The Double Edged Sword of “Healthy Fast Food”

What’s on the menu at the big fast food chains lately? Oddly enough, the answer is… “health food!” Even more incongruous, many are marketing their food for weight loss. Healthy weight loss food at Taco Bell and McDonalds? Is this a noble move to be applauded, is it a big corporate money grab, or is it a double edged sword?

Almost everyone remembers the Jared weight loss campaign for Subway. Jared Fogle was the guy who lost 245 pounds while eating at Subway regularly. He simply picked the lower calorie items on the menu. Seeing an opportunity, the local store owner pitched Subway corporate with an idea. Before long, Jared was the company spokesperson in their nationwide advertising campaigns which became known as, The Subway Diet.

Subway sales doubled to 8.2 billion. How much the increase came from the weight loss ads is unknown, but there’s little doubt that using weight loss as a marketing platform was a boon for the sandwich maker. Other fast food chains picked up the weight loss torch where subway left off.

The latest is the Taco Bell drive through diet. With its own dedicated website and advertising campaign, the drive through diet flaunts their own “Jared”: Christine! The ads, which are admittedly conservative, (perhaps due to more stringent FTC laws), say Christine lost 54 lbs over 2 years by reducing her calories to 1250 a day, and part of her success came from choosing Taco Bell’s new lower calorie “Fresco” items.

These include “7 diet items with 150 to 240 calories and under 9 grams of fat.” For example, there’s a chicken soft taco with only 170 calories and 4 grams of fat.

By swapping traditional food items with some of these lower calorie menu items, you’d take in fewer calories and less fat. If all else remained equal, this could help you lose weight. For people who refuse to give up eating at fast food restaurants, this is arguably a positive thing.

Take my brother for example, He’s not a total junk food junkie, but left to his own devices, he WILL make a beeline to Taco Bell and McDonalds and so will the friends he hangs out with.

I went to McDonalds with him a few months ago (not by choice – I was dragged there), and he was about to order a bacon cheeseburger. I glanced at the menu and said, “That’s 790 calories!” I glanced down at his belly then continued, “Look, they have chicken wraps. Why don’t you have one of those?” Without questioning me, he agreed, apparently happy just to get any McDonalds fix.

Right there at the counter they had the nutrition information sheets:

McDonald’s honey mustard grilled chicken wrap: 260 calories, 9 grams fat, 27 grams of carbs, 18 grams of protein.

That saved him 530 calories. Am I happy there is something with 260 calories on the menu and not just 700 calories across the board? Absolutely. Do I applaud the fast food restaurants for offering lower calorie choices? You bet. But here’s the big question:

It may be nice to have these lower calorie choices on the fast food menus (especially with calories posted) but are these really “healthy choices?”

A few journalists and bloggers caught the inconsistency and cleverly countered, “These new fast food menu items are NOT healthy, they’re only ‘healthi-ER.'”

I think they’re both mistaken. This food is not healthy nor is it healthier. It’s only lower in calories. best restaurant deals

You could say these lower calorie fast food items are healthier choices in the sense that they can help to reduce total daily caloric intake, which can facilitate weight loss. If you lose weight, that can improve your health. But what if your definition of healthy food is dependent on nutrition, nutrient density and absence of artificial ingredients?

Let’s take a look at that very low calorie chicken wrap. Do you really think it’s healthier just because it’s got 1/3 the calories of a bacon cheeseburger?

Here’s the ingredients straight from McDonald’s website:

McDonald’s Grilled Chicken Breast Filet (wrap): Chicken breast filets with rib meat, water, seasoning (salt, sugar, food starch-modified, maltodextrin, spices, dextrose, autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed [corn gluten, soy, wheat gluten] proteins, garlic powder, paprika, chicken fat, chicken broth, natural flavors (plant and animal source), caramel color, polysorbate 80, xanthan gum, onion powder, extractives of paprika), modified potato starch, and sodium phosphates. CONTAINS: SOY AND WHEAT. Prepared with Liquid Margarine: Liquid soybean oil, water, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oils, salt, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (preservative), artificial flavor, citric acid, vitamin A palmitate, beta carotene (color). (and don’t forget the 800 mg of sodium).

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