It’s no secret that in America, there’s a problem with weight gain. Part of it has to do with fast food culture, but depending on who you ask you might hear it’s THE reason why we’re more overweight than ever – but are the fast food chains actually to blame?
Their claims for why fast food is the leading problem for weight gain is because it’s fattening addictive, and chemically engineered to make us want it more, there’s some truth to that. Although, just because it could do all those things doesn’t mean you can’t have it AND lose weight.
In this article I’ll break down:
- The reason why fast food makes us fat
- The issues of eating fast food while dieting
- Seven helpful tips and strategies to help you navigate fast food to help you still lose fat while dieting
Watch the video or continue on to read the full guide
WHY FAST FOOD CAUSES YOU TO GAIN WEIGHT
The reason why fast food causes you to gain weight, a lot of the time isn’t because of the food that you’re eating. Neither the burgers nor the fries, or pizzas cause you to gain weight. It’s how much of those foods you’re eating.
At the end of the day, when it comes to fat loss specifically, or fat gain, what you eat doesn’t matter, as much as your total calorie intake. The type of food you eat each has different health implications. Fat loss, weight gain, weight loss, it all comes down to calories in versus calories out. How many calories you’re eating versus how many calories you’re burning.
In the case of fast food, a lot of the most popular menu items are very calorically dense i.e they have a lot of calories in a small amount of space. You can eat whatever you want to lose weight, as long as your calories are controlled. Mark Haub, Professor of Nutrition, University of Kentucky, famously lost 27 pounds because he did it while only eating twinkies for that one-month time frame. He was able to lose weight despite that because he controlled his calorie intake.
HOW CAN YOU MANAGE YOUR CALORIE INTAKE BY EATING FAST FOOD AND STILL LOSE WEIGHT
Fast food isn’t always the most nutritious option. Just because it has low calories doesn’t mean it is nutritious. It doesn’t mean it’s giving you vitamins, minerals, or fiber that your body needs to feel its best. I am not advocating for you to have fast food all the time, but if it fits within your daily calorie budget then you can enjoy it while still losing weight!
THE PROBLEM WITH EATING FAST FOOD WHILE DIETING
- CALORIE DENSITY
Most fast food options are calorically dense, which means that there are a lot of calories and a small volume of food. A lot of times, you can get a burger that’s barely the size of your palm and it can be as much as 600 calories. Which makes it easy to overeat your calories because you won’t be satisfied after eating one burger. This is because it takes up such a small amount of space in your body, as a result, you end up wanting to eat more to fill up the space and since you’re at a fast food place you do it by ordering more calorically dense food.
Our body loves calorically dense foods, it’s like hitting the lottery for our brain because we’ve always been hunter-gatherers up until the past few decades. Anytime we found a food that was super high in calories, we didn’t need to search for foods much longer. We took advantage of that, and we looked at it as a big win. Our bodies still haven’t adapted to this kind of life because it is relatively new to have such easy access to so many calories.
- LOW IN NUTRIENTS AND FIBER
Your stereotypical fast food order doesn’t have a lot of vitamins, minerals, or fiber which creates a chain of reaction of not feeling good by the end of the day. If you lack those nutrients for one meal a day you won’t feel much of a difference, but if you had all your meals come from fast food then you would really feel the difference. You’d feel super lethargic, you wouldn’t have a lot of energy or motivation to do the things you want to do, and you’re consuming a lot of trans-fat and added sugars, which are known to slow us down. There’s no problem with having these, it’s just the quantity that is the issue.
- ENGINEERED TO BE ADDICTIVE
There’s actually an entire team of food scientists taking the time to create the best ratio of sodium, fats, and carbs for their foods. So when eating it we want more of it. Believe it or not, wings are actually the most addictive food, they’re engineered to make you want more of it. This is a very capitalistic idea where you want to continue buying our product. If you love the product and find it addictive, you will end up buying more of it. It’s a legal drug deal of sorts.
A lot of fast food is habitual, as stated earlier. Most people get very routine menu items, they know what they want because they really enjoy those things, and even if they were to replace one thing they would feel like something is missing, and that something missing causes them to want it even more.
- INCONSISTENT MEASUREMENT
As stated earlier, calories are the main thing you want to worry about when losing weight. As long as you have fast food, take it into account, measure the calories, and fit it into your day, you should be okay. It’s not that simple though. Having too much fast food leads to a lot of errors in measurement. Even though fast food places have systems for how much food should be on any given menu item, different people prepare it differently and there are a number of reasons why the same people would prepare it differently including how busy the restaurant is.
