Several years ago, I wrote a blog outlining some options to pick from when venturing into the conventional fast food drive-thru. I kept those options higher in protein and still calorie controlled for those wanting to have better choices and not feel like they derailed their weight loss efforts simply because they made a planned/unplanned detour into McDonald’s or some place similar.
However, due to changes in public taste, the need to add variation, and relative availability in light of the pandemic, many of those options may have changed since then.
As a refresher, if all you had access to was fast food options, you can still lose weight effectively assuming you are consistently in a caloric deficit.
Some people may snub their nose at the quality of fast food as opposed to a home cooked meal and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. However, this isn’t a discussion on quality, it’s on portion sizes/quantity.
Here’s the thing: no matter where you go in the domestic U.S., a Big Mac will always be the exact same amount of calories because they’re made in the exact same way, every.single.time.
Several years ago, my friend and fellow business owner, Kristie, asked me for some help with her weight loss goals. I knew that Kristie was a big fan of cheeseburgers and when I gave her a calorie estimate to shoot for, I asked her to consider how she wanted to include cheeseburgers into that diet.
Kristie, not unlike a lot of people, assumed that any weight loss plan would deny her the ability to have her favorite food. I reminded her that calories mattered more than food choice for weight loss efforts and she asked: I know that a Big Mac is about 500 calories. Are you telling me that I could have a Big Mac every day and as long as I make up the difference to get to my calorie goal, I’ll still lose weight?
“Yes”, I said “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
To Kristie’s credit, she didn’t eat Big Macs every day but she had them several times a week. She also removed alcohol from her plan for a lengthy amount of time in efforts to keep her calories in line as well. Ever since then, we’ve always joked about her great weight loss success on the “Big Mac Diet”.
Of course, Kristie’s not alone. Internationally renowned coach, Jordan Syatt, ran the experiment on himself too. You can read about that HERE.
If we were arguing that Chipotle (for instance) is a healthier option than McDonald’s, the source of the food might be “better”, relatively speaking. The problem with places like Chipotle is that you are at the mercy of the person serving you. A “little” bit of sour cream means one thing to one server and something different to another server.
I was recently at a Chipotle near RevFit and I asked for a “little” bit of sour cream. My server, the nice gal that she was, dropped a loaded ladle full onto my steak bowl. Estimated calories in that ladle: somewhere between 300-400…IN SOUR CREAM!
I wasn’t the type to be nasty about it and ask them to make it over again but now that my bowl was drowning in sour cream, it definitely made caloric navigation a lot more difficult to do.
Places like Subway and Panera aren’t exponentially different either. While you do have the advantage of watching them prepare your food, you don’t have complete control over how added options like: dressing, cheese, guacamole and added oils can drastically derail what might otherwise be a decent option.
Of course, it does help that many of these chain restaurants post the calories for the foods they offer. It makes it easier for you, as the consumer, to make a more informed choice of what you’re going to order.
Where things tend to get dicey is when we cave in to options that send us further from our goals. In other words, maybe you weren’t planning on getting fries with that burger but as soon as the person taking your order asks if you want to add fries, that little voice goes off in your head says: Fries would be delicious! YES! Order the fries!
And even on the low end, you’re adding an easy 300 calories to your meal and often double that.
So, here are some loose guidelines to help control the calories at the drive-thru or fast food establishment. I’m including places like Chipotle and Subway even though they aren’t always considered in the same breath as McDonald’s and Burger King.
While you certainly don’t have to follow all of these, adhering to any combination of them can drastically reduce your total caloric intake in that meal.
–Skip The Side. Whether it’s chips at Chipotle or Subway, a baguette at Panera or fries at Wendy’s, your entree probably has enough calories in it to be sufficient for a portion size (and often well beyond that). If you want to stack the deck in your favor, opt out of the side offering.
–Grab a bottle of water. While diet drinks are often low or zero in calories, a bottle of water is going to not only guarantee a zero calorie option for you but you get the added bonus of better hydration, flushing excess sodium through your system and assisting with processing fiber and waste removal. I try not to over hype any one area of a diet but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who won’t encourage an increase in water intake.
–Swap a veggie for a starch. A really easy way to cut back on calories without necessarily counting them is to swap out your starch option and toss in a veggie instead. Sub shops like Jimmy John’s let you wrap your sandwich in a leaf of lettuce and Chipotle can set your bowl over greens as opposed to rice. While salads can be a good option, if you’re not careful they can actually be higher in calories than a sandwich. I spoke in greater detail about that HERE.
–Watch the condiments. While I’m on the subject of salads, take any dressing on the side so that you can control the amount you’re consuming. I’ve seen hundreds of calories get added to a fairly innocuous offering of food in dressing/oils alone. It’s not just dressing though. For weight loss purposes, steer clear of mayonnaise, tartar sauce, and dressing. If you really want those condiments, get them on the side and use the smallest amount you can. Mustard and balsamic vinegar tend to be safer options from a calorie standpoint. Also, never discredit how added black pepper or oregano can spice up a dish without adding much in the way of calories either.
–Hold the cheese. Need a ridiculously easy way to cut back at least 100 calories from any food option? Remove the cheese. 100 calories is conservative though. I’ve seen Subway and Chipotle put well over that in their offerings simply because they don’t measure cheese. It just gets tossed on. Other high fat options that can get out of control are avocado/guacamole, sour cream (as mentioned above) and added nuts.
–Eat mindfully. One of the reasons it’s called “fast food” is that it’s not only fast to make but exceptionally fast to eat. I can inhale a burger in around 5 bites. Total time to consume? Probably less than 3 minutes. Does that sound mindful? Of course not! Take your time chewing the food, slow down your pace and actually try picking out the combination of flavors. Disclaimer: One health professional I know used this tip to actually turn his patient away from fast food dining. The slower pace of eating allowed his patient to realize that: Wow! This stuff doesn’t actually taste very good when I slow down my eating!
Ultimately, you are in control of this dining experience for yourself. By virtue alone, eating higher quality foods doesn’t necessarily equate to fat loss and eating fast food doesn’t mean you will gain weight. Some options are custom-designed to 1) make you eat more than you might normally 2) make you come back for more.
How you handle the convenience, the chance of impulsive options and the wide array of ways to play things in your favor is on you. These tips may just help along the way.
And for the record…I did eat this Big Mac (pictured below) and if I had to guess, this was probably the first time I’d eaten one in about 15 years. I do love a good burger but I’d be perfectly content if I didn’t have another Big Mac for another 15 years. I also got a small order of fries which I was not able to finish. Total calories had I eaten everything would have been around 750 calories. By comparison, I would have much rather eaten a burger from Five Guys but I would have paid a greater price (calorically speaking) to do so. A regular hamburger at Five Guys is approximately 700-800 calories and their small order of fries is over 500 calories.
So, if weight loss was my obstacle, what’s the better choice? I think you know the answer.
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