Common criticisms of fast food centers on its supposedly unhealthy content. Even if those characteristics hold in most cases, fast food can still have its place in a well-rounded diet. Salads, vegetable and bean sides, and grilled rather than fried alternatives are commonplace at many fast food establishments.
A meal at McDonald’s is similar to a meal at Starbucks, even if the former is consumed daily. Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, co-founder of Step Bite Step and registered dietitian, says, “That’s great if your lunch and supper contain a balance of produce or if you’re receiving them in other ways during the day.
However, if you don’t get enough fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and healthy fats, eating fast food every day might increase your risk for several serious health problems. It’s important to have a holistic view of your diet and include a wide range of foods to ensure you get all the vitamins and minerals your body requires.
Fast food is intended to fill folks up quickly and cheaply while on the go. However, “many people are now using fast food the same way we use sit-down restaurants — not just as a quick sometimes meal,” says Rachel Gargano, RD, a dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching.
A poll conducted in October 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 37% of individuals regularly eat fast food.
“The problem is that the fast food industry deliberately makes fast food highly palatable,” explains Gargano, “by packing it with salt, fat, and sugar, along with powerfully delicious smells to keep us coming back for more.” Although businesses are trying to provide consumers with healthier alternatives, many still contain hidden sources of fat, salt, and sugar. This might make it difficult to make healthy decisions while dining at a fast-food restaurant.
Here, we explain the negative outcomes of a diet high in fast food and provide dietitian-approved menu items from well-liked drive-thrus so you may make better decisions.
Three Serious Consequences of Daily Fast Food Intake
1. You might Endanger your Heart Health
Eating fast food daily, especially fried meals, might hurt heart health since most fast food, even healthier ones, include greater amounts of salt and saturated fat.
Gargano warns that consuming fast food even once a week raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, citing recent research showing as much.
Fast food eaters have a 56% higher risk of death from coronary heart disease than those who don’t eat fast food, according to research published in Circulation in July 2012.
The high levels of salt, saturated fat, and trans fats in these foods “can increase your risk for developing high blood pressure, create damage and blockages in your arteries, and lead to cardiovascular disease,” Gargano warns.
Furthermore, many fast foods are deep-fried. A January 2019 study published in BMJ found that doing so increased the risk of death from any cause and cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women.
For your information, the FDA prohibited trans fats in processed foods in June 2018. Yet, the National Cancer Institute reports that high cooking temperatures in a pan might cause the creation of cancer-causing heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCAs) in meat.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), having excess salt in your system causes your blood vessels to hold more blood, which raises your blood pressure. This increases your heart’s workload as it circulates blood throughout the body.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt daily, with a target intake of 1,500 mg.
If you want to cut down on your sodium intake, Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, founder of Better Than Dieting and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table, recommends ordering grilled items instead of fried ones, selecting smaller portions, and requesting dressing on the side or in a packet instead of going for prepared salads.
Rodriguez also stresses the significance of maintaining a healthy sodium-to-potassium ratio in one’s diet.
“Fast food isn’t the only meal that’s a little bit saltier than usual. It’s crucial to read the complete nutrition facts panel before deciding on a dish, whether eating out or cooking at home. Some items high in salt also have other health and convenience benefits.
High-sodium items that aren’t fast food include soups, sandwiches, and canned tuna. The salt amount of your diet as a whole, not simply fast food, should be evaluated.
2. Diabetes Risk Increases
Soda and other sweet drinks, as well as sweets, are the primary sources of sugar, adds Taub-Dix, even though many fast food salad dressings, sauces, and dips also have added sugar.
If you’re watching your sugar intake, stick to water and limit your dessert intake. Eating fast food twice weekly or more raised the chance of acquiring type 2 diabetes by 27%, according to the same study published in Circulation in July 2012.
The goal of the fast food industry is to make eating it simple. Less chewing translates to fewer nutrients and more fat. If it’s easier to consume, more of it will be destroyed. However, as Gargano points out, doing so necessitates consuming large quantities of simple carbohydrates, which require no digestive effort.
Blood sugar and insulin levels rise in direct proportion to the rate at which carbohydrates are metabolized. Repeated increases in glucose and insulin levels throughout the day have been linked to an increased risk of developing a wide range of chronic illnesses.
Research published in Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences in September 2015 found that eating a diet high in added sugar is linked to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Another study published in April 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine indicated that those whose diets contained 17 to 21% of their calories from added sugar were 38% more likely to die prematurely from cardiovascular disease. That’s why the American Heart Association says men shouldn’t consume more than 36 grams of added sugar per day, and women shouldn’t consume more than 25 grams per day (6 percent of total calories).
