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FINDING A HEALTHFUL LUNCH ISN’T EASY, BUT FAST FOOD NEEDN’T BE FAT FOOD

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QUESTION: I'm really eating a lot better-quality food than I used to. However, I usually eat lunch at fast food restaurants. Is it possible to get a nutritious, low-fat meal at one of these places?

ANSWER: In my estimation, lunch is the most difficult meal of the day to find quality food that is not too high in fat. Breakfast is easy because you are usually home and there are many cereals that are easy to prepare and eat. With a little fruit and some skim or 1 percent milk, you can have a nutritious breakfast. Dinner is also easy. Most restaurants have a wide choice of low-fat foods to choose from on the dinner menu.Lunch is tough because we are usually in a hurry and the typical fast-food restaurant has not given much thought to healthful eating. An article in the "Newsletter" of the American Institute for Cancer Research (Summer 1990), discussed the changes occurring in the fast-food industry right now. Several of the nation's major fast-food restaurants were asked how consumers' interest in diet and health is affecting their menus. The following changes were mentioned:

- Hardee's. Hardee's now offers several choices that have less than 30 percent of calories from fat. Their grilled chicken sandwich, served on a multigrain bun with lettuce, tomato and reduced calorie mayonnaise, meets this criterion (26 percent). So does the chain's pancake platter and even the Cool Twist cones and sundaes. A new chicken and pasta salad, currently being test-marketed, has only 12 percent calories from fat.

- Burger King. Burger King is also test-marketing a new non-fried chicken sandwich, the BK Broiler, which comes on an oat bun with lettuce and ranch sauce. Although broiled, the percentage of fat is still high (above 40 percent) because of the sauce. However, you can "have it your way," and request the sandwich without the sauce and cut the fat considerably. Interestingly, holding the mayo on a Whopper cuts the fat content from more than 50 percent to around 30 percent.

- Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC is testing a new non-fried chicken called Char-Grilled Chicken. This entree is marinated and grilled on the bone, and should be available widely in the next two years.

- McDonald's. McDonald's is testing the appeal of low-fat yogurt and sorbet as fast-food dessert items. It has already introduced a low-fat French salad dressing and is testing reduced oil sauces for its Big Mac and Filet-O-Fish. At some restaurants, McDonald's is trying soups, fresh-fruit salads, cold cereals and bran muffins.

- Wendy's. Wendy's is also into the low-fat fare. The chain now offers a SuperBar - hot and cold buffet - which includes Mexican and Italian foods in addition to traditional salad items. Of course, as with all buffets or salad bars, it's up to you to choose the lower-fat items.

In addition, many fast-food restaurants have introduced vegetable oil for most or all frying, leaner meats and red meat alternatives, reduced sodium in certain foods and low-fat milk instead of whole milk. Some have nutrition information available to consumers on request. The bottom line for most restaurants is sales. If people don't buy the better-quality foods, they will drop them from the menu. So remember, if you want nutritious options in fast food, be sure to purchase them when you eat out.