Fast Food Facts

The news is not all bad. Reader’s Digest rates the best and the worst.

I’m no different from other health-conscious Canadians; for the most part, I maintain a healthy diet and I exercise a couple of times a week. But give me an excuse to eat fast food and I’ll take it. There’s something about a nice cheesy slice of pepperoni pizza or a bacon cheeseburger. “Would you like fries with that?” Oh, all right, then.

Chances are you know what I’m talking about. After all, Canada’s quick-service restaurant sector rang up $12.3 billion in 2003, and 2004 is expected to be even higher. That’s a lot of cheeseburgers—and a testament to how much there is to love about fast food: It’s cheap, convenient and often indulgently delicious.

Yet we know there’s a steep price to pay for this love affair. These foods are often sky-high in calories, saturated fat and sodium that can make us fatter, clog our arteries and send our blood pressure soaring. “Eating fast food used to be a treat; now it’s the norm,” says Sharon Zeiler of the Canadian Diabetes Association. “Its popularity is one of the reasons why obesity rates are high.”

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, in 2000 more than 47 percent of Canadian adults exceeded a healthy weight. The adult obesity rate almost tripled between 1985 and 2001, to about 15 percent. What does that mean for life expectancies? A man who’s obese at age 40 will live nearly six fewer years; an obese woman will lose seven years.

Of course, avoiding fast-food-related health problems comes down to moderation. And a Big Mac, large fries and large sugary pop aren’t going to help: That’s 1,450 calories, 58 grams of fat (24 of which are saturated) and 1,970 milligrams of sodium. What does that mean to your health? Check the recommendations for healthy calorie and fat consumption in the box on page 62, “Key Ingredients.”

Granted, in recent years just about all the quick-service restaurant chains have added salads to their menus, and those are among your healthier choices. But what about the rest of the menu? In this world of monster burgers and stuffed-crust pizzas with dipping sauce, you need to sort out the good from the bad and the truly ugly.

“Eating fast food is not necessarily a bad thing,” says Melodie Yong, a registered dietitian with the Healthy Heart program at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. “But take your time when deciding what to order.” Yong advises that if you must satisfy your cravings with the biggest burger on the menu, think first: If you’ve had fast food a couple of times in the past week, go for healthier items and smaller portions—and skip the fries or pop. It’s all about setting limits for yourself.

To help you make informed choices, we’ve looked at ten quick-service chains across Canada, most with locations in all regions, and red-flagged some of the worst menu items for your waistline. Since not everyone wants burgers, we checked out a variety of offerings and came up with ten caloric gut busters overflowing with fat and sodium. Then we’ve suggested some better choices. So a drumroll, please, for ten of the fattest:

Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese
740 calories, 44 g fat (21 saturated), 1,300 mg sodium


The recommended maximum daily calories for moderately active women maintaining a healthy weight is about 2,000; for men, it’s 2,500. “Of course, that depends on a person’s metabolism and physical-activity level,” Sharon Zeiler of the Canadian Diabetes Association points out. The maximum fat grams most women should consume is 65 per day; men, 85 grams. Saturated and trans fats should total less than 20 grams (based on a 2,000-calorie diet). As for hypertension-related sodium, Health Canada says 1,500 milligrams per day is about right for adults.

This behemoth isn’t the worst of our bunch for calories, but it’s tops for fat content—the bulk of a day’s worth for a woman. An order of ten White Meat Chicken McNuggets, although lighter on saturated fat, isn’t much better overall (530 calories, 33 grams of fat, eight saturated, 1,090 milligrams of sodium).

Better: Give yourself a break and switch to a Quarter Pounder with no cheese and subtract a whopping 25 grams of fat. It has 420 calories, 19 grams of fat (eight saturated) and 620 milligrams of sodium. Or go for one of the restaurant’s new Toasted Deli Sandwiches—keeping in mind, however, that they are high in sodium.

Even Better: If you must have a burger, the basic hamburger is a good choice (250 calories, eight grams of fat, three saturated, 520 milligrams of sodium). But some will find the Whole Wheat Chicken McGrill with barbecue sauce to be the tastier selection (300 calories, four grams of fat, one saturated, 1,120 milligrams of sodium).

Pizza Hut
Pepperoni Lover’s Personal Pan Pizza
800 calories, 39 g fat (16 saturated), 1,830 mg sodium

For this pizza craving you pay a high price. It can pack on the pounds with a good part of a day’s worth of saturated fat. And check out that sodium tally!

