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Fast food is a mainstay of the American diet. In fact, in any given day, 1 in 4 of us fill our stomachs at a fast-food chain. What does this mean to our health? America is the fattest nation in the world, with 61 percent of adults and children weighing in at overweight or obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Like our bellies, the fast-food phenomenon is growing too: we plunked down $3 billion on the speedy burgers, fries, and tacos in 1992, and today that number tops a whopping $110 billion. In 2004, Morgan Spurlock chronicled his experience of eating solely fast food for one month in his Academy Award-nominated documentary Supersize Me. The filmmaker gained 25 pounds and put his health in jeopardy, according to a panel of doctors. (Next up for this one-month fast-food junkie: His one-hour TV reality show 30 Days premieres on the cable channel FX on June 15th. In the series, an individual takes up a completely different lifestyle -- whether religious, economic, or ethnic -- for 30 days.)
In the meantime, here are some bite-size nuggets of info about fast food that can help you navigate the counters:
Fact or fiction: Fast foods are always unhealthy and should be avoided at all costs. Fiction: Sometimes, pulling into the drive-thru is unavoidable -- on that family car trip, for instance -- but it doesn't have to ruin your diet. When you have to make the stop, your best bet is to "minimize the damage," says Linda Spangle, RN, MA, a nutritionist outside of Denver, and the author of Life Is Hard, Food Is Easy (Lifeline Press, 2003). Some strategies: Avoid supersizing, opt for water or nonfat milk instead of soda, and choose salads and grilled foods. If you must have the fries, munch on the smallest portion size, says Spangle. And try to limit stops at the local fast-food place to once a month.
Fact or fiction: Willard Scott posed as the first Ronald McDonald. Fact: Yes, this familiar face from the Today Show did don the red wig and nose. However, Scott was shown his walking papers when higher-ups deemed him too plump to represent a "healthy" restaurant like McDonald's.
Fact or fiction: Taco Bell hot sauce can clean dirty pennies. Fact: Apparently this condiment can reinstate shine to your small change. But before you opt for south of the border fare without flair, consider this: Two of the product's ingredients, vinegar and salt, in combination seem to cause a reaction that cleans the pennies. The product itself is safe to ingest.
Fact or fiction: French fries are the most commonly consumed vegetable in America. Fact: But you'll be much healthier if you start piling your plate with dark, leafy greens or sweet potatoes instead.
Fact or fiction: Kentucky Fried Chicken was renamed KFC because its products don't contain chicken but rather meat from genetically engineered mutant animals. Fiction: Not true. KFC was borne of a marketing ploy to remove the word "fried" (and its unhealthy connotations) from the chain's name.
Fact or fiction: There's no dairy in the McDonald's McFlurry. Fiction: With this myth, McDonald's is not getting a fair shake. Its shakes are made by combining prefabricated "shake mix" with flavoring syrup and milk, which is then dispensed from a refrigerated unit. It's faster (hey, it is fast food) and this delivery method guarantees a more consistent product.
Fact or fiction: Burger King's milkshakes contain seaweed. Fiction: The idea, however, is rooted in some truth. The sweet treats contain carrageenan, a substance derived from carrageen, a type of seaweed. Carrageenan is commonly used as a suspending agent in foods, a clarifying agent in beverages, and for controlling crystal growth in frozen products. Label sleuths will see carrageenan on the package of many processed foods, and it is in shakes for other fast-food chains as well.
Fact or fiction: A 140-pound woman would have to walk for four hours to burn off the Hardee's Monster Thickburger. Fact: Weighing in at 1,420 calories, this sandwich packs the caloric equivalent of two Big Macs or five McDonald's hamburgers. If you throw in an order of fries, you'd be consuming more than 2,000 calories in one sitting -- that's more than many people eat in a day. Run from this Monster!
Fact or fiction: Only seven items on McDonald's entire menu contain no sugar. Fact: Spurlock touts this factoid in his documentary Supersize Me.