Fast Food and Obesity

Feeling healthy and feeling good about yourself is not a luxury – it’s an absolute necessity.

Fast Food and Obesity


Is fast food to blame for obesity? Can you eat fast food on a weight loss diet? Read on to find out.

Why is fast food considered to be ‘unhealthy?’

Fast food fare is processed. Many of the items are deep fried and/or are high in total/saturated/trans fats, sodium and sugar.  Healthy, nutrient-dense foods such as lean proteins, low- or non-fat dairy products, fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains and legumes are not main staples. While it’s untrue to claim that all fast food choices are unhealthy, the bestselling meals are usually composed of a hamburger or cheeseburger, French fries and a soda or milkshake. If you choose a salad, it may be composed of nutrient-poor iceberg lettuce and pale, out of season tomatoes. The true danger lies in the toppings, such as shredded cheeses, croutons and a large portion of sodium and/or sugar-laden salad dressing.

In order to define ‘healthy’ (for comparison sake) you may refer to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the FDA, for meal-type products, such multi-course frozen dinners to be considered ‘healthy’, the meal must be low in total and saturated fat, provide at least 10% of the recommended daily value (DV) for vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or dietary fiber and not exceed 480 mg of sodium.

How often can I eat fast food on a weight loss diet?

Losing weight is all about taking in fewer calories than you need to maintain your current body weight. Trimming high-calorie foods from your diet and exercising more often helps to create a calorie deficit, resulting in weight loss. To lose 1 pound per week, you need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories or 500 calories per day. How frequently you can dine at a fast food restaurant while on a weight loss diet depends on a number of factors. Several of these factors include: the type of fast food restaurant and foods you choose (calorie content varies greatly); how fast you are trying to lose weight and the strictness of your diet (how much ‘room’ have you spared for fun foods?). Eating more meals at home enables you to better control your caloric intake as well as environmental ‘triggers’ that might cause you to overeat.

Most fast food establishments have made choosing wisely easier by providing a brochure of ‘nutrition facts’ and listing nutrition information on the restaurant’s website. If you stay within your calorie allotment for the meal/day, you may eat at a fast food establishment up to a few times weekly. For example, if your calorie needs for weight maintenance are 2,000 calories and you wish to lose 1 pound per week, you should attempt to follow a 1,500 calorie diet (variable depending upon how often and vigorous your exercise regime). One option is to divide those calories into three 400-calorie meals and two 150-calorie snacks. You can eat at your favorite fast food establishment by planning what you will eat ahead of time to make sure you stay within the 400-calorie range (±50 calories).

What are the best and worst food choices at fast food restaurants?

hamburger-fast-foodIn general, the plainer and smaller the item is that you choose, the fewer calories it contains. For example, a small plain hamburger, with lettuce, tomato and minimal condiments is a better choice than a double cheeseburger with a thousand island/mayonnaise-based dressing, providing about 275 calories versus over 500. Of course, the latter is a larger sandwich. Pair the smaller hamburger with a side salad, low-fat milk and a piece of fruit from home. Certain fast food establishments heavily market their healthier choices, such as Subway. Subway sells six sandwiches, such as the veggie and roast beef on a wheat roll, that are calorie- and fat-controlled (if you omit some of the condiments and cheese), providing 230 and 290 calories and fewer than 5 g of fat each, respectively.

Where you can find fried chicken, you can usually also find grilled or rotisserie chicken, such as at KFC. When paired with side orders of baked beans and green beans, you have a healthier pick. One order of soft tacos, beef or chicken, with peppers and onions (salsa and little or no sour cream) usually provides fewer than 300 calories.


  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Federal Register Final Rule – 70 FR 56828 September 29, 2005: Food Labeling; Nutrient Content Claims, Definition of Sodium Levels for the Term “Healthy.”
  • Drummond, K.E. & Brefer, L.M.: Nutrition for Foodservice & Culinary Professionals, 7th ed. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, New York, 2010.


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