Why isn’t there healthier fast food?

My blood pressure is too high.

Now, don’t worry. I wouldn’t want your own blood pressure to skyrocket in shock at the potential loss of these delightful columns of mine. My readings aren’t so high that I’m highly likely to drop dead tomorrow (I say, touching the plasticised wood of my desk), but they’re higher than they should be. And certainly high enough to do something about it.
Of course, there are reasons for it to be on the high side just now – it’s been an exciting week. I was already on the edge of my pew waiting to hear which septuagenarian, socially conservative man would become the new Pope, and then the excitement of a new Chief Minister of the NT in the same 24 hour period was almost too much to bear.

But I got multiple readings over the course of a few days, and the message from the doctor was clear: I need to make some changes. Lifestyle changes, he said – he didn’t want to prescribe medication, not ot when I’m relatively young, at least compared to the College of Cardinals. Do plenty of exercise, he told me, and watch what you eat, especially fat and salt.

Sure, I replied, that’ll be fine. And I vowed then and there to head to the gym at least every second day – a vow which I’ve been able to keep for 10 days now, which by my standards is an extremely long-term relationship.

But changing my diet is a challenge, and not just because I have minimal self-discipline and a devout love for the snacks. The problem is that I’m unable to cook for myself. And while it’s true that I don’t really know how, as I’ve admitted before, that’s not really what I’m referring to. I don’t have time.

Honestly – I don’t. Not just because of this high-paced modern life and all that, but because I generally work from around 2 or 3pm until 10. And this means that every evening, somewhere between five and six-thirty, I undertake a quest for dinner. A solitary but nevertheless heroic race against the clock to eat and get back to my desk within the space of about fifteen minutes. And even though there’s an abundance of food on offer, a cornucopia if you will, the problem is that pretty much all of it is junk.

I mean ‘junk food’ as in ‘fast food’, but also in the literal sense of stuff you could comfortably chuck away. We have a branch of just about every major fast food outlet around the corner from my work, and any one of them will gladly serve me up a hot meal quickly and reliably, at an inexpensive price. It’ll be tasty, at least superficially, and it’ll be filling. Too filling, in fact. And that’s the problem.

While the nation’s food courts are full of healthy options during weekday lunchtimes, trying to find a quick, nutritious meal at dinner time is harder than finding a scandal-free sporting code.

Take the most popular chain. Pretty much any meal deal at McDonald’s will use up around half of your daily kilojoule intake. The Big Mac alone will provide 44% of your daily intake of saturated fats (PDF link), 37% of your sodium intake and 24% of your energy intake. Add fries and a dessert or sugary drink, and you’ll be well on the way to blowing your daily budget for fat, salt and energy just in the one meal. Delicious!

I won’t go into too much more detail about the issues with Maccas’ menu, because Super Size Me already did that, but let me just say that it’s a hard place to eat well. As demonstrated by that poor McDonaldLand character Grimace, who has not only grown morbidly obese from a life of guzzling McDonald’s, but whose blood pressure is evidently so high that he’s turned purple.

Now, I accept that McDonald’s, KFC and the rest of them have their place. I understand that it’s food you should only eat occasionally. What I question is the fact that in our society, these foods are often the only easy food option. I’ve been to several country towns where literally the only late meal I could get after 10pm was McDriveThrough. And driving along any main road, you’ll find multiple outlets that are only too happy to fill your stomach, as well as your arteries.

No matter where you go in the developed or developing world, you can find a branch of McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. And at any one of those branches, you can find the same menu items and order the same food with the same reassuring taste. And it’s almost all terrible for you.

None of this is the fault of the fast food chains, to be fair. It’s our fault as the consumers who choose which businesses prosper and fail. And McDonald’s tried introducing a healthier menu with sandwiches and salads, and nobody bought them. What does it say about our society that the only food you can find just about anywhere in the world is incredibly bad for you? Since we’re supposed to eat good, healthy good most of the time, and dodgy junk food only some of the time, why is it only the bad stuff that’s on-sale everywhere?

Admittedly, there is one exception – Subway, where it’s perfectly possible to stay within dietary guidelines if you stick to things like ham instead of meatballs and can resist the melted cheese and cookies. But it gets boring to eat a ham sub every day – I’ve tried.

When I was young, I used to eat at McDonald’s all the time. I’m embarrassed to say that I used to choose it even when there were other, better options. That’s probably how I got into this whole blood-pressure/overweight mess in the first place. Nowadays, I’d genuinely prefer a salad, or a bit of fish, or a vege stir fry, or a bit of chicken, or indeed anything tasty and healthy.

(And okay, if I’m honest, I’d prefer a gourmet wagyu burger to all of those things. I’m trying to change.)

But there isn’t anywhere that wants to sell healthy takeaway foods to me. The alternatives don’t exist. And so the unhealthy fast food joints continue to prosper, even though in our increasingly gourmet society we all know that we can and must do better. It’s a vicious circle which is making our bodies literally circular.

We’re all working harder, and eating out more, and supposedly more conscious of our waistlines as they nevertheless continue to balloon. So why aren’t there dozens of chains selling soup, or steamed vegetables, or lean, grilled meat, or salad? Even some of the specialist salad chains – Sumo, I’m looking at you – tend to chuck brie and bacon and cream into their supposedly healthy sandwiches. Even Asian options like noodles and rice dishes tend to be high in carbs and loaded with oil. And don’t get me started on the coffee chains like Starbucks and Gloria Jeans, whose snackfood cabinets will burn through your recommended daily intake faster than Bob Hawke downs a yard glass.

The first person to create a genuinely healthy, tasty fast food chain will either get fabulously rich, if we humans are indeed capable of some modicum of dietary self-control, or do their money because we ultimately can’t resist unhealthy crap when given the option. (If the latter’s true, we’ll probably all die out anyway.) The fact that Subway is now the world’s largest fast food chain, by outlets if not by profitability, is encouraging. I just wish more entrepreneurs would be brave enough to put their money on the line to find out.

In the meantime, my only genuine option if I want to eat healthily and with a modicum of variety at dinnertime is to buy frozen, low-fat dinners and cook them in the work microwave. I’ve tried this before too, and it left me doing something that I didn’t believe was possible – appreciating airline food.

After weighing the options up carefully, I can reluctantly concede that Lean Cuisine and its ilk are marginally better than a premature coronary. But how I wish there was another option.

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