I don’t actually want you to eat fast food. It’s terrible for you. It makes you fat. It destabilizes economies and nations. It kills the environment. Read Fast Food Nation. See Super Size Me. If you’re really serious about getting or staying in shape, fast food restaurants are not on your path to success.

However, sometimes fast food is the only option other than starvation. Long road trips, coworker lunches, the only place your child or childish companion will eat-these are all situations where you may be forced to enter one of these fluorescent dens of gluttony and decide which of their evilly delicious menu items you’ll be naming your newly enlarged buttocks.

While the fast food companies have generally shown an appalling disregard for their customers’ health, they have lately been shamed by our nation’s obesity epidemic into offering some menu items that have some nutritional value. They still can’t resist adding a little unneeded fat or extra high-fructose corn syrup just to spice things up, so it’s wise to take a buyer-beware approach when ordering your meal. Here are some tips to make healthier choices and some suggestions about the healthiest (relatively speaking) things to order at some of the major fast food chains.

1. Get less for your money. This may seem counterintuitive, but the so-called value meals really only offer you extra calories, saturated fat, sugar, and other diet killers. While it may seem like an unbelievable deal that you can get twice as many fries for only 19 more cents, it’s a bit of a false economy, unless you’re saving up for a bypass operation. If you really want to save money, pack a lunch.

One of the biggest problems with fast food is that the food is incredibly dense in calories, fat, sodium, and bad carbohydrates. They pack a lot of unhealthiness into a small package. So you think you’re just having a quick bite, but you’re really getting most of your day’s requirement of fat, sodium, and calories. This is where we get the term “gut bomb.” Paying extra to ruin your health makes no sense. Ordering the small size may not be as cheap per pound of food, but it will save you a fortune when you’re working off pounds of fat later.

2.      Discover your inner child. The best place to find a reasonably sized portion for an adult is, sadly, the children’s menu. Bowing to the horrible publicity created by childhood obesity, fast food companies have made the most improvements to their kids’ menus. In fact, at some restaurants, the kids’ meal is the only way you can get healthy sides like fruit or carrots. It’s great that kids are getting healthier options. After all, the children are our future . . . organ donors. We need to keep them healthy. But if you eat the healthy stuff on the kids’ menu yourself, you might be able to hang on to your own organs a little while longer. You don’t need to impress the teenage cashier with your ability to eat the maximum amount of fries and triple patties. Don’t be ashamed to order the junior hamburger or even the kids’ meal. You might get a free toy in the bargain!

3.      Stick to salads. A big problem with fast food is that many innocent-looking nuggets and patties are loaded with added fats, flavorful chemicals, and high-fructose corn syrup, which wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels. Salads are a good way to eat ingredients that you can easily observe whether they’ve been adulterated with bad-for-you additives. Not to be deterred, the fast food companies will try to get you with the dressings. Ask for oil and vinegar, if possible. If not, carefully check the ingredients and calorie counts of the dressings offered. You’re better off with a vinaigrette or vinegar-based dressing like Italian. Also, true to form, most places give you enough dressing to dress several salads. Either use only half the packet of dressing or ask for a side cup you can squirt it into, and then dip your fork in the dressing before you get a bite of salad. Another way to avoid the dressing trap is to forego it completely, and scam some fresh lemons from the condiment or beverage counter and squeeze them over your salad.

4.      Beware of “theme” salads. It’s called a salad. It looks like a salad. It has lettuce. It must be a salad, right? Don’t be fooled by clever naming tricks-like the restaurant I went to that had a “cheesesteak salad” on its menu (I kid you not). A taco salad at most places is just all the unhealthy ingredients you’re trying to avoid dumped on a plate of lettuce. In some cases, you’re better off calorie-wise eating the taco in its original construction. Use common sense when selecting a salad, making sure all the ingredients are vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins you can recognize. Don’t let restaurants mislead you into eating crap disguised as food.

5.      Have it your way. Remember the old Burger King jingle, “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us.” Take them at their word-only don’t hold the pickle and the lettuce, and do hold the mayo and the high-fructose corn syrup ketchup. Ask if you can substitute the grilled chicken breast for the breaded chicken breast, wheat buns for white buns, and lettuce cups for buns. Ask for extra veggies. And hold the “cheez,” especially if it’s spelled with a “z.” Tell them you’d rather salt the fries yourself. When you order the “healthy” grilled-chicken or fish sandwiches, make sure they’re not loaded with mayo or special sauces. Ask for salsa or mustard instead. After all, one advantage of a fast food joint over a fine restaurant: When they’re annoyed with your special requests, they can’t spit in your food, because you’ll see them do it.

6.      Watch what you drink. The most profitable menu items for restaurants are soft drinks. Costing almost nothing to make, they want you to get as big a size as possible and pay for it. What you’ll get is tons of sugar and chemicals, and maybe, eventually, diabetes! Try to stick with iced tea or water. And to play the broken record again, if you must get soda, get the small size.

7. And a milkshake is not a drink. It will often be suggested that you wash down your burgers and fries with a frosty milkshake. Sounds good, right? You can tell yourself you’re getting your calcium, fighting osteoporosis! You’re also getting over 1,000 calories if you get a large size at some restaurants. Even the kid sizes come in at 300-plus calories. Your drink probably shouldn’t have more calories than your meal. Also, if it’s called a shake, instead of a milkshake, there’s a good chance it doesn’t even contain any dairy-maybe some whipped lard instead! Mmmmm, whipped lard . . . I guess Frosty Whipped Lard Shakes didn’t make it out of the marketing meeting.

Also On Spirit 1340:
×