can add more than 300 calories to your meal, and upwards of 25 grams of fat, not to mention the sodium. TIP: Drizzle on a small amount of dressing, or ask for a low-fat salad dressing. Plus, skip the croutons and load up on the vegetables.

4. Get creative. Many fast-food restaurants have expanded their menus beyond burgers and fries. If you find yourself in an establishment that sells chili, order it. It's a good heart-healthy choice. The beans contain multiple amino acids, protein, fiber, and healthy fats. And, if you add onions, you're also getting quercetin. I recommend combining a small bowl of chili with a dry baked potato, which is loaded with potassium. Or, choose a small burger without the bun and combine it with the baked potato. TIP: Forgo the menu and put together your own healthier combinations.

5. Beware of flame-broiled chicken. Most people know to avoid deep-fried foods, but ordering flame-broiled chicken often isn't any better. Check the nutrition information carefully, since in some fast-food restaurants a single piece of chicken can contain upwards of 1,200 mg of sodium. TIP: Instead of the chicken, order a small hamburger with veggies, no cheese, and only eat half the bun.

6. Avoid the soda fountain. Many sodas are loaded with high fructose corn syrup that can spike your blood sugar. Diet soda is no better. Once your body tastes the artificial sweetness it releases insulin to handle the expected sugar. When no sugar shows up you have an insulin overload in your bloodstream. TIP: Opt for water over soda. If you must have soda, make it a child-sized cup, watered down by 50% with club soda.

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