- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

One of Chevy Chase dietitian Tracy Gensler's clients, besotted with Big Macs and other salty treats, describes fast food as having "hyperflavor."
"Nothing else tastes like fast food," Ms. Gensler says.
Nothing else packs on the pounds like it, either, dietitians say.
Fast-food staples such as hamburgers, french fries and gooey desserts have unwanted calories, fat and sodium stuffed into their brightly colored wrappers. It doesn't have to be that way.
Burger joints and their ilk have responded to a more health-conscious society in recent years with leaner fare. Witness Burger King's introduction of its BK Veggie Burger last month.
Diners can order salads, baked potatoes and grilled chicken sandwiches, some of which weren't on their restaurants' original menus.
Ms. Gensler says a steady diet of fast food impedes digestion because it lacks fiber. It also makes people feel sluggish and increases the risk of cardiac disease.
"You're not going to meet your nutritional needs by eating there regularly," she says.

That doesn't prevent us from having it our way again and again.
According to the book "Fast Food Nation," an expose of the fast-food industry by Atlantic Monthly correspondent Eric Schlosser, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food in 1970. Those numbers ballooned to more than $110 billion in 2000 more than we spent on books, movies, magazines, newspapers, videos and music combined.
Some of those dollars, though, are going to healthier menu items.
Burger King introduced a new Chicken Whopper yesterday, a flame-broiled chicken breast smothered in reduced-fat mayonnaise that arrived on the heels of the chain's vegetarian burger.
Jeff Bonasia, Burger King's senior director of product marketing, says customer surveys revealed that 41 percent of Burger King's "heavy users," the beef eaters, wanted a vegetarian burger on their menu.
"We're not necessarily going out to appeal to people who are strict vegans or vegetarians," Mr. Bonasia says. "It's meant to provide more choice and variety for the people who love burgers."
When the BK Veggie Burger idea came up, Burger King officials envisioned it as anchoring a nutritious meal combination, possibly paired with a side salad and bottled water. That didn't register with customers, Mr. Bonasia says.
"Their reaction was, 'I'll get the Veggie Burger, and I'll have my fries.'" he says.
Another factor behind the BK Veggie Burger is what Mr. Bonasia calls the "veto voter." A group of four pals may want to visit Burger King, but the lone vegetarian in the group says the restaurant offers nothing for him or her.
Most fast-food chains supply customers with the nutritional content of their menu items, either through Web postings or hand-out guides. The information typically is accurate, Ms. Gensler says.
"I think that people tend to naturally be distrustful of labels and nutritional information, and they need not be," she says.
Burger King sends its products to a third-party laboratory for nutritional testing based on 100-gram samples, which it says is in line with federal regulations. Wendy's sends its food to Covance Labs in Wisconsin for nutritional tests.
Ms. Gensler applauds the expanding menus and offers up some suggestions on how to eat right on the road.
At McDonald's, Ms. Gensler recommends any salad, the Chicken McGrill sandwich sans dressing and the fruit-and-yogurt parfait without granola, if you're willing to absorb 280 calories.
Golden Arches customers would be wise to limit samplings of the chain's Big N' Tasty with cheese, crispy chicken and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.
Subway flaunts its health-conscious array of sandwiches, but consumers shouldn't be lulled into complacency.
"You have to know what they're putting on. They're always offering you cheese," Ms. Gensler says. "It takes it way out of that [healthy] category. You'll add five to seven grams of saturated fat per ounce," she says.
Ms. Gensler says diners shouldn't fear meat products, often thought of as having the bulk of the cholesterol and fat. Regular McDonald's hamburgers aren't nearly as unhealthy as the chain's Filet-O-Fish sandwich, a fried affair made worse with tartar sauce. Wendy's chili also isn't as bad as one might fear; the small version has 200 calories and just 6 grams of total fat.
There's little to sugarcoat about the ubiquitous french fries, no matter the fast-food restaurant.
"People can't think about fast food without thinking about french fries," Ms. Gensler says, noting their high fat content. "French fries fill no part of your daily requirement for nutrition."
If you can't resist them, order the small size, she suggests.

Fast-food restaurants may have fairly consistent menus, but items typically can be customized on request. Often, Ms. Gensler says, the delivery time of such meals is the same as with a standard order.
Today's consumers appreciate a flexible, heart-friendly menu, says Wendy's company spokesman Bob Bertini. The burger chain just went nationwide with four new entree salads after successfully test-marketing them last year in five cities.
The Garden Sensations salad lineup offers "ingredients that consumers are not used to seeing [in a fast food restaurant]," Mr. Bertini says, from Mandarin Chicken Salad to crispy rice noodles and roasted almonds. Condiments are included separately.
"The whole approach now is not as much on strict diet regimes … it's more now about balance and choices," he says.
For too many, those choices involve super-, mega- or ultrasizing the meal in question, says Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian in New York and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. Portion sizes run amok means yesterday's 650-calorie burger dinner is today's 1,800-calorie model. "For an adult, you've shot your day's caloric intake," Mr. Ayoob says.
Supersized meals also contain excess fat, salt and sugar, the three main items people crave. The chains "know exactly what they're doing," Mr. Ayoob says.
Too much fast food leaves diners susceptible to weight gain and all its risks, including diabetes and high blood pressure, not to mention the strain on the heart. Plus, fast food tends to offer small amounts of fruit, vegetables and fiber, three components that counteract obesity and other health woes.
Mr. Ayoob says Americans won't stop eating fast food, but if they eat it wisely, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. "Go eat it, but eat smart," he says. "Find the food there you like the most and have it in a more modest portion.
"As long as your weight is being maintained and you eat a low-fat, balanced diet," he says, "an occasional journey into a fast-food restaurant should present no problem."


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