Can fast food ever be healthy?

Updated on 20 October 2011 | 0 Comments

We look at the new wave of fast food eateries taking over the high street.

Before I stoke the ongoing debate about whether fast food can ever be healthy, I will share with you my interpretation of “healthy food”, because we’re bound to differ on at least some points.

Eat for pleasure

Food, first and foremost, should be a pleasure. We need it, of course, but if we have to have it, at least three times a day, we might as well enjoy the stuff. Even if we’re eating “healthily”, this shouldn’t be a chore.

Health is about more than calories

By healthy I mean wholesome, fresh, well sourced, properly cooked and downright tasty food – the sort the majority of us simply don’t have time to cook for ourselves every day. It should pack more nutrients than a bag of chips, definitely, without being stripped of everything which makes it real – it can contain fat and salt, just in sensible proportions.

So it falls to me to chomp my way through some of the country’s finest available fast food, and decide if the results are heart attack-inducing or genuinely healthy and heart-warming.

I’ve picked out a few examples, chosen not just for their healthy qualities, but because they are exciting and satisfying, both fundamental characteristics of food on the go.


First up is Leon, whose co-founder Henry Dimbleby is evangelical in his efforts to feed Britain well and also sustainably, as he has found time to set up the Sustainable Restaurant Association while expanding the Leon chain to nine outposts.

I won’t lie to you. There are days when all I’m in the mood for is Leon’s big carby hug of a Fish Finger Wrap. I know this is pretty bad for me because Leon has taken the time to mark it with three alarming lightening flashes for calorific content (it packs 627). All the same, it is low in saturated fat – less than 1.5%.

You can find information on all of Leon’s products about the calorie content, amount of saturated fat, whether it is wheat, gluten or dairy free and also the glycemic load (GL) online. GL refers to how sugary a food is and so how quickly it raises blood sugar levels. Foods with a high GL will give you one of those lovely sugar highs, but this sort of food is prone to being laid down quickly as fat, rather than releasing energy slowly as and when you need it.

There are many foods I might, and often do, choose at Leon, which are much better for me than the Fish Finger Sandwich. There are the Moroccan Meatballs (236 cals, low GL), Sweet Potato Falafel (207 cals, low in saturated fat) and my favourite, the Original Superfood Salad (493 cals, low GL).

See the bigger picture

If you are being careful about calorie intake, you might be suspicious of a 500- calorie salad. Don’t be. It’s packed with so much goodness – broccoli, cucumber, peas, avocado, quinoa, alfalfa, sesame, flax and sunflower seeds that you’ll be bright and perky for the rest of the day. This is what I mean by healthy food – you’ve got to see the whole picture, not just the calorie count. 

Mexican wave

My next stop might surprise you. A burrito chain called Chipotle does mega business in the US and is edging its way in here. Ah, the burrito: a huge tortilla wrapped around such slimming foods as refried beans, pork, beef and lashings of soured cream and guacamole.

At Chipotle you build your own burrito – there are thousands of possibilities – but let’s say you start with a soft tortilla, add in black beans, chicken and green tomatillo salsa, you’re facing down 615 calories (I’m afraid the cheese, sour cream and guacamole have 100 calories or more each). Yet for this you get a quite awesome product. Everything is made freshly on the premises and there is a strong commitment to ethical sourcing which in the US, where there are more than 1,000 Chipotles, can influence the farming industry.

Healthy food can be filling

You also get a tasty and filling meal, which won’t have you reaching for a snack mid-afternoon. So yes fast food can be healthy and filling. You know the hunger pangs that creep in 45 minutes after eating a Big Mac? You don’t get that with a burrito. If you’re that worried about calories, you can skip the wrap altogether and get the filling in a bowl.

There are always a few gremlins hidden in massive chains, but it would be nice to see Chipotle oust a few Subways from our high streets. Itsu deserves a special mention here too, but it is easier to see why Japanese food is healthy. As winter approaches and you’re seeking out hot and hearty meals on the go, you don’t have to sacrifice flavour for health.

You must have your own favourite fast food outlets that don’t require a post-meal colonic. Share them with us. And talking of health, if food puts a smile on your face, there’s really no better tonic.

Still got room for more? 

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