Better: If you can’t do without pepperoni, go for the Pepperoni Only Personal Pan Pizza and save 155 calories and 13 grams of fat (645 calories, 26 grams of fat, ten saturated, 1,305 milligrams of sodium). Or share a large Oven-Baked Crust Pizza: Pepperoni Only with friends. Two slices come in at 446 calories, 17.2 grams of fat (eight saturated) and 1,268 milligrams of sodium.

Best: Switch to the Veggie Lover’s Oven-Baked Crust Pizza. Not only does it have more wholesome toppings, but you’ll also save on calories, sodium and almost half the fat. (Two slices: 356 calories, nine grams of fat, 4.4 saturated, 908 milligrams of sodium).

The Big Harv with Cheese
710 calories, 37 g fat (17.4 saturated), 1,211 mg sodium


Those irresistible extras can really pile on the pounds. A medium Frosty at Wendy’s adds 430 calories and 11 grams of fat to your meal. Harvey’s Apple Turnover comes in at 243 calories and 15 grams of fat. “Just remember, in order to burn 100 calories you need to walk about 1-1ž2 kilometres,” says Yong.

Wow! This giant meat-stuffed sandwich is frightening enough without adding a regular-sized order of fries (382 calories, 20 grams of fat) or, worse still, a poutine (700 calories, 40 grams of fat). “Not even an athlete in training needs to eat that burger,” says Yong, “especially since half the calories come from fat.” A healthy diet should have no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. No more than ten percent of calories should come from saturated and trans fats.

Better: Order the Original Hamburger and save some 350 calories and 19 grams of fat (357 calories, 18 grams of fat, seven saturated, 1,000 milligrams of sodium). The nice thing about Harvey’s is that the burgers are flame broiled and get built in front of you, so it’s easy to opt out of calorie-laden spreads like mayonnaise.

Even Better: Harvey’s Veggieburger is the best fast-food veggie burger I’ve ever tasted. At 331 calories and just 9.2 grams of fat (2.5 saturated), you can afford to get it with cheese.

Tim Hortons
Southern Country Raspberry Biscuit
490 calories, 20 g fat (5 saturated), 1,051 mg sodium

Nothing goes with coffee like a sweet treat, but with one fifth of even a man’s calorie quota and almost a quarter of his fat allowance, this biscuit’s more than a snack.

Better: If you must have some-thing with that java, a doughnut—while not exactly good for you—isn’t the worst choice. Doughnuts at the “healthier” end (e.g., Maple or Chocolate Dip) have around 200 calories, six grams of fat (1.5 saturated) and 230 milligrams of sodium. The more decadent doughnuts (e.g., Blueberry Fritter, Walnut Crunch) have up to 350 calories and more fat and sodium. The cookies have fewer calories (150 to 170 apiece), but about the same amount of fat as the less-decadent doughnuts.

Best: Low-fat muffins are best if you’re counting fat grams, though they do pack more calories than most doughnuts. But when it comes to snacks, suggests Yong, it’s best to keep fruit, vegetables, low-fat yogurt or granola bars with you for your coffee breaks. “Snacking is okay if it’s a healthy choice,” she says. “Try to think of a doughnut as a treat, not a habit.”

Chicken Twister
627 calories, 34 g fat (7 saturated), 1,529 mg sodium

Eat this baby and you’ll have to twist yourself into your trousers. Chicken is lower in saturated fat than beef, but this sandwich’s breaded, fried chicken strips and pepper mayonnaise have more than half a woman’s daily fat quota (and more than 100 percent of the sodium). “If you really must cave in, fine,” Yong says. “But you’ll have to make up for it the rest of the day.”

Better: Can’t resist the Twist? Try the Grilled Chicken Twister (421 calories, 21 grams of fat, 4.1 saturated, 1,121 milligrams of sodium).

Best: “There aren’t a lot of healthy menu choices here,” Yong says. “If you have fried chicken, take the breading off.” (Original Recipe chicken breast, skin removed: 153 calories, four grams of fat, one saturated, 340 milligrams of sodium.) Add a side of coleslaw for 150 calories, eight grams of fat (one saturated) and 213 milligrams of sodium.

Big Bacon Classic
580 calories, 29 g fat (12 saturated), 1,330 mg sodium

Related Links

The following links are for informational and educational use only. Reader's Digest does not endorse or guarantee any information contained therein.

It sounds simple: a quarter-pound patty of beef on a kaiser topped with cheese, bacon and condiments. But it’s around a quarter of your daily caloric intake. “Be careful of toppings,” warns Yong. “Bacon, cheese, mayo—even the light mayo on this burger—add to the calorie and fat tally. When tempted by toppings, ask for extra tomatoes.”

