How Much Junk Food is Too Much: Can You Eat Junk Food & Still Be Healthy

When the snack products and convenience foods now popularly termed “junk food” began to crackle and crunch their way off production lines in the 1950s, it seemed like a liberating trend, a response to the nation’s increasing affluence and decreasing time for food preparation. The appeal of junk food can be summarized in four words: cheap, quick, easy, and fun. Unfortunately, the rapid increase of fun foods in the American diet has also had a depressing effect on our nutritional health.

What Is Junk Food?

Junk food is now defined as any food packed with “empty calories”—an abundance of fat, sugar, sodium, and chemicals—and little nutritional value. Fast food items, such as hamburgers, fries, tacos, and fried chicken, are considered junk food when the amount of fat, calories, sodium, and chemicals they harbor is disproportionate to their total nutritional value. Satisfying your appetite with this kind of food may lead to nutritional deficiencies, high cholesterol levels, and eventually heart problems. Although many health authorities insist that there is no such thing as junk food, consumers find it a useful term for distinguishing nourishing food from products whose chief appeal is fun, convenience, and addictive taste (“bet you can’t eat just one”).

Cash registers across the country ring up an astounding amount in sales of fast foods and snacks (candy, sweets, chips, cookies, ice cream, and cakes). Americans spend about $23.5 billion a year on candy and gum and $4.6 billion on potato chips. Of the 46 percent of American adults who eat out on a typical day, one-third choose fast food.

While this national orgy of snacking may pose a threat to our collective health, junk food is not inherently “poison” and it’s not necessary to completely avoid it to live a healthy life. Nutritionists have retreated from advising a complete denial of any food, realizing that the forbidden fruit can become an obsession. Eating a candy bar once in a while isn’t going to ruin your health, and, depending on your choices, a meal at a fast food restaurant doesn’t have to be a diet disaster.

In the pages ahead, you’ll find some strategies for navigating the junk food maze, including insights into its appeal, guidelines on how much you can eat guilt-free, and tips for staying under that limit through moderation, compensation, and substitution. Victor Herbert, MD, JD, Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Bronx Veteran Affairs Medical Centers makes the case in a nutshell: “All food is health food in moderation, all food is junk food in excess.”

Junk Food’s Appeal

The dazzling spread of both fast food outlets and snack products keeps them constantly “in your face.” Fast food outlets have become an international symbol of American culture, and the industry is growing at an overwhelming rate both abroad and at home. Today, Pizza Hut has more than 10,000 outlets in 86 countries; Subway, the submarine sandwich specialty shop, has nearly 14,500 stores in 75 countries; and the granddaddy of them all, McDonald’s, has over 26,000 restaurants in 119 countries. The industry is also invading new territories such as hospitals, schools, and mass merchandise stores like Wal-Mart. With the increased popularity of take-out meals, fast food is also invading the home, as well as turning our cars and desks into dining rooms.

If you feel that junk food is constantly being pushed on you, you’re right. As any parent of young children knows, candy and gum are displayed conveniently close to the supermarket cash register. Fast food chains spend an average of nearly $1 billion a year in television advertising. Junk food is advertised as “fun food” and “cool” food, with the majority of the advertising directed at children and teens. The fast food industry openly competes for children’s attention with offers of toys, special cups, kid clubs, playgrounds, and Disney videotapes. Surveys have told the industry’s chieftains that parents often let children make restaurant choices, and over 80 percent of the time, kids under 17 choose fast food.

But all this marketing effort would not work if junk food did not fundamentally appeal to American needs and lifestyles. There are probably some people who have never raced out to buy a candy bar or a burger and fries after dealing with a stalled car, angry boss, or irritable loved one. But most of us have found solace in junk food in times of stress. If this happens only occasionally, little harm is done. But if binging on high fat, high sodium products is a common coping tool for you, it is likely to become a source of physical stress itself.

Along with stress, time-pressure heightens the appeal of junk food, known for its speed and convenience. The snack and fast food industries thrive on impulse eating. Many people today eat when they have a free moment, not at pre-set meal times. Junk food allows you to eat without planning, without dressing up, without making a lot of decisions, sometimes without even getting out of your car. The menus at fast food restaurants and products in convenience stores are consistent, predictable, familiar, comfortable. They fit well into our hurried, pressured lifestyles.

