Fast-Food Nutrition for Teens

BEING A TEEN is tough. Most days, your schedule is jam-packed with activities from the time you crawl out of bed to the time you face-plant onto your mattress at night. You’re balancing school, social life, homework, chores and a host of extracurricular stuff that might range from sports to band practice to an after-school job. You really don’t have time to plan out your meals and count calories – but you still want to be healthy (and let’s face it, look great in those trendy new jeans).

Is there any way to reconcile these health-conscious desires with a lifestyle that often necessitates greasy paper bags from the drive-thru window? Absolutely, say Ellen Shanley and Colleen Thompson. You just have to know – and act on – some basic nutritional facts when you’re ordering. “Fast food is part of the American lifestyle, and it’s not realistic to suggest that teens – or adults, for that matter – will never eat another burger or large fry again,” says Shanley, coauthor with Thompson of the new book, Fueling the Teen Machine: What It Takes to Make Good Choices for Yourself Every Day. “The key is to simply know what your best choices are the next time you need a fast meal on the go.”

Shanley and Thompson know what they’re talking about – they’re both registered dieticians who practice and teach at the University of Connecticut. They’re also parents and they’re all too aware that teens’ concerns about their bodies don’t always mesh well with their day-to-day diets. “In the midst of the daily whirlwind that is the typical teenager’s life, a fast-food snack after the game or a quick combo eaten with friends is sometimes the only realistic option,” confirms Thompson. “Plus, let’s be honest, lots of fast-food fare is tasty! And the good news is, it can be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle.”

Read on for seven of Shanley and Thompson’s fast-food-savvy nutrition tips, some of which may really surprise you:

(Super)-Size does matter. We live in a society where bigger is better. Even in fancier sit-down restaurants, servings are often larger than what a healthy teenage stomach can comfortably consume. And while it’s tempting to go for the biggest package deal, the same thing is often true of “mega-sized” fast-food meals. Before you order the jumbo burger and the humongo gulp drink, think twice about whether you really need all that food. “Fast-food restaurants hook you in by promising a lot more food for just a little more money,” points out Shanley. “They don’t care if your eyes end up being bigger than your stomach! So be discriminating. Are you really that hungry? Why not share your mega meal with a friend? Or just get smaller versions of the items you want. You’ll be consuming fewer unhealthy bites, but your taste buds will be just as satisfied.”

Fish and chicken don’t always deserve their healthful rep. You know what they say about assuming: don’t. This is especially true when it comes to choosing your “main course” at the fast-food counter. It’s a common (if not universal) assumption that white meat is healthier than red meat – but that’s not always the case. Since many fast-food restaurants bread and fry their chicken and fish, these choices often end up having as much or more fat and calories than a hamburger. “If you’re craving white meat, choose chicken or fish that is broiled, baked or grilled,” advises Thompson. “If you’re not sure how a certain menu item is prepared, ask! Actually, most fast-food restaurants have the nutrient content of their menu items either right in the restaurant or certainly on their websites.”

Download the (nutritional) lowdown. Yes, it’s important to know what’s in the foods you eat – how many fat grams and calories, how much sugar, and yes, how much good stuff like calcium and vitamin C. As mentioned, all fast-food joints provide nutritional info on their menu items. Thompson and Shanley suggest that you stay on top of what’s what the high-tech 21st century way. That’s right – there’s an app for this, too! “You can download apps that tell you the nutrition information on all of your favorite fast-food menu items,” says Shanley. “This can really help you make an educated decision the next time you visit the restaurant.”

Go green. Yeah, sometimes you’re just craving some salty fries more than anything else. But if you’re not being driven by the relentless need for some deep-fried potatoes, give some thought to ordering a side salad instead. It’s a great way to fit in a serving of nutritious veggies! “Know what kind of salad you’re ordering, though,” cautions Thompson. “Salads can actually be full of calories, especially if they have heavy dressings or added items such as chicken strips, croutons, nuts, etc.” In fact, just two ounces of ranch dressing – about one typical packet – contains 20 grams of fat. That’s as much as is in a quarter-pounder! Go for the ‘lite’ or reduced-fat dressings, or use less of the heavier ones. And choose a salad that’s heavier on the veggies than on the extras.

Skip the mocha-frappe-espresso-ccino-with-whipped-cream coffee drink. Yes, coffee shops are fun hangout spots, and all those specialty coffees and baked goods look scrumptious! (And some fast-food restaurants have these sweet, caffeinated treats, too!) But did you know that one beverage and a muffin are often a whole meal in terms of calories … though not necessarily in terms of nutrition? Ordering these treats on a regular basis might not be so desirable after all. “To increase your intake of other food groups at coffee houses, try ordering 100 percent fruit juice or fat-free milk, or try having a protein-rich egg on your bagel instead of cream cheese,” suggests Shanley. “And if you’re craving coffee, order your beverage with skim milk, sans flavor shots and piles of sugar. This way, your drink can actually provide a fair amount of protein and calcium.”

Think outside your go-to meal. Most of us gravitate toward one or two meals when we go to our favorite fast-food spots. Although it might mean reading the menu more carefully than you have in years, going beyond “the usual” might pay off for your taste buds, and your body. “In recent years, many fast-food chains have become more health-conscious and have expanded their menus,” Thompson points out. “Look for and try more nutritious choices such as soup, baked potatoes, salads, yogurt, milk or bagels. Who knows? You might even find a new and improved ‘usual.’”

Step away from the soda. Did you know that those caffeinated, refreshing beverages account for as much as 10 percent of the typical teen’s daily calories? Yikes! Many of us overlook drinks when assessing the nutritional value of any given meal, which can be a mistake. You don’t have to cut sodas entirely – but remember that moderation is key. “Consider going back to your childhood mainstays like water, 100 percent fruit juice and milk when placing your order,” advises Shanley. “Chances are, they’ll be just as tasty as you remember – plus, they’re excellent sources of vitamins, calcium and even protein. Also consider smoothies made with real fruit, especially if they’re not loaded with sugar.”

“Mix and match these tactics when the drive-thru beckons and you’ll be doing your body and health a favor,” concludes Thompson. “Remember that many of the choices on the menu can fit into your meal plan – it’s just a matter of how often you choose certain foods and what you eat along with them that make the difference. By simply changing your side item or beverage and being aware of what each choice really contains, you’ll save lots of calories and gain a good deal of nutritional value.”

The bottom line is, “it’s all about balance,” adds Shanley. “Every young person has days that get away, practices that run late, and families who can’t always sit down for a meal at the same time. Don’t worry too much about the occasional supper in a bag – just make the best choices you can and compensate the following day by emphasizing fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

By Ellen Shanley and Colleen Thompson