Don’t Eat This, Don’t Eat That: How To Eat Healthy Without Fast Food

by | Jun 9, 2010
Quarter Pounder

Quarter Pounder

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 reason?

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.

The Answers

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.

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34 Responses to “Don’t Eat This, Don’t Eat That: How To Eat Healthy Without Fast Food”

  1. John O says:

    So what did you do with the Quarter Pounder after you took the picture?

  2. I’m in total agreement with you. The thing folks need to get past is not trying to find healthier fast food, but to make a decision to not support it all. It has not really made life more convenient when you cost out health and obesity. Good fresh whole healthy colorful food is just so much more enjoyable, takes longer to eat, and is an “experience” compared to brown food in a bag that is inhaled and for some reason “stimulates” appetite.

  3. Hanlie says:

    Great article! I totally agree with you… I would rather fast than eat McDonalds!

  4. great post! all fast food makes me feel sick to my stomach just THINKING about it.

  5. Excellent article – funny too! (bonus points).
    As a vegan, I never ever eat at McDonald’s or any other fast food restaurant. On a recent trip involving airports, I hit a snack stand which had a cooler full of sandwich/salad packages to go. I was thrilled to find an organic vegan roasted tofu sandwich with salad, made by Rudi’s Organic Bakery. It was pricey (like everything in airports), but so worth it!
    I also carry a snack bag on trips – fresh fruit, dried fruit, rice crackers, nuts, seeds, water – it has saved my life many times!
    On a recent road trip, we ate at local ethnic restaurants which were heavy on the veggies, tofu & rice. (Highly recommend the Dynasty Cafe in Cheyenne Wyoming). We also bought sandwich fixings at grocery stores or delis, or I cooked in motel rooms. (I always bring a mobile kitchen on trips!)
    There are always options. But I think people are addicted to fast food, and the fast food lifestyle – that’s at the ‘bottom’ of the obesity epidemic.

  6. Sandra says:

    Great article. I also try to brown bag it (whenever possible) while traveling. This especially important for my kids- more than anyone they don’t need all the junk and fillers in fast food. So-called kids’ meals are some of the worst ones out there; they are so nutritionally lacking and trite. They teach kids you really only need to eat about five things when you are young. When the truth is early childhood is the best time to teach good eating habits. I’d love to see you dig into that one a bit more. Thanks.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Great points, Sandra. You are absolutely right about development of children, both physically and behaviorally. I’m not an expert in that field but will keep this topic in mind as I’m skimming articles 🙂

  7. Chandler Puthoff says:

    I use to live above a Whole Foods in Chicago. Well, now I live in Western Michigan. I am sick of eating Subway(not great but best around here) for lunch 5 days a week. There is a massive un-met demand for healthy “fast food”, but hard to find in most of America. Subway has been cleaning up ever since the Jarid commercials.

    I currently own a chain buffet restaurant that serves 7-8 thousand people per week. Its time I affect change in the other direction (smaller waist lines).

    If you were able to design a healthy fast food drive-through restaurant menu, what are a couple menu items that would turn you on? (perhaps something that could be eaten while driving). 99% of people won’t brown bag it, but many might try to be more healthy if it was convenient. Thanks. I like your site.

    • nikki says:

      Instead of fries, I would offer baked potatoes or baked sweet potatoes. I would offer mini bags of baby carrots or apple slices. I would also offer frozen banana on a stick. In place of burgers, I would have grilled chicken fillets. That would be the only meat I would offer, and it could come on either a sandwich, or in a tortilla wrap. The way to make it stand out would be coming up with unique, flavorful sauces and seasoning or marinades. so you can order a healthy terriyaki flavored grilled wrap……or you can order a real honey mustard grilled chicken sandwhich…..etc. I work in a fast food restaurant, and I’ve worked in casual fine dining restaurants, and they use the same ingredients. The only difference is the options, and the amount of salt and mayo! I would ban the use of mayo in my chain……..have you ever taken simple brown mustard and mixed it with honey?it is a thousand times heaven!

  8. Ashley says:

    Do you have the kale and tempeh recipe you tweeted about posted anywhere? It sounds wonderful and I have some tempeh at home that’s just begging to be eaten, haha.

    Great post as usual – I always bring food with me whenever traveling. I make sure it’s flavorful and filling, so when confronted with fast-food choices, I always pick “my” food because it’s far tastier anyway. My favorites are peanut or cashew butter on my homemade bread or lentils and barley (or my new favorite, wheat berries!) with balsamic.

  9. Madhu Ganesh says:

    Why just lean proteins? What if i can find a non chain restaurant offering
    special grass-fed beef option or free-range grilled fatty chicken leg?(May be not in an airport)
    As usual, very well argued post. Given the quality of content i think it wouldn’t hurt if you proof-read. See flacid, correct to Flaccid.

  10. Kay Ballard says:

    Darya, it is always surprising to hear people describe food from McDonald’s as tempting. For me, not in the least.

    My ex-husband, Fake Tom Brokaw, really nailed it when he called the golden arches “Gag-Donald’s.”

  11. baahar says:

    As a Muslim in the West I had problems finding food I could eat even before I started eating more healthy by cutting off processed foods.
    So it did happen quite often that I was stranded without food, especially at the university coding away in a lab into the late hours of the evening. For me drinking water was and is the best option in such cases.

    I think the attitude is very important here. You are not going to die (or impair your health) if you don’t eat for several hours no matter how hungry you feel. Experimenting with hunger is actually very liberating.
    I often experience this in the fasting month when we don’t eat or drink anything from sun rise to sun set. It is interesting how the brain does not send ‘eat’ messages once it realizes that you are not going to do it 🙂

    • Darya Pino says:

      Wow, interesting points. Thanks for chiming in!

