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Published: Tuesday, 1/15/2013

Healthy fast food? Yes, and no

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

My favorite line of the press release was this one: "(A) Burger King TenderCrisp Chicken Apple and Cranberry Salad, with dressing, has 700 calories and 41 grams of fat … You could actually save some calories at Burger King by ordering a Bacon Cheeseburger and a small order of fries."

That's right. If you go to Burger King and order something that sounds healthy — a salad with chicken, apple, and cranberries — you will actually be consuming 30 more calories than if you order what we think of as one of the most fattening meals on earth.

This information comes to us from fastfoodnutrition.org, an organization dedicated to presenting the nutritional facts about 27 (so far) of the largest fast food chains in the country.

Not surprisingly, most of the news is bad. But some of it is actually pretty good. It turns out to be possible to eat relatively healthfully at fast food restaurants, if you know what you're getting. But you have to do a little research.

"One thing that you've really got to be careful of is foods that you'd normally think of as being healthy but they're really loaded up with high-calorie toppings," said Alex Lenhoff, the group's founder, director, and presumably sole employee.

Some fast food salads, for instance, pile on extras — cheese, cream dressing, bacon bits, fried chicken — that boost the calorie count to the stratosphere. As an example, Mr. Lenhoff cited the Baja Chili Salad at Wendy's.

"It's pretty much a nacho platter on top of some lettuce. It's got tortilla chips, chili, pico de gallo, guacamole, and cheese. That's over 700 calories right there," he said from his office in Minneapolis.

Seven hundred and thirty calories, to be exact. "To give you an idea of how that compares to some of the other options that people think of as unhealthy, the Wendy's Baconater has 660 calories," he said.

Even so, 730 calories doesn't sound so bad. If the average man should consume 2,200 or 2,500 calories each day, one of those dishes is less than one-third of that. He can eat one of those babies and still have two meals left, right?

"People forget that they're snacking throughout the day as well. That adds a lot of calories. If they have a Coke, that adds calories," he said.

Oh. Right. So what are the good options?

"The Caesar salad from McDonalds with chicken has under 200 calories," he said. "If that doesn't fill you up, you can pair it up with a Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait," which adds 160 calories.

"Taco Bell also has a Fresco menu. That has some pretty good options. A [Fresco] Burrito Supreme only has 340 calories," Mr. Lenhoff said.

Also recommended are Subway's Oven-Roasted Chicken Sandwich and KFC's Honey BBQ Sandwich, with 330 and 320 calories, respectively.

Now 27, Mr. Lenhoff became interested in the nutritional content of fast food items in exactly the way you'd think.

"When I went off to college, I didn't know how to cook anything. My mom was always a great cook when I was growing up. So I ended up going out to eat a lot. I didn't have money, and between school and work I didn't have time, so fast food became a staple of my diet.

"I knew it wasn't good for me. Everyone knows that. But I sort of thought it was OK, because I was young and healthy. Mostly, I wasn't overweight.

"But after awhile I began to feel not so good, I was feeling sluggish, and I thought it might be the food I was eating."

So he began getting the nutritional information from the various fast food chains. He started putting the data on his Web site seven and a half years ago — he was still in college — adding new chains every year.

And he keeps the information updated, tracking the ever-increasing size of the menu offerings.

Remember when a Big Mac was considered huge and fattening? It has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat. That's almost quaint now. At the moment, the most unhealthy meal you can get is the SuperSONIC Bacon Double Cheeseburger from Sonic.

Try one of those, and you'll say hello to 1,280 calories and 92 grams of fat.

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

 



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