Did you know that Australians eat takeaway or restaurant food an average of four times a week? With many fast food outlets now advertising healthy alternatives on their standard menu, dietitian Debbie Iles goes on a mission to find out just how easy it is to find ‘healthy’ fast food.
Best: Seared chicken tandoori wrap
Tick-approved, this meal meets the serving size, sodium, saturated fat and fibre requirements set by the Heart Foundation.
Other good choices: The Deli Choice chicken wraps are all Tick-approved. Or choose a simple hamburger (minus the cheese). Add a side salad and you’ll boost the fibre and nutrition content of your meal.
Worst: Double Quarter Pounder
This burger contains more than 1600mg sodium, which is a full day’s intake for an adult. It also contains more than 50g fat, half of which is saturated.
Too good to be true: Crispy chicken Caesar salad – a salad may sound like a healthy option, but not when it contributes a massive 1120mg sodium per serve!
Best: Whopper Junior
If you’re going to indulge in a burger, choosing this smaller portion size – which also has some salad in it – is a sensible option. Order it without cheese to keep the saturated fat and kilojoules down.
Other good choices: The Smart Pick kid’s value meal consists of a hamburger, water and a rice bar, which is a healthier side than fries. Alternatively, purchase a garden salad to go with your hamburger.
Worst: Ultimate Double Whopper
This is quite possibly Australia’s unhealthiest burger. Aside from the massive 5040kJ per burger, it also contains an unbelievable 80g of fat and nearly two days worth of sodium.
Too good to be true: Veggie burger – at nearly 3000kJ per serve, this burger is not for the weight-conscious. It also contains nearly 1600mg sodium and 40g fat.
Best: Original Recipe fillet burger
Sadly, this is really just the best of a bad bunch – but at least it’s an appropriate serving size, and has a relatively contained 4.5g serve of saturated fat. It also contains less sodium than many other menu items.
Other good choices: The chicken pieces can be a better choice – but only if you remove the skin and fried coating, we’re sorry to say! Alternatively, opt for a mixture of sides – including potato and gravy, coleslaw and a plain dinner roll.
Worst: Wicked Wings snack box
Despite the name, this definitely isn’t a ‘snack’ – at 2242kJ per serve, it’s a meal. Each serve also contains a giant 14.2g saturated fat – more than half your maximum recommended daily intake.
Too good to be true: Twister – looking at the picture, one would be excused for thinking that this salad-packed chicken wrap is the healthiest KFC option. Unfortunately, the creamy dressing and fried chicken filling turn this wrap into a hefty meal containing more than 10g saturated fat and 1200mg sodium per serve.
Best: Free range D’Lish burger
This low-fat, skin-free chicken breast on a low-GI sourdough bun also contains sweet onion relish, lettuce, tomato and avocado.
Other good choices: The skin-free chicken choices (such as the wraps and salads) from the ‘D’Lish’ range are a better health option – but avoid the bacon and cheese. Alternatively, try the Classic Roast with pumpkin, potato, peas and corn as sides – it’s better than most, as long as you remove the saturated-fat-laden chicken skin and skip the gravy.
Worst: Stuffits with chips and pineapple
The ‘stuffit’ (a chicken breast stuffed with a garlic cheese filling) is bad enough, but served with two deep-fried, battered pineapple rings and hot chips, you’re consuming your entire daily sodium and fat intake – and more than half your daily kilojoules!
Too good to be true: Fish fillet wrap – fish might seem like a healthy choice, but not when it is deep-fried in tempura batter with a generous serve of creamy tartare sauce.
Best: Single fillet Bondi burger
This burger is one of the lowest fat, kilojoule and sodium options on the menu.
Other good choices: The Fresco salad is better than most burgers, even with the dressing. But if you really want a burger, a single fillet burger is the best choice.
Worst: Triple fillet Bondi burger
It should come as no surprise that tripling the filling makes this burger triple the health hazard, especially with regards to its whopping 1500mg sodium.
Too good to be true: Veggie burger – layered with cheese, creamy sauce and a fried patty, this burger is almost as energy dense as the triple fillet Bondi burger, with a comparable saturated fat content. Don’t be deceived!
Corner store burger shop
Best: Steak and salad sandwich
You can do a lot worse than a good ol’ fashioned steak sandwich. Feel free to load it up with tomato, lettuce, beetroot and pineapple, but go easy on the sauce and save the egg, fried onions, cheese and hot chips for a special treat.
Other good choices: If you are lucky, sandwiches might be on the menu. Choose salads and lean meats as fillings. Grilled chicken burgers are also a good choice, as long as they are made with a skinless chicken breast fillet.
Worst: Dagwood dogs, chiko rolls, battered seafood sticks
Deep-fried foods of any description are best reserved for special occasions.