Better: The Classic Single with everything—almost the same as the Big Bacon Classic sans the bacon and cheese—shaves 170 calories and ten grams of fat (410 calories, 19 grams of fat, seven saturated, 880 milligrams of sodium). Or go for the Ultimate Chicken Grill sandwich and subtract another 60 calories and 12 grams of fat (350 calories, seven grams of fat, 1.5 saturated, 1,030 milligrams of sodium).

Best: How about a bowl of chili—no cheese? The large has just 300 calories and three grams of saturated fat. “Chili is a satisfying meal,” says Yong. “And because you eat it with a spoon, it takes longer to finish, so you won’t need extras. If you do get a side order, try the baked potato. Careful with the sour cream and cheese.”

Swiss Chalet
Messy Chicken Sandwich
1,007 calories, 41 g fat (10 saturated), 1,320 mg sodium

This’ll make a mess all right—of your diet. For this gravy-covered colossus that weighs in at more than half a kilogram, you’ll need a knife, a fork and plenty of napkins. This one wins for most calories of all the items in this article: about half a day’s quota for a woman.

Better: Rotisserie Chicken. The classic 1ž4 White Chicken, surprisingly low-cal Chalet dipping sauce and a baked potato add up to 677 calories, 22.5 grams of fat (4.2 saturated) and 764 milligrams of sodium. Skip the sauce and save most of the sodium; remove the skin and you get 14 grams less fat. (One quarter White Chicken, with skin: 381 calories, 22 grams of fat, four saturated, 175 milligrams of sodium. Sauce: 24 calories, 0.5 grams of fat, 0.2 saturated, 570 milligrams of sodium. Baked Potato: 272 calories, traces of fats, 19 milligrams of sodium.)

Best: Chicken on a Kaiser (434 calories, nine grams of fat, three saturated, 410 milligrams of sodium). And why not add some dipping sauce? Just make sure you can afford the sodium.

Boston Pizza
Bacon Double Cheeseburger Pizza
Two large slices: 700 calories, 30 g fat (saturated fat information is not offered by the restaurant), 1,300 mg sodium

More like a Double Disaster. Just two slices piled high with ground beef, bacon, onions and double cheese will saddle you with one third of a man’s daily fat quota and more than a
third of a woman’s calorie allowance.

Better: The Hawaiian will satisfy your craving for meat without the high-rise fat and calorie counts. Two large slices have 440 calories, ten grams of fat and 980 milligrams of sodium. “Toppings like ham, chicken or shrimp are better than bacon, ground beef, pepperoni or sausage,” says Yong. “Leaner meat truly makes a difference to your health. And when it comes to crust, thinner is better.”

Best: The tasty Californian, with zucchini, onions, sun-dried tomatoes and parmesan, is the healthiest choice. (Two large slices: 360 calories, five grams of fat, 700 milligrams of sodium.)

12-Inch Meatball Marinara Sub
1,000 calories, 44 g fat (20 saturated), 2,580 mg sodium

There are a lot of reasons not to have this—look at the stunning fat content—but if you do, watch your blood pressure because this meatball-stuffed Bismarck is the winner for sodium count at close to twice the recommended daily intake. “People are tempted by the value of getting twice the sandwich without paying twice the price of a six-inch,” says Yong.
“But if you get a large sub, go for a healthier choice and save half for tomorrow.”

Better: If you can’t resist meatball subs, stick with the six inch and halve the price your body pays.

Best: Few chains offer as many healthy choices as Subway; there are too many to list. Just eat a sandwich with six grams of fat or less (they’re all marked on the menu), skip the cheese and mayo, but pile on those vegetables! (Six-inch Savoury Turkey Breast: 280 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 1.5 saturated, 960 milligrams of sodium.)

Burger King
BK Big Fish Sandwich
685 calories, 33 g fat (28 saturated), 1,299 mg sodium

Normally fish is a healthy choice. But when you bread it, fry it and slather it with tartar sauce, beware—this has more saturated fat than any other item in this article. “It’s like a sponge for fat,” says Yong. “Some of the burgers are a better choice here, especially because they’re flame broiled.” It’s true: Order a Whopper Junior—no cheese—and you’ll pare 350 calories and 19 grams of fat.

Better: The Chicken Whopper (554 calories, 21 grams of fat, 14 saturated, 652 milligrams of sodium).

Even Better: BK Veggie Sandwich. “I’m not a vegetarian, but I love this burger,” says Yong. “It definitely wins for taste. And if you give in to your craving for fries, it won’t be as big of a deal.” (BK Veggie Sandwich: 335 calories, 15 grams of fat, eight saturated, 792