Last week in For The Love of Food I called out Men’s Health as B.S. of the Week for their article, “Eat healthy at the airport.” There seems to be a growing trend in the number of weight loss programs that support eating fast food. The idea is that some menu items have slightly fewer calories than others and do not contribute (as much?) to weight gain.
It is true you can lose weight eating anything (so long as you do not eat very much of it), but that does not make eating fast food a good idea. What is misleading about these programs is the grossly inappropriate use of the word “healthy.”
Credit the book Eat This, Not That for this special brand of quackery on which Men’s Health bases their article. They begin with the example of McDonald’s (because, you know, where else are you supposed to go eat?) and suggest you order the Quarter Pounder without cheese (and without fries and soda) over the Premium Grilled Chicken Club.
The Quarter Pounder has only 410 calories compared to the 570 calories of the chicken sandwich, a 30% reduction.
To me this sounds the same as saying 7 cigarettes is healthier than 10 cigarettes.
Sure it might be “better” to smoke a little less, but do you really believe you are doing yourself any favors? You’re still ingesting something toxic. Would you be happy if China promised to put a little less melamine in your child’s baby formula?
After decades of consuming slightly smaller doses of poison is it logical to think you’d be a more sprightly 80 year old than you would have been eating full dose poison? I don’t think so.
Rationalization is the name of the game here:
“Some people are going to eat fast food no matter what, it might as well have fewer calories.”
“It’s impractical to not eat fast food. What if I’m in a hurry?”
“There’s nothing else to eat at the airport, do you want me to starve?”
“I cannot afford to eat anything healthier. Value meals are the best!”
“I just eat crap then spend extra time in the gym, so it balances out.”
“I love junk food and could never stop eating at McDonald’s.”
The problem with all these faux arguments is that they are based on the assumption that fast food is an inevitable part of life, too powerful to resist or avoid. My guess is we can thank the McDonald’s marketing team for this twisted bit of psychology, but that does not mean we have to accept it.
Here is why those arguments don’t hold water:
- The “fact” that some people will continue to eat fast food does not preclude the need to have a diet that endorses it.
- There is always something to eat besides fast food. In fact, there was actually a time when Burger King didn’t exist!
- A few healthy-ish options can be found at the airport, but if you do a tiny bit of planning beforehand you don’t have to be stuck eating there in the first place. Another thing to consider is that starving would be healthier, since caloric restriction has been consistently shown to improve health, prevent disease and extend life. (But don’t worry, going hungry isn’t necessary.)
- The organic kale and tempeh I ate for dinner last night cost the same (~$3.50) as that flaccid Quarter Pounder in the photo, and smelled 1000% better (yeah, I actually bought one). [For the record: I did ask for it without cheese and they just botched my order--can you imagine it looking even more tasteless? Blah. So much for tricking yourself into eating fewer calories.]
- Working out is very important for your health, but it does not give you essential vitamins, minerals and all the other wonderful things offered by whole foods–exercise cannot substitute for a healthy diet.
- There is room in your healthstyle for any food on special occasions. Personally I prefer to use my occasions for exquisite (rather than cheap) meals, but for some of you special may mean going out with the guys for game night or a road trip from L.A. to S.F. (i.e. the In-N-Out in Kettleman City). What is important is that you make sure foods that do not contribute (or are detrimental) to your health make up an extremely small proportion of your diet.
The Real Problem
I contend that the real issue is not that there is nothing else to eat besides fast food, but that we are not trained to recognize any other option. There is a whole world of food out there that does not include unsanitary chain restaurants.
The little secret those of us who don’t eat fast food know is that this other world is far tastier than the one of processed foods and chain restaurants. Also, the convenience factor is easily overcome if you approach it right.
Your first defense against eating foods you didn’t plan for (isn’t that what fast food really is?) is to make sure you have a plan. Always.
Rule #1 is to know what, when and where you are going to eat all your meals throughout the day by the time you leave your house in the morning. Not doing this is setting yourself up for an uh-oh. If you are not able to know for certain the specifics of your meal plans, at least try to envision the most likely scenarios and think of ways to make them as healthy as possible. Trust me, these decisions are a lot easier if you make them before you are starving and willing to eat a deep-fried shoe.
