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CNN Today

Fast Food Can be Healthy

Aired January 15, 2001 - 4:42 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: In this country, people spend more than $100 billion a year at fast food chains. It's quick, of course, it's cheap -- well, usually it's quick -- but some say it's unhealthy.

CNN's Brian Palmer talks to the author of a new book about how fast food has changed both our diets and our lifestyles.


BRIAN PALMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): America is a fast food nation. For Eric Schlosser, author of a book called "Fast Food Nation," it's about more than burgers.

(on camera): What made you write this book?

ERIC SCHLOSSER, AUTHOR, "FAST FOOD NATION": Well, fast food seemed a good way of looking at the changes that have taken place in America over the last 30 years. And fast food affects how we eat, how we work and where we live.

PALMER (voice-over): One change: the standardization of our diet, so that burgers taste the same in Brooklyn as in Beijing, the chains use canned, frozen, or highly processed packaged foods from a handful of giant companies.

This processed-food diet, say medical experts, has too much fat and salt and too few nutrients.

DR. NEAL BANARD, COMMITTEE FOR RESPONSIBLE MEDICINE: We are eating more fatty foods than ever before, and it's going to spell not only weight problems, heart attacks, ever-increasing cancer rates. There's no sign that it's stopping.

PALMER: 27 percent of blacks, 21 percent of Latinos and 17 percent of whites are obese, says the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And as many as 15 percent of American children are seriously overweight.

SCHLOSSER: The fast food industry is spending billions of dollars a year marketing their food, and they're marketing very high- fat, unhealthy food to children.

PALMER: In a statement from the world's biggest fast food chain: "All of our menu items fit within a balanced diet. Individual choice continues to be the key, which is why McDonald's has, for many years, provided full nutritional information at all of our restaurants so our customers can make their choices based on the facts."

Fast food has its fans, who say it can be part of a healthy diet.

EDITH HOGAN, AMERICAN DIETETIC ASSOCIATION: Children love fast food; they like the convenience of it. If they have a fast food sandwich, make sure that they have a piece of fruit and a glass of milk with it.

PALMER: Schlosser says some chains are changing with the times.

SCHLOSSER: The market for fast food is so saturated right now that I think they're very vulnerable to their consumers' demands; and I think it's a very good thing, and there's a lot of potential for changing the menus and changing what they serve.

PALMER: Just as a changing society created fast food 50 years ago, today's culture may just be changing fast food.

Brian Palmer, CNN, New York.


CHEN: Now bear in mind, not all fast food is bad for you.

Joining us to talk about that and get some advice on how to eat right if you eat out is Kathleen Zelman, a dietitian with the American Dietetic Association.

Talk to us about this; I mean, one of the things from the spokesman from McDonald's was, look, it's a matter of individual choice, which, I think, is like saying it's your own fault if you eat the wrong stuff at the fast food place.

KATHLEEN ZELMAN, AMERICAN DIETETIC ASSOCIATION: Well, fast food can be healthy. And if you go once in a while and you visit occasionally, you can eat whatever you want and it's not going to really affect your diet.

However, lots of people frequent fast food restaurant...

CHEN: Every day about noon...

ZELMAN: ... and eat plenty of fat and calories by making poor choices.

But there are good choices out there and you can pick wisely and you can make some selections that are really much more healthful than others.

CHEN: So you were down in our atrium today and you picked out some healthy -- at least more healthful -- choices than less?

ZELMAN: Right; you can pick out a salad. Now, you can sabotage a salad by dumping ladles of high-calorie dressing on. In fact, the packets of dressing are quite large, so you don't have to use the entire packet. But go for a reduced-calorie dressing or a light dressing, and there you have a very healthful and filling and nutritious -- you're going to get fruits and vegetables and vitamins and minerals; it's quite healthy.

If you love burgers, go ahead and have your burger, but maybe as a side dish try a side salad instead of French fries.

CHEN: Kathleen, I don't know if I can explain this to you, but most of us, when we go to a fast food place, the French fries are a key to the whole deal.

ZELMAN: It's what you're smelling, that's what you want.

And like I said, if you do it occasionally, it's not a problem, Joie. But if you're doing it on a regular basis you have to realize that, basically, what you're getting there is a high-fat, high-sodium, high-calorie item.

So you have to look for some alternatives: a baked potato, a side chili, a side salad.

CHEN: We have a potato there -- what's all this?

ZELMAN: A wrap; wraps are very popular now. And if you choose a wrap that has a low -- lean meat or fish with lots of vegetables, no problem at all, just don't dump too much of the dressings on the side.

Fish items, grilled chicken sandwiches; but, now, once you start layering burgers or chicken...

CHEN: Which we have over here.

ZELMAN: ... with bacon and cheese and super sauces then...

CHEN: So the bacon and the cheese...

ZELMAN: Well, you can add lots of fat and calories. There is one sandwich out there that has 1,200 calories in one sandwich. I mean, that's an allotment for 3/4 of your daily calories, and most of your fat.

CHEN: One of the things we heard earlier in the report is it's a matter of the portions we eat.

ZELMAN: That's right, and our portions have gotten larger and larger.

CHEN: We super size.

ZELMAN: We super size everything. And while it seems like it's a real value to your pocketbook, it wreaks havoc on your hips because it might only cost you an extra few cents, but it sure packs on extra pounds.

We used to have drinks that were six ounces, eight ounces. Now we have 12-ounce drinks. Think of an eight-ounce soda as 100 calories; and there are some stores where you go in where you can get a 64-ounce soda; that's 800 calories just in the drink alone.

CHEN: Just in the drink?

ZELMAN: The French fries used to come in little-bitty packages -- 200 calories; not too bad. But now you can get super-duper large size, and it has three times the calories...

CHEN: So the diet trick is not actually going to help you if you eat the whole thing...

ZELMAN: No; why don't you think about some water? They all have water...

CHEN: Because it doesn't taste as good.

ZELMAN: Well, it's refreshing, and we don't get enough water to begin with.

Milk -- low-fat milk, 100 calories in a carton. That's the same as eight ounces of soda, yet there's calcium, vitamins, minerals -- most women, most kids don't get enough milk.

Or how about some juice? Choose a juice; there are so many more alternatives, and they're all there at these fast food restaurants. So you don't have to ruin your diet, you can eat healthfully.

CHEN: And the only other word I've heard is that the low-fat yogurt is on the good size of our...

ZELMAN: That's right, that's right. It's a yogurt parfait -- low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit -- great alternative.

CHEN: That is reassuring, anyway. Thanks very much, Kathleen Zelman from the American Dietetic Association here with us today.



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