Have you noticed anything different at your favorite fast food place recently? A change in the law in April 2022 meant that food businesses with more than 250 employees must now include calorie counts on their menus. The government believes this will shock us into making healthier choices and help tackle the obesity crisis.
With the fast food industry worth a staggering £20.6bn in the UK, and expected to grow by nine per cent by 2022, it’s easy to see why the blame for our expanding waistlines is being laid at their door. The Gov.UK website says that portions of takeaway food contain on average twice as many calories as equivalents bought at the supermarket where nutrition labeling is mandatory. And with the advent of food delivery apps like Deliveroo, we don’t even have to get off the couch to enjoy our favorite takeaway (a pandemic-related behavioral change that saw online orders double after the initial lockdown).
But do nutritionists agree that focusing on calories is the way to turn the nation’s health around? Registered dietitian Sarah Schenker, who has served on a number of professional and government committees, can see some benefits.
“Seeing the calorie counts can be beneficial for some customers who might otherwise be tempted to over-order,” she says. “But if people just compare calories and don’t consider the ingredients, they may end up choosing something less nutritious. A salad that contains avocado, pine nuts and olive oil dressing will have a hefty calorie count due to, for example, the high (healthy) fat content. It is the same for dishes containing oily fish, which we want to encourage people to eat more of.”
Let’s face it, if you’re looking for a healthy meal, your nearest fast food outlet is unlikely to be the place to go, but if you happen to find yourself in one, there’s no harm in practicing a little damage limitation.
Here are some of the worst offenders and what you should choose instead:
Avoid: Double Quarter Pounder of Cheese – Health Points 2/5
Wow, that’s a lot of saturated fat and salt even before you’ve started on the fries. Where this really loses points is the processed nature of the ingredients.
Order instead: Filet-O-Fish – health score 3/5
Definitely better in terms of calories, saturated fat, sugar and salt and includes a welcome portion of fish (we recommend eating fish twice a week).
Avoid: Zinger stacker burger – health points 2.5/5
Calories, sugar and salt are high although the saturated fat is reasonable, but that’s before you order the fries and drink.
Order instead: Chicken fillet salad – health score 4/5
By choosing the salad, the calorie count is significantly reduced and the vitamin, mineral and fiber content is higher. Much better.
Avoid: Fino pitta – health score 2/5
A disturbingly high calorie count for what some might consider a healthy option, and look at all the saturated fat, sugar and salt. There is a large dose of protein from the chicken, but overall this is a red card.
Order instead: Grilled chicken pitta – health score 4.5/5
A good choice. Calories, saturated fat, sugar and salt are where you want them, it still provides more than half of your daily protein needs and 4g of fiber.
Avoid: Bacon Cheeseburger – Health Points 1.5/5
Five Guys prides itself on its quality ingredients, but unfortunately, this burger contains 904 calories and 25g of saturated fat. Also note that their Five Guys Style Fries are among the most caloric out there, with 1,073 calories for a regular fries and a chocolate milkshake providing an additional 842 calories.
Order instead: Small hamburger – health points 4/5
The beauty of Five Guys is that you can customize your burger. By choosing the basic “Little Hamburger”, you can increase the health benefits by adding lots of vegetables: onions, mushrooms, lettuce and tomato. Just skip the mayo.
Avoid: Meatfielder pizza (medium size, regular crust) – health points 1/5
Even if you only manage half of this, it is still a poor choice nutritionally. Very high in calories, loads of saturated fat, sugar and salt. There is some fiber here and a lot of protein, but unfortunately all from processed meat.
Order instead: Vegi supreme pizza with reduced fat mozzarella (personal size) – health score 3/5
You can have the Vegi Supreme Wrap at only 301 cals, but if it has to be pizza, go for this one. It is helped by the vegetable tops which increase the fiber content and provide welcome vitamins and minerals.
Pret a Manger
Avoid: Ham and cheese sandwiches – health score 3/5
Pret has always been the place to go for a fresh and healthy lunch snack, but you still have to read the fine print. The calorie count, saturated fat and salt are surprisingly high for a sandwich, and the lack of salad makes this a poor choice.
Order instead: Free range egg mayo sandwich – health score 4.5/5
A blockbuster if ever there was one – wholegrain bread, free-range eggs for healthy protein and nutritious cress, all for just 372 calories. Include a piece of fruit for some extra fiber and you can’t go far wrong.
Avoid: Moroccan rice boxes with me*tballs – health score 3.5/5
Leon works hard to live up to its mission of providing “naturally healthy fast food,” but this meatless rice box is high in calories and salt for a weekday lunch. However, it scores marks for its high fiber and plant protein count.
Order instead: Harissa chick’n wrap – health score 4.5/5
You’re spoiled for choice at Leon, including this colorful vegan ‘chicken’ wrap. The salt is a little higher than you’d probably want for lunch, but with 19g of plant protein and over 8g of fibre, this will keep hunger at bay all afternoon.
Avoid: Diavolo romana pizza – health points 2/5
Anyone with children will no doubt be a regular at this high street institution, but it pays to read the fine print. This popular pizza contains two-thirds of your saturated fat, half of your sugar and your total salt intake for the day. The high fiber content and the general quality of the ingredients give it two points.
Order instead: Leggera quattro verdure – health score 4/5
While you might feel a little cheated by the hole in the middle of the pizza, it brings the calorie count down to a very reasonable 544. The saturated fat is drastically reduced while retaining most of the fiber. The sugar and salt are still on the high side, so it loses a point.
Avoid: Grilled duck donburi – health points 2/5
You might think the vibrant Asian-style menu at Wagamama is one of the healthier options on the high street, but again, it’s buyer beware. This rice bowl packs some serious calories, sugar and salt. It gets a couple of points for having some vegetables and an egg, but overall this is one to turn down.
Order instead: Chicken katsu salad – health score 4/5
By cutting out the sticky white rice, the carbs and calories are reduced, there’s a good variety of vegetables included, and the curry dressing is served on the side, so you can choose how much you want to add. However, sugar and salt are still a bit high. Interestingly, some of the most high-calorie items on the menu are the vegan curry options, so don’t assume that plant-based is necessarily healthier.
And how does the average Chinese and Indian takeaway fare?
Avoid: Chicken tikka masala – health score 3/5
The calories are up there, especially if you add a naan and rice to your plate. Saturated fat is OK, but of course it will vary depending on how heavy-handed your local takeaway is with ghee. Where this loses points is the very high sugar content and the lack of vegetables.
Order instead: Kongrekesaag – health points 4.5/5
This looks good across the board, and it also contains plenty of vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. Include a whole wheat chapati which is lower in fat and higher in fiber than naan or paratha.
Avoid: Sweet and sour pork – health score 2.5/5
Again, the sugar is the culprit here, exceptionally high for a single dish. In general, the meat will not be of good quality, and there is a distinct lack of vegetables.
Order instead: Vegetable fried rice with king prawns – health score 4/5
A complete, balanced meal that is not too high in calories. You can always ask for some extra vegetables to increase the nutritional content, and the prawns and egg provide a good touch of lean protein.
For reference, the UK Government’s daily dietary recommendations are as follows:
Calories: men 2,500/women 2,000, fat: men 30 g/women 20 g, sugar: 30 g, fiber: 30 g, protein: men 56 g/women 45 g, salt: 6 g]
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