Rule #2 is to always have a back up plan. Is there any chance that your friend will bail on you for dinner? Or that you will get stuck at work so long your neighborhood grocery will close? In cases like this it is best to have a plan B. I keep stuff in my freezer and pantry that can be whipped up at any given moment. I also store food in my desk at work for emergencies.
My go-to back up plan is carrying a small bag of nuts like almonds or cashews around with me where ever I go. That way I have something to snack on until I can get myself into a more favorable eating environment. Keep a small bag of nuts in your purse, glove compartment of your car, gym bag, desk drawer or carry on luggage. Your hidden snack should be in whatever container you will be sure to have with you at all times.
Nuts make a particularly good snack because their high fat and protein content (the super good-for-you kinds) make them very satisfying. One day when you are not starving try eating exactly 8 almonds, take a sip of water and wait half an hour. For me, this usually staves off hunger for at least another 45-60 minutes, and sometimes up to 2 hours.
It is more difficult to restrict your intake to 8 or 10 nuts when you are starving, however. But it is easier to exercise self-control if you believe (through experience) that a certain quantity is sufficient to satisfy your appetite. This is why I recommend you try this once before you find yourself in an emergency situation.
If for some reason you end up hungry and do not have your handy bag of nuts, you still have non-Whopper options:
- Grocery stores Most grocery stores have fresh sections with cut up vegetables, fruits, hummus, lean meats and lots of other healthy items (nuts included). Pretend like you are having a picnic and nibble on a few of these things instead or resorting to the drive-thru. You will get plenty of calories, I promise.
- Delis A small sandwich with lean meats and vegetables is a pretty good, easy option if you can find a deli. I would not call this an ideal meal, but it’s better than a BigMac for sure.
- Non-chain restaurants If I am resigned to eating in a restaurant I haven’t planned on the first thing I look for is a non-chain restaurant, preferably a place that specializes in soups, salads and sandwiches. These places are usually well stocked in vegetables and often boast organic produce. They can be a little pricier than a Happy Meal, but it is worth it if you don’t have to eat a gray colored mystery meat patty, right?
- Colorful plates Wherever I decide to dine, I search the menu for dishes that sound like they have a high percentage of vegetables, preferably multicolored. Ordering a side salad or vegetables instead of potatoes is an easy way to accomplish this mission.
- Little bread Giant servings of generic, processed breads made of refined white flour are the biggest problem at most mediocre restaurants. If you can, try to order something that doesn’t require too much bread. This is especially true if you will be sitting on an airplane for the next several hours.
- Avoid cheese Cheese is delicious and I love to eat it occasionally. However, it is common these days for restaurants to bury plates in cheese to mask the crappy ingredients they used for the rest of the dish. Chili’s low quality cheese is hardly worth the extra few hundred calories being used to cover up the fattening, mediocre food you ordered.
- No sweets Sugar is one of the most dangerous things you can eat and should always be consumed with caution. We all love desserts, but you will be much better off saving your sweet tooth for truly special occasions. Airport terminals really aren’t that special.
- Healthy fats I go out of my way to find healthy fats like nuts, fish and salad oils when I am eating solely to satisfy my hunger. These fats will make sure you stay full as long as possible.
- Lean proteins As far as satisfaction goes, what is true for fats is true for proteins. Because they digest so slowly proteins help you feel full longer. Fish, eggs, nuts, beans and even whole grains like brown rice can give your meal a more satisfying impact.
- Eat simply When you are eating on-the-go and in restaurants you are unsure about, your best bet is to stick to simple items. Avoid menu descriptors like glazed, gooey, cheesy, creamy, fiesta, piled, smothered, etc. Sauces are really a problem at airport-style restaurants. Stick to predictable items to keep yourself out of trouble. A turkey sandwich or chop salad are usually pretty safe.
The basic message is to find fresh foods and eat as balanced as possible. No matter what you order this is probably not going to be the most delicious meal of your life, so you may as well try to make it as healthy as possible. A little planning–like eating before heading to the airport–can go a long way in saving special occasions for food that is truly special.
What are the biggest obstacles you encounter when stuck somewhere without food?
Article was originally published June 3, 2009.