These trends are not likely to reverse themselves. The results of the national low-fat eating campaign are telling. According to the New York Times, Americans are choosing to adjust, rather than fundamentally change their eating habits. Few people are rushing out to stock up on vegetables and grains. “Instead,” says the Times, “there has been a stampede to buy packaged foods emblazoned with a ‘no fat’ or ‘low fat’ label.” Indeed, for many this is now the only seal of approval needed, regardless of the product’s other ingredients—or lack of them.

We have become dependent on the convenience, and even nutritionists now accept the fact that snacking, or “grazing” (eating five or six small meals, rather than three square ones a day) can be a healthy eating pattern. Snacks are necessary for growing children, who receive 25 percent of their daily caloric intake from snacking. But what you eat, and how much, does make a difference. Low-fat snacking is associated with lower weight, lower serum cholesterol, and better blood glucose control. But Americans tend to reach for high-fat snacks: we now get 40 percent of our daily fat intake from snacks.

 

Three Squares A Day (Fast Food Style)

If you were to take all three of your meals in fast food outlets—and make some really bad choices—your nutritional profile for the day would look like the graph above. Although your calories would be more or less in line, you would have eaten more than double the recommended amount of fat and nearly double the recommended amount of sodium. And that’s not counting fries and dessert! The moral: While you don’t have to completely give up those fat-laden burgers and breakfast sandwiches, you don’t want to make a habit of them either.

 

The Junk in Junk Food

The new nutrition labels mandated by the federal government allow us to take a closer look at what we are eating. And what we are eating is too much fat, salt, and protein, and too little fiber.

Fat

What we find is that fat is by far the biggest component of most junk food. A Nestle Crunch Bar gets 72 of its 150 calories from fat; a bag of potato chips has 10-11 grams of fat per ounce. Palm and coconut oil, which are highly saturated vegetable fats, are used in making a wide variety of snack foods. And so-called “healthy” snack foods are not always that healthy either; a bag of “natural” potato chips gets 60 percent of its calories from fat.

Red meat is still the biggest contributor of fat to the American diet, with butter, dressing, and frying oil coming in second. Most fast food items contain 40 to 50 percent fat. If you choose a Burger King Double Whopper with Cheese, you’ve ordered up 935 calories and 61 grams of fat. Compare that with the Burger King Broiler Chicken Sandwich at a more reasonable 320 calories and 10 grams of fat.

 

Healthier Snacks

Supermarkets and health food stores are stocked with an increasing variety of low-fat, low-calorie junk food. Here are some you might like as much as the old-fashioned kind.
New Crunchies:
•  Low fat baked cheese puffs
•  Low sodium, low-fat chips (Cape Cod, Louise’s, Old El Paso)
•  Whole wheat pretzels
•  Sesame sticks
For Chocoholics:
•  Instant diet hot chocolate
•  Fat free chocolate cookies
•  Chocolate syrup
Dips and Condiments:
•  Dip mixes by Hain
•  Fresh salsas
•  Lite mayonnaise (tofu-based) and ketchup
•  Low-sodium mustard and Worcestershire sauce
•  Chutney (fruit or vegetable based relishes)
•  Horseradish
For a Sweet Tooth:
•  Low-calorie candies or lifesavers
•  Hard candy, jelly beans
•  Marshmallows
•  Angel food cake
•  Apple crisps
•  Whipped toppings
Cookies:
•  Fig bars
•  Gingersnaps
•  R.W Frookie Cookies & Apple Fruit Cookie
•  Snackwell’s
Frozen Desserts:
•  Sherbet
•  Frozen yogurt
•  Ice milk
•  Frozen tofu
•  Frozen fruit juice bars

 

Salt

Along with fat, most junk food is high in sodium, which can aggravate high blood pressure, leading ultimately to strokes and congestive heart failure. Some canned foods and frozen dinners are also known for their high sodium content. The National Academy of Science recommends no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day, or just over one teaspoon. Yet a Burger King Chicken Sandwich has 1,400 milligrams of sodium and McDonald’s Sausage Biscuit with Egg has 1,160 milligrams. Remember that most of the sodium we eat is added when foods are manufactured and cooked. French fries are one of the lowest sodium foods you can find—until you pick up the salt shaker.