      • baahar says:

        I came across these posts about intermittent fasting on Tim’s blog. But, make sure to read the second part too 🙂 I found a few studies about the Ramadan fast, but can’t judge whether they were done properly or not. I have to read myself into the literature to get an idea how studies in the medical field ought to be done so that the reported results are representative. Maybe in a few months when I have more time …

        Part 1 –

        Part 2 –

  12. colleen says:

    I agree,I was asked by a freind what I would eat if I was out and had to eat I advised her I pack snacks like 100% fruit strips, apples, dried fruit and almonds, water plus I keep a jar of PB at my desk. so she said what if you forgot your snacks, I’d stop and buy a banana and a yougrt, or hummas and flat bread…ok so what if you where on a long rode with only a fast food place (this wouldn’t happen b/c of my planning above) but to make her happy I advised her I would get 2 side salads with Vinigrette to hold me over. I recently had to stay over night in the hospital and luckily I had my bag of almonds, dried fruit and a bottle of water to hold me over my 8 hour stay in the ER until they put me in a room (dont worry the nurses said it was ok to eat)

  13. zoe says:

    I read your blog sometimes for the recipes and food-on-the-go ideas, but I’m wary of taking food advice from someone who has as many issues with food as you do. I was reminded of this with your edict 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.” I’m sorry, this crosses the line into obsession. As someone who struggled with eating issues as a teen and vowed to never again let food rule my life, the marginal health benefit you get from always knowing exactly when and what you’re going to eat is not worth it to me. I bring my lunch nearly every day, and but I find the suggestion absurd that on the rare day that I don’t bring lunch I just eat twelve nuts and sip water – that random monthly slice of pizza is a much saner option, and I would argue healthier when you add up the psychic toll of micromanaging your own life.

    I agree with a lot of what you say and talk about, but there is a current of lack of self-awareness running through many of your posts that makes your advice hard to take seriously.

    I wish you all the best.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Zoe, I totally agree with you! I would never claim that a random pizza slice or whatever isn’t acceptable (I do this all the time), in fact I’m a huge proponent of not getting hung up on stuff like this. Shit happens.

      However I talk to a lot of people about their eating habits and in my experience most people want to eat healthy but don’t due to poor planning. In an environment where the default is fast food and junk food, we unfortunately do need to have an action plan if we don’t want that occasional unhealthy splurge to become a daily habit. This obviously isn’t a problem for you, but it is for many.

      I try to write regularly how dangerous (and unnecessary) it is to be uptight about this stuff. And I agree there is a fine line. But I think common sense is the best option. An overall healthy lifestyle is what I’m trying to help people build, and if we can each find our own healthstyle we can absorb any random day of burgers and pizza.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Great note. I like the smart tips you suggested to fix a problem most people have. I am currently working for the summer in Egypt and I did have a hard time finding good meals in the airports. While I couldn’t find a place that perfectly met with my food philosophy, I was able to come pretty close and don’t feel guilty about what I ate. But in Egypt the meal times here are extremely different from home, and I always end up starving by the time lunch and dinner finally get here ( I eat at 6:30am, 1:45 pm, and dinner is 7:30-8:30. Maybe soon I can buy some nuts though, I really liked that idea.

  15. Andia says:

    Thanks for sharing your intelligent thoughts. I wonder how you strike a balance between using your snacks for “emergencies” and eating them just because they are there. If I keep food – even healthful items – on hand, I tend to eat it no matter what. Do you have any tips?

    • Darya Pino says:

      Certainly. I’ve found that it is easiest when I know when/what I will be eating later. For example, if I know dinner is in 1 hr, I’ll know if I can wait that long or not. If you’re eating out of habit and not out of hunger, you need to think about it more as habit breaking (takes about 4 weeks). Try making the food harder to get to, or have water or tea instead. You can chew gum, use mouthwash or brush your teeth, all things that make food less palatable. A glass of water really works surprisingly well.

  16. Egohsa says:

    I had read this article yesterday and stil decided to pick something up at Burger King’s because it was the closest place to get food and I was really hungry and not going home for a while. I got a Grilled Chicken Salad thinking it was probably the healthiest thing on the menu. Turned out it was DISGUSTING. The chicken was gross. The tomatoes were gross. The carrots were gross. Everything about it was gross. I’ve had the salad before with the crispy (fried) chicken and it was fine. Therefore, my theory is that the frying of the chicken is what made it palatable. Either way, I thought my experience was interesting in light of this article.

    • Darya Pino says:

      That is interesting. What would you do differently next time?

      • Egohsa says:

        I think I would plan better. Bring a dinner to work with me if I know that I’m going to be late. But if I didn’t know that that, I would have chosen a better place to eat (there was a Noodles ‘n Company a few blocks down the street from the BK that I could have gone to)

  17. m says:

    I am sort of split on this one. I completely see your point; however, it’s generally really difficult to find healthy foods when you’re on the go, without planning and (gasp!) thinking.

    For example, in north america we are truly limited in our choice of street foods. Our only options seem to be pretzels (if you’re lucky), and in Toronto, where I live, it’s ONLY hot dogs. EWWW.

    I think we could motivate more people to eat well on the go by offering a better variety and better quality of “street foods”.

  18. Just discovered this post from awhile back. Excellent advice all the way around. People have been programmed that fast food is the only option, is the cheap option, and of course most convenient. Convenience is the only argument that holds any water but can be easily overcome with a little advance thought and planning.
    I am a recovering fast-food junkie and stopped eating it about 6 months ago. My blog will journal some of the challenges I face along the way, but mostly I would like to hear other people’s stories too!

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