You should be aware of the sources of the added sugars in your diet; it’s only sometimes the fast food you grab on the way home. Think twice before ordering a sugary drink, dessert, or other sweet treat at a fast food establishment.
Having a blueberry muffin every day from Starbucks will have the same effect on your blood sugar as eating a Big Mac every day. You shouldn’t have a McFlurry or a large Frosty daily, but you should also think about the bigger picture. Rodriguez argues that “just because something was purchased at a drive-thru window does not automatically make it inferior to a more expensive equivalent with a similar nutritional profile.”
3. Intestinal Health may Suffer as a Result
You won’t receive much fiber from a fast food meal unless you specifically ask for a side of vegetables, beans, or salad. In addition to maintaining regular bowel movements, the satiety-promoting effects of fiber from whole grains help you feel full for longer after eating.
Fiber aids in maintaining healthy bacterial colonies in the gut and may even inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria. If you’re not a frequent vegetable preparer but still want to improve your gut health, Gargano recommends looking for fast-food choices incorporating veggies.
She adds that to keep your stomach healthy. It would be best to cut back on fatty meals like creamy sauces and fried dishes.
A little research published in Diabetes Care in July 2021 found that those who ate fried meat four times per week had less microbial diversity in their guts than those who didn’t eat fried meat.
Not only are fried meals notoriously difficult to digest, but consuming them late at night can seriously disrupt your slumber, as Taub-Dix argues.
Rodriguez suggests eating many fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes to counteract the unhealthy effects of eating fast food every day.
Three Ways to Eat Fast Food Healthily
While the occasional burger and fries are OK, here are some strategies to reduce the amount of saturated fat, salt, and sugar in your diet if you eat fast food frequently.
1. Replace Less Healthy Choices with your usual Go-Tos
If fast food is a regular part of your diet, consider including healthier options by substituting some ingredients in your favorite dishes. The fiber in black beans, for instance, can help improve your health, and they go well with Taco Bell’s Cheesy Gordita Crunch, as Rodriguez explains.
If they have the means, they should be able to buy canned beans and prepare a simple supper for their family. Fast food is great because it’s convenient and provides a comfortable environment to try new, nutrient-dense dishes, as Rodriguez puts it.
2. Opt for Smaller Servings
Mini versions of your favorite dishes, rather than the standard or jumbo ones, maybe the way to go. Taub-Dix suggests, for instance, ordering a side of fries with your burger, although a tiny one.
Wraps, she adds, are often smaller than sandwiches or burgers. While their ingredients aren’t necessarily the healthiest, they’re portable and full of things you like. Supersizing may save money in the short term, but it comes at a high price in the long run.
The same holds with sweets and drinks. Shorten your ice cream or Coke order if you want to satisfy a need.
3. Think About Chicken or Fish
Saturated fat is found less frequently in fish and chicken dishes than beef ones. Taub-Dix recommends ordering fish and chicken grilled rather than fried.
Grilled fish and chicken meals may be lower in fat and salt than their fried equivalents, but they may still have a high sodium level. Before you go, research fast food restaurants online to pick the healthiest option available.
Is It Really That Bad to Have Fast Food for Lunch Every Day?
If you eat fast food every day but choose smaller, healthier dish selections and increase your intake of veggies, fruits, healthy fats, and lean protein, it may be better than you think. Make sure your body is getting the nutrients it needs by eating various healthful foods every day.
Sticking to the lighter fare and skipping the drink and dessert is OK. The salt content is the main culprit, so try to avoid it by eating healthier options for the other two meals. It’s important to think about the remainder of your day, as Taub-Dix suggests.
Fast food may be convenient, but plenty of nutritious options can be prepared quickly and simply at home. Quick and healthy choices include prepackaged foods like salad kits and tuna sandwiches.
If we lived in an ideal world, everyone would cook all their meals from scratch every night. I can’t imagine living there, and I tell my customers to ditch the concept of “perfection” to accept the world as it is. “People who are always on the go are lucky to have fast food, and they can incorporate it into their diet as they see fit,” Rodriguez explains.
However, cutting back on fast food is a good idea if you want to get healthier or deal with a medical problem.
Keep it to once a week or twice a month if you’re trying to increase your health and lifespan. If you go once or twice a week, try setting weekly objectives to cut back. “A gradual change like this creates more long-lasting healthy habits,” explains Gargano. Making your own food and eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds can significantly impact your health and reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases.