Fast food -- it's quick and inexpensive and tastes good, but if you want to eat healthy, skipping those trips through the drive-through should be first on your to-do list. Fast food is loaded with sodium, fat and sugar, ingredients that provide little nutrition in supersized calories. Energy-dense foods such as these are associated with a number of health problems. If you don’t choose wisely, a fast food meal can run your calorie tab up to 1,000 or more.
Fast foods are called energy dense because they provide so many calories with few other nutritional benefits. Consuming a diet that relies on fast food is associated with a number of health consequences, such as overweight, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, osteoporosis and high blood pressure, among others. Substituting healthier unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds and whole grains can improve your health by reducing your risk for these conditions.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, a joint effort of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U. S. Department of Agriculture, recommends Americans limit their sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams daily; individuals over 50 or who have health problems should only consume 1,500 milligrams. High sodium intake is associated with high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke. Fast food is notoriously loaded with sodium. For example, an article in a 2010 issue of the "Archives of Internal Medicine" concluded that 20 per cent of fast food meals purchased by New York City patrons contained enough sodium to meet an individual's daily recommended limit. The average sodium content of the meals purchased was 2,136 milligrams per 1,000 calories.
Most fast food is also oozing with saturated and trans fat. Both types are associated with high blood cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. To reduce this risk among New Yorkers, in 2006 the city passed a law limiting the trans fat content of restaurant foods. The result was what was intended -- healthier choices by consumers, concluded a study in a 2012 issue of the "Annals of Internal Medicine." The researchers found a statistically significant reduction in the trans fat content of fast food purchased, without individuals increasing other unhealthy fat consumption.
According to Ellie Whitney and Sharon Rolfes in their book “Understanding Nutrition,” over half the sugar Americans consume comes from soda pop and table sugar. The high acid and sugar found in soda provides ideal conditions for tooth decay. High sugar intake is also associated with nutrient deficiencies, because sugar replaces other foods that have higher nutritional value. Whitney and Rolfes note that a 200-calorie soda pop contains no vitamins or minerals, while the same calories in whole wheat bread provide 9 grams of protein, several B-vitamins and 6 grams of fiber.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Heart Health and Diet
- U. S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: Dietary Guidelines, 2010 Executive Summary
- U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Healthfinder.gov: Nutrition Health A - Z
- HelpGuide.org: Healthy Fast Food: Tips for Making Healthier Fast Food Choices
- Medline Plus: Sodium in the Diet
- Understanding Nutrition; Ellie Whitney and Sharon Rady Rolfes
- Annals of Internal Medicine: Changes in Trans Fatty Acid Content of Fast-Food Purchases Associated with New York City's Restaurant Regulation: A Pre-Post Study
- Archives of Internal Medicine; Sodium Content of Lunchtime Fast Food Purchases at Major US Chains
Sue Roberts began writing in 1989. Her work has appeared in such publications as “Today’s Dietitian” and "Journal of Food Science." Roberts holds a Bachelor of Science in nutrition from Pennsylvania State University, a Master of Public Health in nutrition from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Science in food science from Michigan State University. She is a registered dietitian and certified nutritionist.