Healthy eating has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents, who have always been thin, are obsessive calorie counters. I can distinctly remember a period during elementary school when my dad went to work chomping on a head of iceberg lettuce for breakfast, and a few times in high school when my mother went on soup-and-Jell-O diets and it seemed like there wasn't any solid food in the house. During the holidays, while my friends and their families were gorging on cheese logs and rich desserts, our pantry contained only the ingredients necessary for one low-fat Christmas dinner, assorted dried fruits and nuts from various gift baskets and maybe a couple dozen sugar cookies-if I was lucky.
These days, I simply try to balance the things that make me feel the best inside-healthy things usually do-with the flavors that enrich my life (like chocolate and every conceivable type of cheese). Though I secretly enjoy a late-night run for the border every couple of months, I almost never eat fast food, even though I've noticed that McDonald's and a few other burger chains-probably in the wake of Super Size Me-have been trying hard to promote their so-called healthy menus.
I became acutely aware of this when my mom called me a couple of months ago, brimming with the news that McDonald's was giving out free exercise DVDs with the purchase of a salad and bottled water. The "adult happy meal" giveaway has been over for a while now, but she tells me my dad still uses the DVD, practicing yoga under the instruction of a perky computer-animated J.Lo look-alike.
While the news brought me a hearty chuckle at their expense, it also got me thinking about how many people really do order the "healthy" options at fast-food places, and if they're really worth eating to begin with. To find out, I went to McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Carl's Jr. and Jack in the Box and ordered the healthiest stuff I could find. Here's what I experienced:
McDonald's seems to be trying the hardest to market to people who want to eat healthy. Their website is full of lingo about "active lifestyles" and "balanced diets," but their low-cal food was among the poorest I sampled. I ordered the Grilled Asian Chicken Salad because mama said it came with spinach, but they must not have yet recovered from the E-coli outbreak. Instead, I received a bed of weak iceberg lettuce-a nutritional black hole-topped with sparse shredded carrots, five or six pieces of soggy red bell pepper, some wet edamame, sliced airline-quality chicken breast, mandarin oranges, a packet of slivered almonds and low-fat sesame dressing. With only 380 calories and 12 grams of fat, it's actually not that bad for you, but it didn't taste that great, either. Still, the girl at the register told me people order the salads all day long.
Jack in the Box, by comparison, makes a pretty good salad, which people apparently order more frequently when it's hot outside. I had the Southwest Chicken Salad, composed of romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots, red onion, black beans, corn, "crunchy corn sticks," cubed chicken breast and "creamy Southwest dressing." Including the corn sticks and the dressing, the salad has 570 calories and 38 grams of fat, making it far from diet-friendly. Then again, corn and black beans are more nutritious than most fast-food ingredients. (The Asian Chicken Salad, which I ordered for my roommate, is the healthier choice calorie-wise and looked much fresher than the McDonald's version.)
Wendy's also offers a scrumptious array of fattening salads, but I wanted to try something sandwich-like so I got their Ultimate Chicken Grill. It turned out to be pretty simple: another bionic grilled chicken breast on a soft Kaiser roll with iceberg lettuce, tomato and honey-mustard dressing, totaling 370 calories and 8 grams of fat. The honey mustard sauce was actually tasty, but the un-breaded chicken brought to mind disturbing images of fast-food chicken processing that I can only pray are just urban legends.
Carl's Jr.'s website has taken the opposite approach as McDonald's, promoting $6 burgers designed to "slay the hunger of a young guy on the move." I ordered their low-carb chicken grill just for fun-we all know there's nothing healthy about a low-carb diet by now, I hope-and was totally revolted. The grilled chicken breast was slathered in mayo and topped with cheese and bacon but came wrapped in ridiculously slimy iceberg lettuce instead of a bun. I couldn't hold onto it and didn't want to try. The low-carb items aren't even listed on the drive-thru menu, but the guy at the window said people still order them all the time, usually with a large side of fries and a coke.
Burger King wins the prize for the healthiest menu item: their veggie burger has only 420 calories and 4.5 grams of fat. I was surprised when the cashier told me it's a popular item, but she quickly added that most people order two or three at a time. It tasted OK, but loses major points for having no mustard on it (though you can certainly request it).
Bottom line: if you want to eat health food that tastes good, get some fresh Thai spring rolls or go to the salad bar at Whole Foods Market. Healthy Mexican-food joints like Baja Fresh, Chipotle and Wahoo's offer healthy alternatives (read: lay-off the sour cream and cheese). If you find yourself at a fast-food joint, just go ahead and eat the cheeseburger and fries-that's really what they do best.