Too good to be true: Spinach roll – spinach is a highly nutritious food, but this vegetarian version of a sausage roll is high in both fat and sodium.
Best: 6-inch roasted chicken on honey oat or multigrain bread
It’s not the lowest in calories or sodium, but you can enjoy the flavour without adding any kilojoule-, fat- or sodium-laden sauces.
Other good choices: The other 6-inch subs on the low-fat menu are all good options – just choose lean meats, extra salad ingredients and the honey oat or multigrain bread. Go easy on the cheesy melts and creamy dressings.
Worst: 6-inch mega breakfast
This high-fat, high-energy breakfast sandwich also has 1440mg sodium – enough to take you right through to dinner for your daily intake.
Too good to be true: Turkey and ham salad with ranch dressing – like the menu says, this salad is low in fat… until you add the dressing!
Best: Penne pasta with roasted chicken, mushroom and vine-ripened tomato
A standard serve is less than 1700kJ, very low in fat, contains 20.6g protein and is a lower GI option.
Other good choices: Thin crust pizzas with lots of vegetables are another good option. If you like meat, choose chicken or seafood, instead of processed meat toppings, like salami and pepperoni. The Good Choice Range also features single-serve pizzas and an oven-baked turkey sandwich under 1700kJ.
Worst: 7 meats square puff pizza
Two slices serve up a whopping 1981kJ and 1262mg sodium, which is more than half the daily recommended allowance. Saturated and trans fat content is also too high to be healthy at 5.2g and 0.8g per slice, respectively. Too
Good to be true: Vegetarian oven-baked sandwich – a meat-free sandwich may seem a healthy option, but this one serves up a surprising 12g saturated fat. It’s also made on high-GI ciabatta bread, which may have you reaching for an afternoon pick-me-up.
Best: Marinara or napoletana pasta
Pasta is low in fat and has a lower GI than most bread and rice. Napoletana and marinara sauces are both traditionally tomato-based and lower in fat than other meat-, cream- or cheese-based sauces. Just be careful about portion size – consider ordering the entrée as a main, and don’t be afraid to ask for extra vegies!
Other good choices: Minestrone soup, chicken marsala served with vegetables or vegetarian pizzas to share.
Worst: Pasta alfredo
The cream sauce and absence of vegetables makes this an energy-dense, nutrient-poor dish.
Too good to be true: Antipasto – olives, artichokes and eggplant may seem healthy, but not when they are drenched in oil and salt. Salami, prosciutto and smoked ham are also high in saturated fat and sodium.
Best: Sushi and sashimi
Low in fat, served in small portions and with a variety of healthy fillings, including omega-3 rich fish. Seaweed is also a good source of fibre and iodine. But don’t drown your meal in soy sauce – just one teaspoon contains 370mg sodium.
Other good choices: Udon noodle soups, tataki beef, sukiyaki and teppanyaki grilled meats and vegies.
Worst: Anything tempura
Sadly, vegies and seafood lose their health benefits when they’re battered and deep-fried. Also, beware of thick, sugary and salty teriyaki and yakitori dipping sauces.
Too good to be true: Sushi Train – okay, so not technically a food, but Sushi Train can be a big health trap. In the blink of an eye, two plates have morphed into 10, and you consume enough calories to feed a soccer team.
Best: Thai beef salad
With fresh salad, lean beef and steamed noodles, this dish is low in fat, high in fibre and full of flavour.
Other good choices: Choose a stir-fry and ask for extra vegies. And if you choose tofu in your stir-fry, ask for fresh tofu (instead of deep-fried). Also, try a jungle curry – it’s a better option, as it doesn’t contain coconut milk.
Worst: Pad Thai
This noodle dish is incredibly energy-dense and far too high in sodium.
Too good to be true: Fish cakes – fish is usually a healthy option, but these are higher in fat and sodium than they are in fish. Order the satay chicken as your entrée instead – just ask the chef for a smaller serve of kilojoule-dense satay sauce.
Best: Steamed whole fish
Many Chinese dishes are very high in sodium – but steamed fish is an exception. Add steamed rice and pak choi (Chinese cabbage) for a nutritionally balanced option.
Other good choices: Stir-fried vegetables with prawns, chicken or beef. Steamed dumplings are also a good option, as is wonton soup or hot and sour soup.
Worst: Battered sweet and sour pork
High in fat, sugar and sodium, this dish is made using fatty pork meat that’s dipped in batter and fried. It’s best avoided.
Too good to be true: Chicken chow mein – noodles, vegies and chicken sounds healthy, but on closer inspection the noodles are the deep-fried variety, added vegies are minimal, the sauces can be high in sodium and fat and the chicken is usually a fattier, ‘brown’ cut.
On the side...
