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Feb 12, 2005
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Our picks for the best and worst takeout options.

By Holly St. Lifer, from

You're sitting in traffic after a tough day at work, and just the idea of preparing dinner seems overwhelming. Or maybe you're at the mall with the kids when suddenly, you're all starving. Whether it's a monthly or three-times-a-week affair, ordering fast food or takeout helps make our hectic lives infinitely easier.

According to a 2000 survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, more than 60% of adults say carryout or delivered meals allow them to spend more time on other activities. But while less time in the kitchen has its advantages, it comes with a price: Experts say that most fast food is loaded with sugar and heart-harming saturated fat. Fortunately, there are some exceptions to this rule: fast foods that deliver good nutrition along with convenience. Here are the four best bets, plus four worsts that just may surprise you.

Fast food do's

1. Chinese veggies and shrimp."Certain Chinese dishes -- such as stir-fried vegetables, Szechuan shrimp, and shrimp with garlic sauce, are low in fat and calories, with the added plus of offering up lots of vegetables," says Jayne Hurley, a contributor to the Nutrition Action Healthletter and a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit education and advocacy organization. While most of us have gotten the message that we need to eat less fat, we still need to increase our intake of fruits and vegetables.

With most dishes, regardless of the cuisine, the fat is in the sauce. One way to cut back, says Hurley, is to eat Chinese (and other dishes) like the Chinese do: "Lift the food up and out of the sauce, so that a lot of it is left behind."

2. Souvlaki. When the CSPI analyzed Greek food in November 2000, it found chicken, lamb and pork souvlaki, as well as meat kabobs, to be the dishes lowest in fat and calories of any cuisine. Greek food also incorporates lots of veggies.

3. Lean-meat-and-veggie sandwiches from Subway. True to its ads, Subway really does have "7 under 6," -- seven sandwiches with 6 grams of fat or less. But it's not just the low fat content that's praiseworthy; these subs' calorie counts are diet-friendly, too. All but two of the "7 under 6" six-inch subs weigh in at 290 calories or less (that's without any added cheese or condiments). Top picks include the Veggie Delite (230 calories, 3 grams of fat) and Turkey Breast (280 calories, 4.5 grams of fat). And while most store-bought tuna sandwiches can rack up about 800 calories, Subway's Tuna Deli sandwich has low-fat mayo, which gives it a more reasonable caloric content of 330 (though with 16 grams of fat, it can't be considered low-fat).

4. McDonald's grilled chicken sandwich, plus salad and dessert. Believe it or not, it is possible to get a healthful meal at a restaurant like McDonald's. "At any fast-food restaurant, head for the grilled chicken sandwich, no mayo, no cheese, and a green salad with low-fat dressing on the side," says registered dietitian Andrea Weiss, co-founder of the Maimonides Nutrition Center in Brooklyn. "Replace the soda with juice, milk or water, and you've got a nutritious meal."

5. Looking for something sweet? Hurley gives a high rating to McDonald's Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait (without the granola). "It's the most innovative thing to happen in fast food," she says. "The fruit is fresh, and the low-fat yogurt is creamy and delicious. At 280 calories and only 4 grams of fat, it's a great breakfast, snack or dessert."

Fast food don'ts

1. Pizza. This Italian staple's ingredients may include three out of the four best food groups -- vegetables, grains and dairy -- but the cheese itself counts for half a day's helping of saturated fat before you even think about adding meat. "When you do indulge, go for pizza with no cheese, or just request less and add more vegetables," suggests Hurley. There's also a misconception that thin-crust pizza is less fattening than Sicilian or other thick-crust pizza. While the calorie content per slice may be lower for thin-crust (200 for thin vs. 290 for Sicilian at Pizza Hut), we tend to eat more of thin-crust.

2. French fries.We all know fries are bad for us, but according to both Weiss and Hurley, most of us don't have a clue as to just how unhealthful they really are. "Most people think, They're potatoes, how bad could they be? But the fat content is so high, they don't count nutritionally as either a vegetable or a carbohydrate," says Weiss. At McDonald's, for instance, a small order of fries contains 210 calories and 10 grams of fat, a medium serving has 450 calories and 22 grams of fat, and a large has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat. "When you realize that 'supersized' fries have 30 more calories than a Big Mac, you have to think of it as that you're actually eating a Big Mac with your Big Mac," says Hurley. "Fries are not a side dish -- they're a main dish."

3. Salad with lots of toppings and/or dressing. It's a fallacy that you can't go wrong with a salad. Of course, greens are great -- it's what goes on top of them that's the problem. A single serving of Greek salad contains more than half a day's helping of saturated fat, just from the feta cheese! Another deliciously deceiving favorite is Caesar salad: Boston Market's Caesar, for example, has a whopping 670 calories with the dressing, but just 230 without. Weiss recommends removing half the cheese and meat toppings from your salad selection and ordering low-fat dressing on the side; regular dressings have 10 times the fat content of low-fat varieties.

4. Specialty coffee drinks. Think you're saving calories by passing on the Danish? Not if you're ordering a Venti White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks. This popular java drink has a whopping 600 calories! Opt for a cappuccino or a cafe latte with skim milk instead.


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