If you’re good friends with the person working at the restaurant, they’re going to hook you up and give you more food, which is going to lead to a higher calorie intake.
If you’re in chipotle during a lunch rush, they’re moving quickly and not being as careful with measurements. They’re scooping extra big scoops of guacamole or sour cream, which is hundreds of calories being added to your bowl. All to say, you never know exactly how much you’re eating because of the variance in how it’s prepared from person to person, location to location, time of day to time of day.
HOW CAN YOU HAVE FAST FOOD AND STILL LOSE WEIGHT?
There are a few tips and strategies that I like to use myself, and with my clients, to make sure we can still enjoy fast food places whether it’s because we want those foods or because it’s really convenient for us, and still lose weight.
SEVEN HELPFUL TIPS AND STRATEGIES TO HELP YOU NAVIGATE FAST FOOD TO HELP YOU STILL LOSE FAT WHILE DIETING
- GOING TO HEALTHIER FAST FOOD RESTAURANTS
If you go to a place like five guys, you’re not in an environment with many options to make healthy choices. They don’t serve salads or anything with color for that matter, it’s just burgers and fries. You can’t expect to go there and still do well with your fat loss goals. I’m not discouraging you from going there, if you like going there, go there every now and then, and arrange the rest of your day accordingly.
If you’re making a focused effort to lose fat though, you want to be able to make every meal as fat-loss friendly as possible. Going to restaurants with healthier food options, and chain restaurants that give you the build-your-own-food option menu are going to be best. Stuff like chipotle, subway, panda express, moe’s, and chick-fil-a are all really great options for you to take advantage of.
- CHECK THE FACTS FIRST
Preparation is ninety percent of what it takes to be successful while dieting. If you go into a restaurant trying to wing it, you’re setting yourself up for failure, especially if you’re hungry. If you’re hungry, you’re going to order what sounds good, not what is going to be best for you, so look up the menu beforehand. You can use food tracking apps like cronometer or my fitness pal to look up the restaurant’s menu and see the calorie totals of each and macro breakdown of each menu item to have an idea of what you want to order before you get there and even have it logged before you get there.
- DON’T DRINK YOUR CALORIES
In modern society, there’s no reason to drink your calories. You might like having a coke with your meal because you’ve always had one with your meal, but a diet coke will get the job done. It might feel different early on as you transition away from full-calorie coke to zero-calorie coke, but you’ll adapt. In fact, once you go back to full-calorie coke you’ll feel grossed out by it. The hardest thing is breaking the habit, but once you go a month or a couple of weeks without having a full sugar drink, you’ll be okay, and you won’t even miss it (trust me 100’s of clients agree).
- HAVE YOUR SAUCES/DRESSING ON THE SIDE
Having them on the side is going to be SO helpful instead of putting them on your food. When you drown the entire serving of mayonnaise, dressing, or ketchup in your food, you’re going to end up eating all of those calories. 100% of the time, it’s more sauce or dressing than you even needed. However, if you have it on the side and dip your food into it instead, you’re only going to take what you need as opposed to all of it.
That’s going to help reduce your calorie intake as a whole while still getting the taste with every bite – it’s a win-win!
- HEALTHY SWAP or FAT LOSS SWAP
These are kind of similar. The healthy swap entails switching your normal order for a healthier order. If you normally get a chicken sandwich, instead go for a chicken salad.
The fat loss swap is where you go for a calorie-friendly version of whatever you’re getting. If you go to burger king, and you normally order the triple whopper with large fries, instead get a single whopper with small fries. Just reduce the size of what you’re ordering which is in turn going to reduce your calorie intake.
- THE HEALTHY: UNHEALTHY RULE
This is where you pair any unhealthy food that you want to order with healthy food. If you go to chick-fil-a, instead of having a spicy chicken sandwich with some fries, you can swap out the fries for a fruit cup. You now have a nutrient-dense food alongside your unhealthy food, or if you really like the waffle fries and you don’t want to sacrifice that, you can get a grilled chicken sandwich, or a grilled salad and have your fries on the side. This is a natural balancing act that will help control your calories without sacrificing too much at any one meal.
