The Secret Fast-Food Diet

You can melt away flab without setting foot in a gym, sacrificing your favorite foods, or eating less. Sounds crazy, right? It’s not. The secret is knowing how to swap your favorite foods smartly. If you know that choosing one fast-food burger over another can save you dozens of pounds a year, or understood a simple ordering trick that could help your body melt belly flab, you'd make those smart choices every time, right? Well, you're about to discover them!

Erika BowenA few years ago I asked people to start following the simple "smart swap" eating principles from Eat This, Not That! A few months later the letters started pouring in, and they haven't stopped. Erika Bowen of Minneapolis, Minnesota (pictured right), told me she dropped 84 pounds—without dieting. “I feel like I’ve always wanted to feel,” she said. “Other people are finally seeing me the way I’ve always seen myself.” Once she discovered the truth about her food, she learned she could lose weight and never feel hungry.

The point is this: You can eat fast food and still get a flat belly. You just have to do it the right way. The costs of the wrong way? According to a 2005 study from the medical journal the Lancet, people who eat fast food more than twice a week carry 10 more pounds of body fat than those who eat fast food fewer than once a week. What’s more, fast food eaters have a higher rate of insulin resistance, which puts them at risk for diabetes.

So the risk is there. But fast food needn’t be a health threat, nor does it have to make you fat. You just have to develop a few healthy habits, the very best (and also easiest) of which I've outlined for you here:

Secret #1: Don't fall for combos
At every fast food restaurant, as soon as you decide on an entrée, expect to face some variation of this question: “Would you like to make it a combo meal?” Of course you’re tempted. This is the modern-day equivalent of supersizing, wherein you get an average of 55 percent more calories for 17 percent more money. It’s also the cheapest way for excess sugar, salt and lard to get you fat in a hurry. Just say no.

Secret #2: Chew it over
Just because it’s fast food doesn’t mean you should inhale it as quickly as possible. A 2009 study by Dutch researchers found that chewing each bite for 3 extra seconds could help you consume fewer calories overall. The reason? The extra chewing helps your brain register the food, and thus, helps you feel full quicker. (In my job overseeing Men's Health and Women's Health magazines, I discover the best new health and nutrition tips every day. You can too, if you follow me right here on Twitter.)

Secret #3: Beware the "health halo"
What’s the health halo? It’s the misguided assumption that meals served from “healthy” chains are always better for you than those served from unhealthy ones. Consider this: A study from the Journal of Consumer Research asked diners at Subway and McDonald’s to estimate the number of calories in their meals, and although both groups underestimated the actual amount, the Subway diners were off by a larger margin. The reason? When seduced by the promise of a healthy meal, diners tend to order more food.

Bonus Tip: For outrageous examples of foods that sound healthy but actually aren’t, click here to open 25 “Healthy” Foods That Aren’t in a new window.

Secret #4: Side with Wendy’s Chili
Compared to a large fry, a small chili at Wendy’s provides 25 percent more food and three times as much belly-filling protein. Plus, it saves you an astounding 320 calories. Pair it with a Jr. Cheeseburger for one of the most powerful fast food meals with fewer than 500 calories.

Secret #5: Give milk shakes the cold shoulder
The dessert world has no villain more treacherous than the milk shake, which essentially consists of two beasts tied together. Beast #1: liquefied sugar; beast #2: liquefied fat. It should come as no surprise, then, that these unassuming cups rarely carry fewer than 700 calories, and often they hold well over a thousand. If you need a dessert, head to the ice cream shop. There you'll find single-scoop cones for about 200 calories.

Secret #6: Beware the deli “salad”
On most menus, salad denotes some leaf-based bowl of veggies. On a deli menu, it more likely means chicken, egg, or tuna suspended in a massive glut of fatty mayo. Just say no and you’ll avoid monstrosities like Quizno’s 1,520-calorie Tuna Melt, which essentially consists of tuna salad glued to bread by a blanket of melted cheese. (Speaking of horrendous salads, we found 20 Salads Worse than a Whopper!)

Secret #7: Think thin (crust)
Want to know the easiest way to make a portly pizza? It has nothing to do with toppings. The biggest problem facing your pie is the massive loaf of oily bread hunkering along the bottom. Three deep-dish slices from a large Domino’s pie, before toppings, will cost you 1,050 calories. Switch over to a thin crust and you just burned off 360 calories without lifting a finger. Who knew losing weight was so easy?

Secret #8: Order a cappuccino over a latte
What’s the difference? Cappuccinos are built with a base of steamed milk, which means more air and fewer calories. At Starbucks, ordering a Grande Cappuccino with 2% milk will save you 70 calories over a latte with the same specs. Do that on a daily basis and you’ll eliminate nearly 500 calories from your weekly intake.

Secret #9: Go Fresco at Taco Bell
Is it gimmicky that Taco Bell has branded its Fresco Menu the “Drive-Thru Diet”? Of course, but the truth is the options are surprisingly balanced. No single item has more than 340 calories, and they all come with a stomach-filling blend of protein and fiber. Try this: 2 Fresco Crunchy Tacos with a side of Pintos ‘n Cheese. It'll cost you a mere 470 calories and pad your belly with 24 grams of protein and half your day’s fiber.

