Make fast food a smidge healthier: Swap out sugary drinks and fatty, salty sides

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Want to make fast food a little bit healthier? The key might be to make changes when you order a combination meal (like a burger, fries, and a drink), Harvard researchers suggest. Their study, published in the September 2019 American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that combo meals far exceed guidelines for healthy eating, typically providing twice the recommended amount per meal for calories and sodium. Scientists analyzed the nutritional information of combination meals at 34 fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, and found that the average combo meal as advertised had about 1,200 calories, 14 grams of saturated fat, 2,100 milligrams of salt, and 68 grams of sugar. Those numbers dropped dramatically when low-calorie options were substituted for high-calorie choices — for instance, removing topping or dipping sauces, ordering small fries instead of large, and replacing sugar-containing soda with a zero-calorie drink. In that case, the average combo meal had about 750 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat, 1,800 milligrams of salt, and 10 grams of sugar: a smidge healthier. Of course, a truly healthful diet involves generally avoiding fast food altogether. But if you're on the road with no alternatives, order healthier drinks and sides.

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