Which is better? Fast food or sit-down meals? You might be surprised. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
Which is better? Fast food or sit-down meals? You might be surprised. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

We admit it. Most of the items in a grocery store bewilder us. We have no idea what to do with them.

We also know beyond a shadow of a doubt there’s no Julia Child or Martha Stewart gene in our DNA profiles.

And while we don’t feel destined for the drive-thru, we do eat out. A lot.

So just what are the health implications for those of us who eat this way?

At least one study finds fast food is actually no worse for your health than full-service restaurant meals.

In fact, diners consume more sodium in sit-down restaurants than they do in fast-food joints.

Regular restaurant meals also scored the worst on cholesterol content, containing an average of 58 milligrams of extra cholesterol compared with home-cooked meals. Fast-food meals only contained an extra 10 milligrams of cholesterol, the researchers said.

This doesn’t mean fast food is good for us, said Jessica Corwin, MPH, RDN, dietitian and community nutrition educator for Spectrum Health Healthier Communities, “it just means that certain fast food items can be the lesser of two evils when compared to restaurant items.”

Excess sodium, in the form of salt, poses a risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Elevated cholesterol also hurts heart health.

To compare eating habits in different settings, the research team sifted through seven years of data collected by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Nearly 18,100 American adults were asked on two occasions to describe the meals they consumed in the preceding 24 hours.

If you’re watching your weight, eating at home wins out, hands down. The study found that on average, people who frequent fast-food places and full-service restaurants consumed nearly 200 additional calories compared to those who cook their meals at home.

An upside of dining in restaurants? The meals are actually healthier than fast-food meals or home-cooked meals when it comes to containing certain key vitamins (B6, vitamin E, vitamin K, copper and zinc), as well as potassium and omega-3 fatty acids.

“People do fuel up with more nutrient-packed meals at restaurants,” Corwin said. “But the added nutrition comes with more salt and cholesterol. That’s the downside.”

Food rules: An eater’s guide

Whether eating at home or out, choose fresh, seasonal, locally-grown, whole foods whenever possible, cooked from scratch. Granted, this isn’t always realistic for today’s hectic lives of dual working parents, Corwin acknowledges.

For days when we need to rely on ready-to-eat (or ready-to-heat) options, whether fast food, takeout or restaurant fare, here’s what she says to look for:

  • Foods or entrees that include fresh, steamed, baked, or grilled vegetables and lean meats
  • Fruits, vegetables, green salads with lean protein, and broth-based, beans or lentil soups.
  • Key words like grilled, fresh, baja, lean, baked, steamed
  • Size—choose the small option when available, or a kids meal for a smaller portion, with apple slices in place of the fries and a small milk or water rather than a soda or juice

“It’s tough to go wrong when you aim for the basics, with foods as close to the source as possible,” Corwin said. “A grilled chicken or bean-based salad with a balsamic/olive oil vinaigrette served on the side is a winner. I prefer an olive oil-based dressing over a low-fat or fat-free dressing as manufacturers tend to crank up the sugar as they remove the fat.”

Case in point? McDonald’s Newman’s Own low-fat sesame ginger dressing has more than 2 teaspoons of added sugars in a single 1.5 fluid ounce packet.

Finally, we should remember that ‘the customer is always right’ and speak up to ask for what we want, Corwin said.

“Ask for your burger to be served without the special sauce and cheese, choose a small chili over the large, or request that your chicken be grilled and your potato come without the extra salt, sour cream and butter,” she suggested.

If nothing else, she said, ask for the extras to be served on the side.

“That way you are the one in the driver’s seat, determining just how much will be added to your plate,” Corwin added.