Too Much Protein, Too Little Fiber

Our bodies need protein, and fast food chains often advertise this fact to appear healthy. However, all we need to function normally is less than 2 ounces a day. The average American diet provides this much and more without our having to give it a thought. A large hamburger provides more than half the protein we need in a day; combine it with a shake and fries and you’ll have met all your protein needs. You will also have consumed 1,779 calories—enough for a whole day for most people. Fast food provides protein, yes—but only with the extra fat and calories that most of us definitely do not need.

While junk food gives us too much of many food elements, it provides too little fiber. A high-fiber diet may help reduce your odds of many major disorders, such as heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. Americans eat an average of 15 grams of fiber daily while the National Cancer Institute recommends eating 20 to 35 grams. More fiber-enriched foods are beginning to reach the market, which is a start; but beware of high-fiber candy bars. These products often get 35 percent of their calories from fat, compared with the 21 percent fat in regular candy bars. They also contain less than 7 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance of all vitamins and minerals. Reading labels can really help!

The Fun Food Industry Reforms

Twenty years ago you couldn’t find any low-fat or low-sodium products in the supermarket. Increasing public awareness of the relationship between health and nutrition has changed all that. Consumer groups have demanded that companies disclose ingredients and cooking methods used in their products. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) started looking at fast food in 1983, and the work of this group and others has led to the introduction of bills for ingredient labeling and orders from state attorneys general enjoining companies from deceptive advertising.

Many magazine articles and TV shows have picked up on the topic, and the fast food industry has begun to take nutrition into account when designing new menus. Some packaged and canned food manufacturers have also adjusted basic recipes and cooking methods, and new healthier product versions are appearing in confusing proliferation. With reduced-fat versions of such classic health offenders as Ruffles potato chips and Doritos corn chips now reaching the market, the low-fat/low-salt revolution is almost complete.

Still, while these products greatly expand your choices, it’s important to remember that many of them are merely “healthier” junk food, not truly nutritious eating. You should use them to satisfy occasional cravings, not as diet staples. If a product contains fat and a disproportionate amount of calories in relation to its nutritional value, it is still considered “junky” food.

Be aware, too, that reading labels is even more important with convenience and snack foods than with regular items. Do not take “health” labels at face value. Many “low-fat” or “no fat” products are still very high in calories, and foods that sound healthy may not be!

Carrot cake, for instance, sounds nice and healthy. But 40 to 50 percent of the calories in carrot cake are from fat. In fast food restaurants, remember that so-called healthier versions may actually just be smaller portions. KFC Lite’n Crispy skin-free chicken has the same amount of fat per ounce (50 percent fat calories) as Extra Crispy; the only difference between the two is their weight: 3 ounces instead of 5 ounces.

Studying labels is a good habit, but you don’t have to spend your life doing it. Once you’ve found new products that satisfy your appetite, decide how often you ought to eat them, then relax and enjoy!

Fast Food Chains Discover Health

Fast food chains hopped aboard the low-fat/low-salt bandwagon several years ago. They’ve changed some of their cooking techniques and added some new, healthier choices. All the major hamburger chains have switched from beef fat to vegetable shortening for all frying (definitely an improvement, but still a source of extra calories and fat). Sodium content has also started downward. Taco Bell cut 750 milligrams of sodium from its Taco Salad with shell; Wendy’s reduced the sodium in its chili by 30 percent; and Jack in the Box stopped salting burgers during the grilling process.

Many chains now offer grilled and broiled foods alongside their fried dishes. Arby’s added a Grilled Chicken Barbecue Sandwich; Burger King removed half the fat from its BK Broiler Chicken Sandwich; and Wendy’s added a Grilled Chicken Sandwich.

Muffins, low-fat milk, and salads have been added to many chain menus. Dairy Queen and Baskin-Robbins have introduced low-fat frozen yogurt and nonfat yogurt. Even Dunkin’ Donuts eliminated egg yolks from doughnuts, switched to low-calorie mayonnaise, and introduced bagels.

A 1994 Consumer Report study shows, however, that although fast food companies are offering lower-fat items, most people still order those foods that are heavy in fat, saturated fat and other nutrients that should be limited in a prudent diet. Remember the “Best Bet” in the nearby box the next time you roll into a fast food outlet.

Where (and How) to Draw the Line

Everyone, including those with dietary health issues, can get away with 500 empty calories a week,” says Andrea Weiss, RD, MS, Metabolic Support Specialist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York. Does that sound like too little? Not if you remember that all food has some nutritional value and that those calories are not considered “empty.” A fast food meal of 1,000 calories, for example, is likely to contain 500 empty calories. “Therefore, most of us can afford one junk food splurge a week,” says Ms. Weiss. Your 500 weekly calories can translate into almost anything: a lunch of burger and fries, a hefty candy bar, or a large bag of potato chips.

