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Best fast food choices

Burger

When you’re on the run or working late, sometimes takeaway is the only cure for a rumbling tummy. We asked the experts how you can enjoy fast food while watching your weight.

With 2.6 million Australians eating at fast food restaurants every day, it’s crucial that we learn how to make healthy choices. Many fast food outlets now display kilojoule counts for their foods, but when that’s not an option, there are some good rules of thumb to follow.

Where possible, aim for make-your-own meals, such as salads or sandwiches, which give you more control over the ingredients. “Often pre-made food is loaded with unwanted surprises that provide unnecessary kilojoules,” explains dietitian Natalie Edwards (natsnutritiousdelicious.com). “For example, pre-made sandwiches can contain butter, dressings and full fat cheese, and are often heavy on meat and lacking vegetables or salad.”

When in doubt, nutritionist Lindy Cook (thenutritionguru.com.au), suggests choosing the freshest and least-processed options. “Always get some vegetables or salad, and make sure you’re well hydrated because if you are thirsty you’re more likely to crave sugar and feel hungry,” she says.

Here are the experts’ tips for navigating the various cuisines to keep eating healthily when you’re on the run:

Burgers

Our burger choices are no longer limited to just McDonald’s or the local fish and chip shop. These days, gourmet burger stores are everywhere, offering healthier choices for people who love their food nestled in a bun.

Considering our number one dietary aim is to get vegetables, low-GI carbohydrates and protein into every meal, burgers can easily tick all boxes. “Burgers can be a great way of getting good, clean, filling food,” Cook says. “Make sure you buy one from somewhere that uses quality mince that’s not highly processed and put lots of salad on it. It’s not hard to put things like beetroot, grated carrot and onion on a burger.”

Reading the menu carefully will usually help you get a good idea of how healthy the burger is. Ask for a wholegrain bun and avoid deep-fried options, such as chicken schnitzels. “Avoid anything that says words like ‘double’ or ‘the works’,” Edwards suggests. “I recommend you choose one source of protein, such as meat or cheese or egg, to save yourself kilojoules – just skipping cheddar will save you about 290 kilojoules and three grams of saturated fat.”

Sushi

Sushi is one of the first ports of call for health-conscious takeaway eaters thanks to the fact it contains iodine, protein and is usually low in saturated fat. “Seaweed is a good source of iodine, which is good for the thyroid and for brain functioning,” Cook explains. “Sashimi is also a good clean protein mix – if you have that with a side of vegies, it would be a great meal,” Cook says.

Two hand rolls is the experts’ recommended serving size, but remember that not all rolls are created equal. “Stay clear of the tempura and anything deep fried or battered,” Edwards says. Also go easy on the mayonnaise, which can be high in sugar and fat, as well as soy sauce, which adds a lot of sodium to the meal. “It’s best to go for a brown rice option because it has a lower GI and will keep you fuller for longer,” Edwards says. Fish fillings, such as tuna or salmon, help you clock your recommended three serves of fish each week.

Most people tend to think of sushi as a stand-alone food, however accredited practising dietitian Katie Pennells from Nutrition Solutions Sydney recommends you think about adding some more vegetables and protein to the mix. “Have a seaweed salad on the side or edamame beans, because they are a good source of protein and have fibre – just make sure you go for the no salt versions,” she suggests.

Mexican

Mexican food lovers are rejoicing about the recent surge in takeaway burrito bars utilising fresh flavours, such as chilli, coriander and jalapeños. But like all takeaway foods, there are more sensible choices on the menu. “Watch out for the serving size,” Pennells says. “If it’s a large one, consider having half and sharing with a friend. Otherwise, you’ll need to think about what you’re going to eat throughout the rest of the day – you might have to cut back on snacks.”

The best way to max the health quota of your Mexican meal is to increase the salads and decrease the toppings. “The principles of beans and vegetables are fantastic,” Pennells says. “But you need to be careful of the toppings. I would opt for a little bit of guacamole, because it has good fats, but skip the sour cream and the cheese if you already have protein coming from meat or beans.”

Nachos and hard-shell tacos are higher in fat due to the fact they’re deep-fried, so opt for soft shell tacos or a burrito and ask for extra salad, and some hot sauce, if you’re game. “Chilli can speed up the metabolism,” Cook explains. “But if your digestive system is playing up or you have heartburn, you don’t want too much.”

Italian

When it comes to pizza, thin crusts are your healthiest bet. “Steer clear of thick crusts and stuffed crusts,” Pennells suggests. Choose lean protein sources and a few different vegetables for toppings. “Chicken breast or seafood are good options, and always ask for less cheese,” Edwards says. Some pizza shops now offer ingredients like broccoli, bok choy and artichokes, so pile on as many vegetables as you can. “Avoid options like barbecue meatlovers, as they tend to be covered in processed meats, which are high in saturated fat and sodium,” Pennells says. “Plus barbecue sauce has lots of sugar.”

As for pasta, the challenge is keeping your carbs in check. “Usually an entrée size is enough – the large tends to be a gross overestimate of what we really should be eating,” Pennells says. Keep in mind the dietitians’ trusty plate rules (half vegetables, one quarter protein and one quarter carbs) when eating pasta. “Have a side of vegetables and go for a tomato-based pasta sauce over a creamy one to reduce the amount of fat,” Pennells says.

Asian

The great thing about stir-fries and curries is that they tend to be packed with vegetables. The downside, is that the sauces can be high in sugar, fat and salt. Pennells suggests steering clear of curries, as the coconut milk and creamy sauces tend to be high in saturated fats, and instead opt for stir-fries cooked in oyster sauce, ginger, chilli, basil or garlic. “Clear soups are always a good option – just ask for extra vegetables,” she says.

Always check that your meal doesn’t contain flavour enhancers. “They often put the chemical flavour enhancer MSG in, and some people can be sensitive to it – it can keep you awake and upset your digestive system,” Cook says. Opt for lean meat and brown rice where possible.

Fish & Chips

Fish and chip shops certainly offer their fair share of unhealthy options, but Cook says it’s one of the easiest food venues to get a really healthy meal. “Choose grilled fish, making sure they don’t salt it too much, and ask them for a big salad to have on the side,” she says. “All of the extras like potato cakes and dim sims are often filled with trans fats.” A squeeze of lemon will moisten the meal without adding the kilojoules of a sauce like tartare.


Words by Kimberly Gillan