Has Fast Food Become Healthier?

Although the words "fast food" and "dietitian" seem contradictory, I do indulge in a fast-food meal several times a year. When I was growing up, I had the Burger King crown and McDonald's glass cup - to me, the childhood memories associated with these chains are undeniable. Nowadays, you can't go down most highways or through most towns without these in-your-face joints lining the streets. From burgers to Chinese food to Mexican fare, there's a multicultural adventure right in our backyards. In recent years, many chains have been called out for high fat and poor quality cuisine. Chains have been revamping their menus to provide more low-calorie choices. But can we go as far as to call fast food "healthy?"

What's Fast Food?

The term "fast food" was recognized by Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 1951. It's defined as "of, relating to or specializing in food that can be prepared and served quickly." In the 1930s, Howard Johnson franchised a second location to a colleague as a way to expand his operations during the Great Depression. Once everyone owned cars, the idea of drive-thru was a novel concept and allowed more folks to grab food on-the-go. Over the past 60 years, the fast-food industry's popularity has skyrocketed. According to National Restaurant Association forecasts, fast food restaurant sales are expected to total $188.1 billion in 2013. This is a 4.9 percent increase from 2012.

[Read: The Story Behind Papa John's 'Better' Pizza.]

Over the Years

Since the 1970s, portions have changed significantly throughout the industry. A study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reviewed data from three national surveys with more than 60,000 subjects. They found that between 1977 and 1996, portion sizes of fast-food favorites dramatically increased. The data revealed that hamburgers expanded 23 percent, a plate of Mexican fare increased by 27 percent, soft drinks by 52 percent and snacks (potato chips, pretzels or crackers) by 60 percent. These changes were due to increased demand and "value sizing" - getting a bigger bang for your buck. As fast-food portions expanded, America's waistline was doing the same.

[Read: Why Is Everyone Always Giving My Kids Junk Food?]

The Shift to Healthier Fare

With the obesity epidemic plaguing the United States, fast-food establishments have come under fire. Many fast-food offerings are high in calories, artery-clogging saturated fat and sodium. In 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unveiled guidelines for a mandatory menu calorie count to be implemented in March 2011 for all chain restaurants with 20 or more locations. Once these numbers were reported, there was no doubt that most choices at fast-food joints were just unhealthy ones. The demand for healthy fast food has led to changes throughout the fast-food industry. Here are some of those changes:

Chipotle. A public concern that has been addressed by this Mexican fast-food chain is food sourcing. Chipotle strives to achieve "Food with Integrity," meaning food that tastes better, is from better sources and is better for animals and the environment. Chipotle works with local farmers and ranchers to ensure their operations create as little impact to the environment as possible. The company sources 100 percent of their cheese and sour cream from pasture-raised cows, and 100 percent of their pork and beef have been naturally raised, which means they were raised in a humane way, fed a vegetarian diet and never given hormones. Despite the best efforts for food integrity, it's easy to pack more than 900 calories when ordering a chicken and bean burrito. However, with careful planning and conservative ingredients you can create a 400- to 500-calorie meal. Chipotle's Nutrition Calculator is a very useful tool to help do that.

[Read: Is All Processed Food Unhealthy?]

Burger King. Last month, Burger King bested all other burger chains to create the first lower-calorie French fry. The chain released crinkle-cut Satisfries with 40 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories than a standard batch of fries. Satisfries are created by dipping fries into a batter that prevents oil absorption. A value-size serving contains 190 calories, 8 grams of fat and 210 milligrams of sodium.

Elevation Burger. This is a new burger place that has popped up in my area. The company's philosophy is to create an "elevated" experience by using higher quality ingredients that are better for the environment and the diner. As such, they promote an organic, grass-fed, free-range burger. However, their Vertigo Burger - which allows you to stack up to 10 burger patties - can pack between 690 and 1,590 calories. Luckily, you can also order a one-patty kids' burger or veggie burger (sans the fries) for around 350 calories. Elevation Burger also offers low-calorie toppers like pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and onions.

[Read: How to Make Smart Choices at Fast Food Restaurants.]

Wendy's. Although you can order the Baconator (two quarter-pound patties topped with bacon) for 940 calories and 56 grams of fat, you can easily order a lower-calorie burger or salad for 300 to 400 calories. Wendy's "Right Price Right Size" options take into account two of the most important costumer concerns: cost and portion size. The Grilled Chicken Go Wrap has 260 calories and 10 grams of fat, while the Garden Side Salad has 200 calories and 13 grams of fat. Other salads can be ordered as half-portions, and a simple Jr. Hamburger is 250 calories and 10 grams of fat.

What's A Fast Food Lover To Do?

Fast food is part of our society and provides warm meals at a reasonable price to many who are constantly on the go. However, with the shift to slightly lower-calorie offerings and the availability of nutrition facts, folks have the ability to choose items that can fit into a healthy eating plan. And although you can drive through a fast-food joint on any given night, fast-food fare should only be eaten occasionally.

[Read: 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the forthcoming cookbook "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and blogs for various organizations including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.

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