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Fast food warning: Looks can be deceiving
Click here to get the nutritional information
on your favorite fast food restaurant.
Fast food warning: Looks can be deceiving

By Jay DeFoore

Fast food is as much a part of college life as cramming for tests and partying around a keg of beer. And while it may not be the healthiest thing to eat, the convenience of a quick bite keeps us coming back for more.

In recent years, most fast food chains have expanded their menus beyond burgers and fries to include food aimed at the health-conscious consumer. Some healthier campaigns, like Taco Bell's Border Lights selections, only stayed around for a couple of unprofitable years before being canceled. Still others have been able to adapt, like Wendy's salad bar. But many of the fast food items that seem healthy are not as good as the companies would like us to believe.

One of the newest products to hit fast food menus is McDonald's Salad Shakers. The idea is certainly novel: The salad comes in a clear container with a domed lid, allowing customers to pour the dressing in and shake the salad, thus evenly distributing it.

"We give our customers the option and it's up to them to order what's best. Even if you're on a special diet, I'm confident McDonald's can accommodate you."

McDonald's spokesperson

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McDonald's spokesperson Nancy Izquierdo explains the concept: "The Salad Shakers are made for people who are on the go and who want to eat healthy. The container makes it portable, easy and convenient."

But while the low-calorie items do seem healthy, closer inspection of their nutritional information reveals a startling fact. Of the three Salad Shaker options, only one could be considered "low-fat." The American Heart Association recommends people get no more than 30 percent of their calories from fat. But McDonald's Garden Salad Shaker has a whopping 60 percent of calories from fat, while the Chef Salad Shaker has 47. (And that's without the dressing!)

Izquierdo did point out that the restaurant offers a fat-free vinaigrette dressing, certainly a better choice than the Ranch and Caesar, both of which contain 81 and 78 percent of their calories from fat, respectively.

McDonald's is not the only fast food chain to have seemingly healthy items come with more than their share of unwanted fat and calories. The word pita sounds healthy, right? Well, each of Wendy's four pitas exceeds the recommended 30 percent of calories from fat, although the Chicken Caesar and Garden Ranch Chicken sit just above that at 33 percent.

Wendy's fares slightly better when it comes to its spuds. Consider this: One order of Biggie Fries packs in 470 calories, 43 percent of which comes from fat. But if you were to eat a plain baked potato from their menu, you could reduce your calories by 160 and your fat by 100 percent. That doesn't mean you should load your potato up with butter and cheese, though. But if it's a tasty potato you want, broccoli and cheese or sour cream and chives are your best options.

Donna De Cunzo, director of nutritional service for eDiets, an Internet supplier of personalized diet programs, realizes that telling students not to eat fast food would be like telling a baby not to suck his thumb. So rather than swear off fast food in favor of tofu shakes and wheat germ sandwiches, De Cunzo urges people to eat responsibly.

"Be an educated consumer. Know going in what the high-fat, high-calorie items are. (Food customization) is our core equity."

Burger King

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But people can't live on salad and potatoes alone. If you just got to have that fast food burger or sandwich, one of the best ways to reduce your fat and calorie intake is to nix the mayonnaise and other "special sauces." A typical serving of mayo has about 150 calories and 17 grams of fat, way too much for a condiment.

Keep in mind too, that anything fried is going to be higher in fat. A grilled chicken sandwich has as much as half the calories of its fried counterpart. Even little things like peeling the skin off a piece of fried chicken can reduce your fat intake by 50 percent or more.

While some people may think it's rude to hold up the line and ask for it "their way" -- restaurants claim they honor all requests, so hold them to it. Charles Nicolas, a spokesman for Burger King, says the company's founding principle of "have it your way" puts the responsibility on the consumer to watch out for their own health.

"Be an educated consumer," Nicolas says. "Know going in what the high-fat, high-calorie items are." Once a customer knows what he or she wants to avoid, they can demand to have it taken off. "(Food customization) is our core equity," Nicolas says.

McDonald's recently debuted a similar promotion called "made for you." "We give our customers the option and it's up to them to order what's best," Izquierdo says. "Even if you're on a special diet, I'm confident McDonald's can accommodate you."

But, De Cunzo says, customers already have too many choices, and they seem to want the fast food chains to make healthy decisions for them. She recommends health-conscious consumers write letters to the director of consumer affairs for each fast food restaurant to voice their concerns.

"Establishments will react because consumers are their buyers," she said. "But they do have to make their voice known."

Click here to get the nutritional information on your favorite fast food restaurant.

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