Edamame (salted soy beans). A predictable side would be a salad or steamed vegetables, but those are hard to eat on the run. Edamame are a popular Japanese side dish and if you pop them from their pods with your hands, rather than your mouth, you’ll drop some of the sodium.
Other good choices
Garden or grilled chicken salads are good options at burger outlets. Red Rooster offers sides of corn, peas, roast pumpkin and potato. There is also nothing wrong with a simple wholegrain or sourdough roll.
Onion rings and French fries. Steer clear of the deep-fried stuff! High in fat and sodium, both of these options should be avoided. A slightly lower fat alternative is chunky chips or wedges.
Too good to be true
Dressed salads. Dressings can be high in kilojoules and some salads contain generous serves of ingredients like feta which, while fine in small amounts, are still high in saturated fat and sodium. Keep salads simple and ask for your dressing on the side so that you can be in charge of your energy intake.
What’s the right portion size?
Takeaway foods are often high in calories – partly because they’re energy-dense, but also due to the serving size. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to control your portion size in regards to certain kinds of takeaway foods – hamburgers, for example – primarily because one hamburger is not typically meant to be shared. Other types of takeaway, however, such as Chinese, Thai or Japanese are a different matter.
Keep in mind that one typical rectangular takeaway container is not meant for one person, especially if it is a creamy dish, like curry. Including a scoop of steamed rice per person, one container of curry should serve two to three people
Slash your sodium
Without question, one of the biggest issues in choosing healthy takeaway is the sodium content. But there are ways to reduce your sodium levels.
When ordering Asian takeaway, opt for steamed rice over fried, fresh rice paper rolls, sushi and try to minimise the amount of stir-fry sauce you get with your meal. Improve pastas by skipping the parmesan and choose pizzas without olives, anchovies and processed meats. Many other takeaway foods can also be improved simply by skipping the condiments. This means skipping the soy sauce with sushi and saying no to sauces on burgers, kebabs and chips. Asking for no cheese on a hamburger also helps.
What should I choose at the petrol station?
It can be hard to eat well when you’re on the road – but petrol stations often stock a variety of household staples. Check the chiller section for tubs of yoghurt, cheese and cracker packs and chilled fresh fruit. Also look for single-serve breakfast cereals and low-fat milk. Steer clear of pies, sausage rolls, chocolate bars, sweet muffins and cakes.
Kids’ takeaway options
Sushi hand rolls or mini nori rolls. Sushi (without soy sauce) is not only a healthy low-sodium meal, but it’s easy for little hands to hold.
Other good choices
Everything we’ve recommended here for adults is also suitable for kids – simply ask for entrée size serves, an additional plate for sharing, or ask for their meal to be prepared in bite-sized pieces.
Hot dogs, mini pizzas and chicken nuggets. These should be seen as ‘occasional’ foods and reserved for special occasions.
Too good to be true
McDonald’s Happy Meals. There are some healthy options available in McDonald’s Happy Meals – the bag of apple pieces and the seared chicken wrap are both better choices – but that doesn’t mean everything on the kids’ menu is good for your children. Chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers and fries are all high in sodium and fat. Fruit fizz or juice is also recommended.
Best of the best takeaway
- Salad bar sandwich or wrap: Create your own culinary masterpiece with loads of salads, lean meat and avocado spread, instead of butter, on wholegrain bread.
- Japanese sushi rolls: Choose rolls that contain salmon, fresh tuna, vegies, tofu and avocado. Skip the fried chicken, beef and tempura prawn varieties.
- Fresh rice paper rolls: It’s pretty hard to go wrong with this choice. Fresh vermicelli noodles, salads, fresh herbs and prawns are the mainstay ingredients. They’re so good, you won’t need any dips!
- Subway salads or low-fat 6-inch subs: Ask for extra salads, lean meats and take the multigrain or honey oat bread option. Avoid the creamy dressings.
- McDonalds Tick-approved seared chicken wraps : As above, ask to double up on the salad in your wrap.
Despite the positive changes being made to many fast food outlets’ menus, most takeaway is, sadly, still not as healthy as it could be. In an ideal world, eating out would be reserved for special occasions – but a more realistic view would be to look at limiting takeaway food to about four times per week (including buying your lunch). Stick to salad, sandwich and sushi options where you can, and keep restaurant meals to a minimum as much as possible. Try to follow the 80/20 rule: 80% home-cooked dinners and 20% takeaway dinners. This way, you can enjoy the best of both worlds.
- Improve your takeaway health by sharing with a friend.
- If the nutritional information isn't available, don't be afraid to ask to see it.
- Ask about what's included – all ingredients might not be listed.
- Ask for sauces and dressings on the side, where you can.
- Blot pizza and fried foods to remove some of the visible oil.
- Many Asian sauces are sodium-ladem – use them minimally.
- Load up with extra salads on burgers and in sandwiches.