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The two-week test: Fast food vs grocery food

Monday, April 28, 2008

Like most regular guys, the food pyramid in my mind consists of three-month-old Girl Scout cookies on the lower level, nacho cheese Doritos in the middle, and a nice big pizza balanced carefully on the peak.

After all, pizza is mankind's perfect food - you have your grains group in the crust, your veggie group in your tomato sauce, your meat protein group (I think) in the pepperoni, and your dairy group in the cheese. Throw a little Hawaiian pineapple on, and woo-hoo, you've got your fruits covered too.

Unfortunately, this diet tends to make one pyramid-shaped his ownself.

So, after receiving a lesson in nutrition from the experts at the ISU Extension office in Storm Lake recently, I decided to take on my own experiment in behavior modification.

Again, like a lot of guys, my work hours are endless enough that eating home-cooked meals is pretty much out of the question. Not to mention the fact that I'm not Martha Stewart here. My repertoire begins with mac and cheese and ends somewhere around Captain Crunch.

It seems the only opton is fast food restaurants. Or is it? I decided to find out.

The Experiment

For two weeks, I ate nothing but fast food dinners, keeping track of what I consumed and spent.

Then, for the next two weeks, I ate only dinners picked out from the grocery store aisles.

All meals were consumer on the fly while putting together the newspaper every night. Meal time was the same, physical activity levels about equal.

I wanted to see what the difference would be.

The Fast Food Weeks

I didn't want this to be a "Super Size Me" spectacle - I still have to fit into my jeans.

So I alternated my choices - one day a sub sandwich and salad at Subway or Quiznos with a vitamin water; the next a burger-type meal at someplace like Burger King or Hardees, with a soda.

The first thing I noticed is that after a few of these meals in a row, you really don't want to see another fried anything for a good long time. Why don't these places have more grilled choices, wheat buns, and so on?

And if it feels like a ton of lead sitting in your stomach, it is. My go-to meal in a rush, the Burger King Big Fish, checks in at a Moby Dick-like 710 calories, 340 calories from fat, 1200 mg of sodium and a heaping helping of cholesterol. Who knew? A 16-ounce Coke will add 200 calories. Don't even ask about fries - you don't want to know.

Keep in mind that a grown person's basic dietary need is only 2,000 calories for a full day. If you want to see how you are doing, try the handy fast food calculator that I used, free online at fastfoodnutrition.org.

Nutritional values here vary by choice and toppings, but looking through what information the restaurants have on hand, none seem likely to satisfy the minimum daily requirements of the FDA on a regular basis.

Cost, I notice, seems to vary by how "healthy" a meal is. Burger joint meals ran about $6 bucks, anything grilled a buck or so more, but a sub and salad meal is around $10. Over the course of two weeks, I averaged around $8.50 per meal and became physically addicted to chipole chicken chalupas, and am now in need of a serious 12-step program.

After two weeks, I hadn't gained much weight, just about a pound, but I didn't feel all that great, either. I seemed a bit bloated and my energy levels don't seem to last long.

Time for something else.

The Grocery Aisles

For the next two weeks, instead of stopping at a drive-up window, I force myself to go on down the highway to the grocery store to pick out my supper.

This is not my native territory, and in grazing the fruit and vegetable aisle, I feel strangely like John Denver living on pine cones and tree bark on a Rocky Mountain high.

My first impression is that if time is money - this is expensive. Roaming aisles, comparing nutrition labels, checking out. Frankly, it's tiresome. That's probably why they invented fast food drive-ups.

Second - if money is money, this is still expensive.

Granted, I am buying ready-to-eat and microwaveable stuff to suit my wicked lifestyle instead of potatoes in the peel by the boatload, but my grocery store meals actually cost me more, every time, than one of the burger joint specials.

One problem is that you can't go through one of those big stores without finding something you didn't come in knowing you need.

And when you are hungry, it's easy to overdue the size of item you choose. I notice that most things are packaged for two-six servings, not one - no doubt leading people to eat more than they think they are.

I also noticed that there's a real lack of ready-to-eat decent food. I'd like a nice loaded up salad or fruit salad for one, but all I can find is a $3.28 "organic fresh herb salad" that tastes like a cross between cactus and flu vomit.

Those microwave pizzas are handy - but 450 calories or more doesn't exactly make them a good choice.

After some experimentation, I settle on a meal, for example, of Campbell's Chunky microwave soup, a small bag of Baked Lays, an big orange, a blueberry oat muffin, a handful of heart-healthy almonds and a 16-ounce low-fat milk.

The damage? I figure 740 calories. (And the guy who decided a tiny tub of soup is TWO servings should be placed in a microwave himself.) Not a whole lot better than the fast food.

I didn't make a point of hunting for highest-nutrition or lowest-cal meals, and I didn't choke down anything made of tofu or looking like it would taste like lye soap and nightcrawlers. I still had guy stuff, but in general, my grocery meals did usually come out way ahead on nutrition as compared to the fast food. I think I could live on this without a multi-vitamin to have my back.

In terms of sheer volume, the grocery meals were at least equal and probably more ounces of food than the fast food.

Whether pychological or real, however, I have to say I felt better with the fresh food. A little spinach here or an apple there at least makes you think you are putting some effort into health.

With grocery foods replacing fried as a staple, I felt like I was getting more out of my meals during this period, and was less likely to toot at my coworkers, which they deeply appreciate.

In short, picking out groceries isn't necessarily a way to lighten up or to save money, but from my experiment, I conclude that it is a happier way to eat.

Which doesn't mean I won't succumb to fast food any more - just not ALL the time.

The results:

Editor's Diet Modification Experiment

2 weeks fast food 2 weeks fresh groceries

Ave. calories/meal 790 680

Average buy time 10 minutes 22 minutes

Ave. cost/meal $8.40 $10.20

Nutrition Awful to Fair Fair to Good

Weight gain/loss 1 lb. gain 1.5 lb. loss



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