Health: Fast Food Need Not Be Fat Food

Remember the days when the teenage cashiers at McDonald's urged you to "supersize it" for "extra value"? Over the years, it seems, too many of us took them up on the offer--and then blamed fast-food franchises for having to supersize our wardrobes, too.

Now, to address widespread criticism (and the possibility of legal judgments) that their food is making America obese, McDonald's and other chains are slimming down their meal combos and offering new, health-conscious products.

McDonald's this fall is testing a new adult version of its Happy Meal in about 150 Indiana restaurants. The Go Active meal includes salad, bottled water, a nutrition booklet and a clip-on pedometer that measures steps walked. The device, McDonald's says, is intended to encourage walking. That's a good idea after eating some fast-food fare; a 150-pound person would have to walk 60 minutes at a brisk pace of four miles per hour to burn off even the sensible Grilled Chicken California Cobb Salad with low-fat balsamic vinaigrette (320 calories). And a burger and fries might require an actual walk to Indiana.

Not to be outdone, Burger King last month unveiled a line of Lite Combo Meals that come with a grilled-chicken baguette, salad and bottled water. And Taco Bell is trying out items that substitute salsa for cheese. For Atkins diet adherents, Hardee's is testing bunless, low-carb burgers and the Blimpie sub and salad chain announced the national roll-out of a new Carb-Counter Menu last week with items like meat-and-mustard sandwich combos and salads. Subway and Wendy's, which already offer low-fat adult alternatives, are now cutting calories in kids' meals. Subway announced plans last week to eliminate the cheese from sandwiches in its Kids' Pak, and to substitute a fruit roll and juice for the cookie and soda. Wendy's is testing milk and fruit cups in its Kids' Meal.

The new food options are helpful, says nutritionist Julie Miller Jones, author of "Food Safety." But she warns that consumers still need to be conscious of calories. At McDonald's, for example, not all salads are created equal. The Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad has 210 calories and seven grams of fat. By contrast, the Crispy Chicken Bacon Ranch Salad contains 370 calories and 21 grams of fat--without dressing; even with balsamic vinaigrette, it has more fat than a Quarter Pounder and almost the same number of calories.

There's little excuse for not --counting calories anymore. Fast-food franchises have historically been wary of revealing the nutrition value of their fat-packed meals. And, let's face it, customers weren't exactly clamoring to learn the caloric and fat content of the Big Mac, supersize fries and large Coke they'd ordered for a quick lunch (1,500 calories and 62 fat grams, if you must know). But these days all the major chains are displaying the nutritional content of their menus on the Web. Wendy's has expanded its informational offerings to include data on sugars, protein and trans fatty acids.

Now, before you get in line at your favorite restaurant, you can go online and figure out what's healthiest for you. Fast food doesn't have to mean fat food anymore.