How can you keep your junk food consumption down to these relatively modest levels? The solution is to find an approach that works well with your own lifestyle and eating patterns. The following strategies can be combined to fit your individual needs.

 

Best Bets In The Fast Food Chains

Calories Fat (grams) Sodium
(milligrams)
Burger King
BK Broiler Chicken Sandwich 370 9 1060
Whopper, Jr. (no mayo) 320 15 530
Chicken Tenders, 5 pieces 230 14 590
Hamburger 320 15 520
McDonald’s
Low-fat Apple Bran Muffin 300 3 380
Chicken McGrill (no mayo) 340 7 890
Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad (fat-free vinaigrette) 130 2.5 460
Chicken McNuggets, 6 pieces 290 17 540
Small Hamburger 270 9 600
Wendy’s
Baked Potato, plain 310 0 25
Grilled Chicken Sandwich 310 8 790
Junior Hamburger 270 10 610
Chili, 8 oz. 210 7 800
Grilled Chicken Salad (reduced-fat dressing) 240 13 960
Hardee’s
Hot Ham ‘N’ Cheese 300 12 1390
Grilled Chicken Sandwich 350 16 880
Hamburger 270 11 550
Side Salad 20 0 15
Pizza Hut
Veggie Lovers, Hand Tossed 562 12 1542
Thin ‘n Crispy Pizza, Cheese, medium, 2 slices 486 20 1306
L. J. Silver
Ocean Chef 130 2 540
Rice Pilaf 180 4 560
Lemon Crumb Baked Fish, 2 pieces, with rice pilaf 480 17 1490
Subway
Veggie Delight, 6″ Sub (no cheese or mayo) 232 3 —-
Turkey 6″ Sub (no cheese or mayo) 282 4 —-
Subway Club Salad (no dressing) 123 3 —-
Baskin-Robbins
Fat Free Chocolate Vanilla Twist (frozen dairy dessert) 1/2 cup 100 0 100
Red Raspberry Sorbet, small (5 oz.) 120 0 10

 

Choosing The Lesser Evil

Six Best and Worst Snacks at the Supermarket
Best: Popcorn with chili or onion powder 55 calories
Worst: Potato chips 155 calories
Best: Ice Milk 95-140 calories
Worst: Ice Cream 250-375 calories
Best: Chocolate syrup 50-60 calories
Worst: Candy bar 270 calories
Best: Slice of angel food cake with strawberries 150 calories
Worst: Strawberry shortcake 400 calories
Best: Apple crisp with cereal topping 180 calories
Worst: Apple pie 400 calories
Best: Popsicle 65 calories
Worst: Ice cream bar 162 calories
Best and Worst Choices at Six Fast Food Chains
Calories
Fat
(grams)
Sodium
(milligrams)
Burger King
Best: Hamburger 310 15 467
Worst: Double Whopper with Cheese 990 67 1400
Best: BK Broiler Chicken Sandwich (no mayo) 370 9 1060
Worst: Chicken Sandwich (fried) 710 43 1400
Best: Croissan’wich with ham 244 14 1070
Worst: Croissan’wich with Sausage, Egg and Cheese 530 41 1120
Arby’s
Best: Light Roast Beef Deluxe 230 5 870
Worst: Roast Beef, Giant 550 28 1560
Best: Baked Potato, Plain 240 2 58
Worst: Baked Potato, Deluxe 610 31 860
Best: Chicken Grilled Sandwich 280 5 920
Worst: Chicken Cordon Bleu 650 34 2120
McDonald’s
Best: Hamburger 270 9 600
Worst: Big Xtra with Cheese 810 55 1870
Best: Grilled Chicken Sandwich 340 7 890
Worst: Crispy Chicken 550 27 1180
Best: Muffin, Fat-free Apple Bran 300 3 380
Worst: Sausage Biscuit with egg 550 37 1160
Wendy’s
Best: Jr. Hamburger 270 10 610
Worst: Big Classic, Double with Cheese and Bacon 825 47 2070
Best: Grilled Chicken Sandwich 310 8 790
Worst: Chicken Club Sandwich 470 20 970
Best: Chili (8 oz.) 210 7 800
Worst: Biggie French Fries (6 oz.) 470 23 150
Taco Bell
Best: Grilled Chicken Burrito 390 13 1240
Worst: 7-layer Burrito 520 22 1270
Best: Taco Salad without shell 430 22 1990
Worst: Taco Salad with shell 850 52 2250
Best: Pintos ‘n Cheese with Red Sauce 180 8 640
Worst: Nachos Bellgrande 760 39 1300
KFC
Best: Honey Barbeque Chicken Sandwich 310 6 560
Worst: Triple Crunch Chicken Sandwich 490 29 710
Best: Original Recipe Thigh 250 18 747
Worst: Extra Tasty Crispy Thigh 380 27 625
Best: Mashed Potatoes and Gravy 120 6 440
Worst: Potato Wedges 280 13 750

