Can Fast Food Ever Be Good for Your Heart?

assortment of fast food in boxes

As cardiologists, when we speak to a patient and find out that they eat a lot of fast food, the first reaction is often to shudder. After all, fast food is known to be highly processed, high in saturated fat, and often high in sugar, especially sodas and desserts, which are distinctly heart unfriendly. However, many patients either don’t have access to healthy and fresh foods or don’t have the time and use fast food to fill the gap during a very busy or stressful day.

In fact, for some, fast food is the only way to get a meal or two before getting off work and having a proper dinner. So, we’re often asked: Should we skip the meal instead of eating fast food? On the surface, it may be “absolutely, yes!” After all, how bad could skipping a meal be? However, it’s not quite so cut and dried. Skipping a meal can have consequences, most notably consuming far more calories at subsequent meals. Controlling yourself at the next meal isn’t easy if you miss a meal and become ravenous. Further, fast food restaurants (at least some of them) have made significant strides in recent years to offer healthier options and customize some current menu items to make them less unhealthy. Let’s explore!

While most fast-food items consist of fried and heavily processed meats and starches, there are ways to get around them and make your meal far healthier.

  • First, opt for the grilled version of the item if possible. This is especially true for chicken, as breaded and fried chicken contains oil and salt.
  • Ask them to hold the salt (sodium). Most fast-food restaurants add salt to virtually all their products. Some give diners the option to keep it off.
  • Eliminate sauces. While they may taste delicious, they add lots of calories and often a great deal of sugar and saturated fat.
  • Experiment by deconstructing the meal. All fast food restaurants have nutrition information on their website and in the store. See what parts of your meal you can live without. Can you eat a burger with only one-half of the bun? Can you leave off the cheese or mayonnaise? All these improvements make a fast-food meal less unhealthy.
  • Avoid splurging on fries or a soda just because you saved some calories on the entrée. It’s easy to overindulge on these extras thinking you’ve done so well with the sandwich. Keep up the discipline for the entire meal.
  • Be careful of soups and salads. While they immediately conjure up ideas of healthfulness, they often contain ingredients you don’t want to consume. In this case, simplicity is better. If you are up for a salad, stick to olive oil and vinegar and avoid creamy dressings. Most fast-food soups will not be as healthy as you think and are typically loaded with sodium.
  • Diet sodas are, surprisingly, not as healthy as you think. While they do not have calories, the artificial sweetener does increase your cravings for sweets. Recent research also points to the development of type two diabetes, even in those who drink diet drinks.
  • Stay hydrated. Even if you are rushed for a meal, drinking 8 to 16 ounces of water before leaving the office or the house never hurts. Doing so can help ensure that the hunger you’re feeling is not masquerading as dehydration.

Ultimately, we preach moderation regarding anything you eat, whether or not you have heart disease. By moderating, you can enjoy the foods and drinks you like the most without overindulging and causing long-term damage to your heart and other organs.

If you have questions about what you should and shouldn’t be eating and how to modify your lifestyle to accommodate those needs, we encourage you to discuss this with your cardiologist at your next appointment. Most importantly, remember that the basis of your cardiovascular health revolves around proper diet and exercise. Planning is key, and we encourage you, especially if you have very busy days, to meal plan over the weekend so that you are not tempted to overindulge.

Lastly, for many of us, cardiovascular disease will develop at some point in our lives, and we have the choice to see our heart specialist to develop a screening protocol that suits our risk factors. Screening for and ultimately catching heart disease early is the best way to prevent longer-term complications and arrest the worsening of any existing cardiovascular problems. We encourage you to meet with one of our cardiologists to understand your risk factors for heart disease and when you should begin screening.