- DOUBLE-UP YOUR ENTREE
Instead of getting fries, baked potato, potato salad, or cookies as a side, you get two entrees. In practice, using chick-fil-a as an example, instead of getting a chicken sandwich and fries, you can get a chicken sandwich and grilled nuggets. The two different entrees will fill you up more, give you more protein, and save you more calories than having a side of fries.
Sides aren’t always unnecessary calories but most time sides are just unsatisfying and unsavory. You might eat them because they’re there and not because you want them which isn’t worth the calories. Doubling up your entrees is a key strategy in increasing your protein intake and managing your calories because most entrees are higher in protein.
You should choose healthier fast food places, or build your own places where you have a lot of control over the options, and also have more variety to choose calorie-friendly options. You have to be prepared, which you can do by looking up the nutrition facts before going into it, and knowing what you want to order. You should avoid caloried drinks while having your dipping sauces and dressings on the side when ordering, and dip your food into it as opposed to pouring it on top. You can follow the healthy/unhealthy rule by pairing any unhealthy food with healthy food and lastly, ditching the side and doubling up the entrée.
Those are applicable everywhere and are straightforward. I wanted to go into more detail and share some helpful examples of what a healthy or fat loss swap looks like in real situations.
SWAPS IN ACTION
These are 3 restaurant scenarios; Chick-Fil-A, Chipotle, and Panda Express. You’ll get to know what the most popular orders are from these restaurants, what the macros look like, and what alternatives you could do that would be more calorie friendly.
Common Order – chicken deluxe sandwich, small waffle fries, and large cookies and cream milkshake
Macros – 1460 calories, 53 grams of protein, 173 grams of carbs, and 69 grams of fat.
Instead, you can use a simple fat loss swap to reduce the portions of these foods.
Fat Loss Swap – classic chicken sandwich, small fry, and water instead
Macros – 700 calories.
Healthy Swap – grilled chicken sandwich, eight-piece grilled nuggets, and two fruit cups
Macros – 640 calories, 76 grams of protein.
With the Healthy Swap, you get less than half the calories of the regular meal order by doing this, and you over 20 more grams of protein and around 5-10 extra grams of fiber, because of the fruit cup.
A lot of chipotle’s foods are of very high-quality ingredients and are undeniably healthier, but healthier doesn’t mean that they’re low calorie!
Common Order – barbacoa tacos with cheese, guacamole, white rice, chips and salsa
Macros – 1600 calories, 61 grams of protein, 191 grams of carbs, and 71 grams of fat.
What you can do instead, is get a smaller version of it, instead of having so many different food items
Fat Loss Swap – chicken burrito with black beans, white rice, and salsa
Macros – 770 calories, 49 grams of protein, 99 grams of carbs, and 21 grams of fat.
When looking at doing the healthy swap we’ll switch to a bowl that doesn’t include the tortilla because the tortilla itself is 300 calories.
Healthy Swap – burrito bowl with double steak, double beans, salsa, corn, fajitas, and no rice
Macros – 692 calories, 78 grams of protein, 62 grams of carbs, and 16 grams of fat.
I always like to add fajitas to all my orders for extra fiber. They’re also very low-calorie, just like the salsas, so adding those isn’t an issue. The high-calorie things you want to limit or steer away from at chipotle are the guac and the dairy products. The sour cream and the cheese are by themselves hundreds of calories.
This is my favorite healthier fast food restaurant to eat at because they have so many ways to balance your meal.
Common Order – double entree bowl with orange chicken, half chow mein, half fried rice chicken egg roll, and a fortune cookie.
Macros – 1670 calories, 49 grams of protein, 213 grams of carbs, and 71 grams of fat,
Fat Loss Swap – panda bowl with grilled teriyaki chicken, and fried rice
Macros – 780 calories, 42 grams of protein, 89 grams of carbs, and 27 grams of fat.
If a Panda Bowl won’t fill you up, then you do a healthy swap of a two entree plates like so:
Healthy Swap – half a side of steamed rice (or your favorite of chow mein/fried rice) half a side of mixed greens, grilled chicken teriyaki, and string bean chicken. That will come out to 700 calories, 60 grams of protein, 100 grams of carbs, and 10 grams of fat.
It is an easy way to mix it up, make the right choices, get a lot of great flavors, and have the convenience of going to fast food places. Hitting the nutritional marks that you need for your fat loss goals. It’s just about proper planning and preparation, knowing what to pick, and understanding how it’s going to play a role in your goals.
If you feel like you need more individualized help with your nutrition then try 1-on-1 online nutrition coaching with StoopidFit