Moderation

Let’s say your lifestyle demands eating whatever is immediately available, rather than planning a weekly indulgence. In cases like this, consistent moderation is a good technique. Nutritionist Victor Herbert notes that “a Big Mac contains all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients we need for health; but it also contains too much fat. Two Big Macs a week is health food, a Big Mac every day is junk food.”

There are two ways of moderating your junk food intake: You can limit the number of times a week you indulge; or you can clean up your choice of foods. For some, a small amount of real chocolate is more satisfying than a lot of low-fat chocolate. For others, more frequent—but healthier—junk proves an easier way to change. If you adjust the salt and fat content of your fast food meals, you can eat them more often. When you order fast food, get a hamburger a la carte rather than as a complete dinner and ask for it without mayonnaise. Try ordering smaller portions, skipping the fried items, and avoiding the extras. Steer clear of Quarter-Pounders and Double Whoppers. (For more tips, see the “Order It Your Way” box.)

The same principles apply to supermarket snacks. Either splurge and eat a fistful of cookies once a week or eat one cookie a day. Choose the approach that works best for you; either is better than no change at all. Listen to your appetite and use adjusted portions and ingredients—rather than denial—to moderate your diet.

Order It Your Way

As you can see from the best/worst lists, what you choose to eat can greatly affect the nutritional quality of your meal. Fast food chains are not required to disclose nutrition information, creating a problem for the health-conscious consumer. However, if you remember a few basic guidelines (fried foods are fat-filled; adding cheese adds extra fat) you’ll be ready to make some healthy choices. Because selections change so often, don’t hesitate to ask your favorite chain for nutritional information. Most fast food chains will provide it on request. Your overall objectives are to reduce fat, calories, and sodium, and add fiber. Here are some specific tactics to employ:
Avoid or cut back on condiments:
mayonnaise (2 tablespoons = 194 calories, 21 grams fat)
tartar sauce (134 calories, 14 grams fat, per serving)
cheese (Processed American, 92 calories, 7 grams fat, per serving)
salad dressing (2 ounces Olive Oil and Vinegar = 310 calories, 33 grams fat)
Choose grilled or broiled versions of foods, rather than fried alternatives (see “Choosing the Lesser Evil” box for comparisons).
Order plain burgers or cheeseburgers, rather than the “deluxe” versions.
To reduce sodium, cut down on pickles, mustard and ketchup.
When ordering pizza, get vegetable toppings and a thin crust.
Visit the salad bar for fiber; fill up on vegetables, fruit, and beans.
Go easy on processed meats like bacon, pepperoni, and sausage, which are high in fat and sodium.
Choose muffins, pancakes, and low-fat milk for breakfast foods, while avoiding biscuits (235 calories, 12 grams fat) and croissants (180 calories, 10 grams fat).
Supplement kids meals with milk.
Try the leaner beef versions of your favorite sandwich.
Choose smaller portions of food or reduce servings by one-third.
Remove skin from fried chicken (a major reservoir of fat) and fill out your meal with corn on the cob, mashed potato, and salad.
Order grain versions of bread whenever available.
Use baked potatoes as a side dish without elaborate toppings.
Reduce calories by choosing juice or low- fat milk instead of soft drinks (8-10 teaspoons of sugar per 12 ounce can) or milk shakes (10 ounces = 300-400 calories).

 

Compensation

If you are not the moderating type and can’t imagine limiting yourself to only 500 empty calories a week, try compensating. The 500 calorie limit is meant for those who don’t get regular exercise. If you’re physically active, you can afford more calories. If you really, really love these empty calories, adopt an exercise program that will burn them up, make sure the rest of your diet is extra healthy, and go to it!