Secret #10: Choose bacon over sausage
In the breakfast meat battle, no meat trumps ham. But when it comes to flavor-rich fatty cuts, bacon takes sausage every time. Consider this: At Dunkin’ Donuts, ordering a Bacon, Egg & Cheese Sandwich on English Muffin has 150 fewer calories than the same sandwich built with sausage.

Secret #11: Skip the soda … and the juice and sweet tea
Here’s a fact overlooked by most diet plans: Liquid calories represent a bigger threat to your belly than food calories. A study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that after six months, subjects who cut 100 daily calories from sweetened beverages lost five times more weight than people who cut 100 daily calories from food.

(Want to know how to eliminate fluid flab without living in total deprivation? Drink This, Not That! covers everything you need to know to sip your way to a flat belly--without dieting or deprivation.)

Secret #12: Order by number
When Stanford researchers studied how posted calorie information at Starbucks affected customer decisions, they found that the average calorie load per order dropped by 6 percent. Use it to your advantage: If your fast food restaurant offers nutritional info, study it. If not, they will soon. A hidden mandate in this year’s health care reform requires fast food chains to begin posting calorie information within the next year.

Secret #13: Go to Chipotle, but skip the burrito
The best thing about Chipotle is that the menu is built on the shoulders of nutritionally powerful meats, beans, and salsas. The bad news: The tortilla. Each manhole-sized burrito wrap carries 290 calories, most of which come from refined carbs. Make the switch from a Chicken Burrito to a Chicken Burrito Bowl and you’re dropping from about 850 to 560 calories. Or better yet, make it a salad with salsa instead of dressing and you end up with a nutritionally stacked, 440-calorie meal.

Bonus Tip: Want more stories like this delivered to your inbox each day? You can–for free! Sign up for the Eat This, Not That! newsletter.

Secret #14: Build your own sandwich
The unfortunate truth about deli subs is that they often come slathered with oils and sauces that you would never consider using in your own kitchen. At Quizno’s, for instance, most large sandwiches earn more than 200 calories from dressing alone. Some approach 400 calories. That’s why your best bet, no matter who’s doing the making, is to control the show yourself. Pair a whole-grain bread with a lean meat like turkey, ham, or roast beef, and then load up on vegetables without sullying it with mayo or oil.

Secret #15: “Hold the mayo”
Get used to that phrase, especially when you’re at Burger King. Mayo alone contributes 160 calories to each Whopper and 210 calories to each Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich. Switch to ketchup or barbecue sauce and consider those calories in the bank.

Secret #16: Grill the chicken at KFC
An Extra Crispy 2-Piece Breast and Wing Meal at KFC—before you add sides—packs in 700 calories and 1,420 mg sodium. Order it grilled instead and the toll drops to a mere 290 calories and 710 mg sodium. Total savings: 410 calories and 50 percent of the heart-wrecking sodium. Make a swap like that once a day and you’ll drop more than 7 pounds in two months.

Secret #17: Call in the dogs
Hot dogs trump burgers in 99 percent of nutritional matchups. At A&W you save 130 calories when you order a Chili Dog over a Papa Single Burger. At Five Guys the dog bests the regular burger by 155 calories. Why the savings? It’s simple: portion size. Thanks to an arms race among burger joints, hamburgers today are two to five times bigger than they were 20 years ago. The humble hot dog, however, has remained relatively unchanged.

Secret #18: Skip the secret sauce
There's no secret here at all. Nine times out of ten, the recipe amounts to three parts mayo and one part ketchup with a few wilted herbs tossed in. The total impact amounts to 100 to 200 calories per slather. Ask for mustard instead, or better yet, find a sandwich that holds no secrets.

Bonus Tip: Not all secrets are bad. The 25 Best Nutrition Secrets Ever will help you lose weight and improve your overall health . . . instantly!

Secret #19: Skip the Breakfast Muffins and Bagels
Not only are they deceptively high in calories (a Pumpkin Muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts harbors 600 calories), but they also lack the one nutrient most responsible for keeping you full: protein. See, protein digests slowly, whereas starchy breads pass quickly through the stomach and help pack pudge around your midsection. Avoid the problem by sticking to egg-based sandwiches. My favorite is McDonald’s 300-calorie Egg McMuffin.

Secret #20: Order from the secret menu
Yes, fast food joints often carry items that you won’t find listed among the regular fare. Here are two worth remembering: The Chicken Marinara at Subway makes a great alternative to the Meatball Marinara, and it saves you 260 calories and 19 grams of fat. At Starbucks, ask to have your sweetened coffee drink served from a “short” cup, which you won’t see listed on the menu. Sure it’s small, but it carries half the calories of a grande and allows you to indulge without incuring the wrath of a calorie hangover.

Now that you've mastered the drive-thru, don't let the supermarket make you fat, either. Check out The Shopping-Cart Diet.

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