By Brenna Topham, RDN, LD
Yes, it’s true. *whispers* Me, a registered dietitian, ate fast food. EVERY SINGLE DAY last week. And it was a really good idea to do this.
Fast food gets a really, really bad rep. From Supersize me to Forks over Knives to Fed Up, to Instagramers, your aunt, your doctor, that one kid from 1st period in 8th grade- fast food has been demonized and slandered. Diet culture has made us believe that fast food causes a slew of health complications, and anyone who eats it is “asking for it” and deserves a heart attack.
Wow- that’s ALOT to put on fast food.
Let’s break it down. Focus just on the facts- no judgement, diet culture, or beliefs. What IS fast food?
-purchased from restaurants that prepare the food quickly
-usually has a drive through option
-food is prepared at a seperate cooking location and heated onsite as it is purchased (referred to as a commissary style food operation)
-has several categories of foods, including meals, snacks, and desserts
-meals include protein from meat and cheese, carbs from fries and buns and breading, and fat from cooking oils
Now let’s look at fast food from the lens of diet culture:
-fat makes you fat
-full of chemicals
-it’s better to not eat than eat fast food
Food is food.
Once more because I know most of you don’t believe me.
FOOD IS FOOD.
As a dietitian, I don’t care where your food comes from. I care that you eat a balance and variety of food. Last week, I was scheduled full of clients, meetings, and marketing events. I had no time to think about meal planning or prepping. I needed FUEL- and that’s exactly what fast food gave me. I could focus on getting to my next event, reflecting on sessions, bonding with my coworkers, and checking things off my to-do list. If my brain had been preoccupied with what I was going to eat or distracted by hunger, I would not have had a successful week.
“But fast food isn’t balanced! It’s so full of *insert this week’s feared nutrient here*!!” -diet culture
Well, let’s look at the facts. When I work with my clients, I encourage them to have grains, protein, fat, and produce at each meal. Let's break down what's in a Big Mac from the infamous McDonald's.
Big Mac Ingredients:
Big Mac Bun
Ingredients: Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, Sugar, Yeast, Soybean Oil, Contains 2% or Less: Salt, Wheat Gluten, Sesame Seeds, Potato Flour, May Contain One or More Dough Conditioners (DATEM, Ascorbic Acid, Mono and Diglycerides, Enzymes), Vinegar.
100% Beef Patty
Ingredients: 100% Pure USDA Inspected Beef; No Fillers, No Extenders.
Prepared with Grill Seasoning (Salt, Black Pepper).
Big Mac Sauce
Ingredients: Soybean Oil, Sweet Relish (Diced Pickles, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Distilled Vinegar, Salt, Corn Syrup, Xanthan Gum, Calcium Chloride, Spice Extractives), Water, Egg Yolks, Distilled Vinegar, Spices, Onion Powder, Salt, Propylene Glycol Alginate, Garlic Powder, Vegetable Protein (Hydrolyzed Corn, Soy and Wheat), Sugar, Caramel Color, Turmeric, Extractives of Paprika, Soy Lecithin.
Pasteurized Process American Cheese
Ingredients: Milk, Cream, Water, Sodium Citrate, Salt, Cheese Cultures, Citric Acid, Enzymes, Soy Lecithin, Color Added.
Ingredients: Cucumbers, Water, Distilled Vinegar, Salt, Calcium Chloride, Alum, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), Natural Flavors, Polysorbate 80, Extractives of Turmeric (Color).
Would it fit my meal guide of carbs, fat, protein, vegetable?
Yep! The bun is carbs, protein from the meat and cheese, fat from the sauce, and produce is onion and lettuce.
“BuT BrEnNa ThE cHeMiCaLs” diet culture screams.
Demystifying ingredient labels is so important when making peace with food. Big food companies aren’t trying to kill you. You can’t buy their food if you’re dead :) What they ARE trying to do is make the food delicious and stable to be transported from the commissary kitchen to the restaurant without spoilage.
Here are some ingredients from the Big Mac that look scary without education:
Niacin- B vitamin. Just like the ones found it supplemented protein powers, pills, and trendy elixirs
Thiamine Mononitrate- B vitamin molecule attached to nitrogen atom, so it doesn’t react with the food and causes a weird taste.
Riboflavin- B vitamin
Folic Acid- B vitamin
DATEM- strengthens the structure of bread, so it doesn’t crumble. It stands for diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides. While that sounds scary, it means it’s made from oil that has been reduced to acid.
Ascorbic Acid- vitamin C
Mono and Diglycerides- a type of fat. It helps the liquid ingredients bind to the solid ingredients
Enzymes- breaks down the gluten so the bread is softer. Found naturally in our own stomachs!
Xanthan Gum- a thickener derived from the fermentation process
Calcium Chloride- a salt
Spice Extractives- the same thing as essential oils, but in solid form
Propylene glycol alginate- made from kelp, a thickener
Hydrolyzed corn oil- oil from corn with added hydrogen to prevent spoilage
Caramel color- made by nearly-burning sugar, gives food a brown-like color that otherwise would be pale
Sodium Citrate-sodium atom with citric acid, which is found naturally in citrus
Soy lecithin- a thickener from soy
Alum- aluminum and potassium. A very small amount is used in pickled foods to maintain crispness.
Potassium Sorbate- potassium atom plus sorbic acid, which is derived from fruit
Natural flavors- refers to any flavor component that is derived from food
Polysorbate 80- an oil made from vegetables
It’s easy to get caught up in fear mongering about food additives. In reality, they are safe to eat and come from things that are already food! It’s a myth that food additives or preservation methods destroy vitamins and minerals. In fact, they are often more bioavailable after processing! I’m glad that food freedom let me focus on my busy week instead of following food rules. In our hectic schedules, fast food keeps us fueled and present in our lives. Balance, variety and mindfulness is the key. Of course, fast food itself isn’t a complete balanced nutrition. You would likely get bored with it if you had it everyday long term. Maybe you’ll even crave a home cooked meal!
This is exactly what’s meant by all foods fit- you are allowed to have every food, because every food will fit into a nutrient category. It’s not poison, or shame, or bad, or lazy- it’s just food.