Overall healthy eating in itself can serve to compensate for empty calories. According to dietician Weiss, “If you are eating a healthy diet, you can probably afford to eat 1,000 empty calories a week.” Some nutritionists suggest 80 percent healthy food, 20 percent empty calories as a formula for compensation.

Try picking up an order of fries at McDonald’s and eating it at home with a low-fat meal. People who are conscious of their diet and eat nutritionally rich foods, can feel secure with an occasional indulgence. These “safety valves” may help you stick with an overall low-fat diet without feeling unfairly denied.

Substitution

It is amazing how many empty calories you can save with simple substitutions. For example, a piece of angel food cake with strawberries is a healthy 150 calories, compared to a slice of strawberry shortcake (with whipped cream), which weighs in at 400 calories.

For some people, favorite snacks are a problem that even 1,000 empty calories a week can’t satisfy. In such situations, substitution can be an important dietary aide. Everyday more products are being created to satisfy common cravings with less calories, fat, and sodium. If you live for ice cream, find a low-fat variety that your taste buds enjoy. If salty snacks are your downfall, switch from high-fat nuts to low-fat pretzels. Check the “Healthier Snacks” list shown earlier. Read nutrition labels, choose well, and always be prepared with a satisfactory substitute. Keep in mind though, that switching to these products only cuts down on dietary offenders; it doesn’t necessarily increase your intake of valuable nutrients and fiber.

Finding Fiber In Fast Food

Try beans. Fried-chicken chains may serve baked beans; Wendy’s serves chili with beans, and Mexican chains serve refried beans. Salad bars often offer kidney and garbanzo beans.
Eat the skin of your baked potato. (It’s high in vitamins, too.)
Look for whole-grain breads. Subway and Wendy’s offer wheat products. Although a small percentage is actually whole-grain, this is still a better choice.
Fill up with fruits and vegetables from the salad bar.

 

Junk and the Kids

Kids like junk food; and they do require extra calories between meals. Nutritionists feel that because children and teenagers expend a tremendous amount of energy, they often can safely indulge in some junk food, as long as it doesn’t push nutritious food out of their diets.

On the other hand, a steady intake of fatty foods from childhood to adulthood greatly increases the risk of serious diseases. The key to dealing with this dilemma is to return to the notion that some foods should be reserved as “treats” and to teach children that these foods are to be eaten only occasionally, along with a large variety of choices from five basic food groups. When teaching children about food decisions, explain your reasoning, and try to set a good example. If older children rebel against parental eating habits, don’t fret; eventually most will return to the patterns they acquired at home.

Set standards for kids that allow them the extra calories they need without turning treat foods into staples. Some parents keep only healthful foods in the house, but allow sweets at restaurants, birthday parties, or movies. Nutritionists say that growing children shouldn’t eat more than one fast food meal a week. And one night a week will satisfy most children’s demands while reinforcing the idea that this type of food is a treat.

At the community level, you can request that schools and recreation centers upgrade their menus and change the snacks offered in vending machines. A 1993 American Academy of Pediatrics study offered a low-fat meal as one of two daily lunch choices in 16 elementary schools and found, “With this intervention the fat content of the average lunch selected by students dropped from 36 percent to 30 percent calories from fat.” This strategy is especially effective because it simply changes the kids’ available choices instead of attempting to change their attitudes about low-fat foods. Changes like these in the outside world can encourage better eating without increasing tension between parents and children.

Coming Soon to a Restaurant Near You: Vegetarian Fast Food

Keep your eye out for more alternative fast food; the vegetarian fast food industry is quickly expanding. Machessmo Mouse is a fast food chain on the west coast known for its healthy burritos, tacos, and salads. Dharma serves vegetarian fast food in California, with double-decker vegetarian sandwiches, beans, and frozen yogurt. (Be on the alert for added cheese in vegetarian food; it significantly raises the fat content. Watch out for fat-laden avocado, too.)

The invention of the Gardenburger made vegetarian fast food a reality. Gardenburgers are made of mushrooms, onions, and rolled oats. They’re shaped like hamburgers, but pack one-third the calories. Ingredients vary according to brand name. Now health food stores carry Gardentaco, Gardensausage, and Gardensteak, all with less than half the fat of the real thing.

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