You know those insanely hot, scantily clad 19-year-olds sensually eating double-bacon cheeseburgers on the fast food commercials? I’ll let you in on a little secret: They’re not really eating those burgers. They’re taking a bite, making love to the camera with their eyes and then, when the director yells “Cut!” they’re spitting that burger into the burger bucket just off camera.

True story.

Because otherwise, let’s face it, they wouldn’t look like that very long. Would that we had burger buckets in real life, so we could all look like that. Fast food is cheap and convenient, but it’s not exactly known for its health benefits. Still, unless you’re the uber-domesticated type who cooks every night and packs their lunch for work every day (please), or you’re so disciplined you’ll stop at a grocery store to buy fresh fruit if you need a meal in a hurry (as if), chances are, you’re going to hit up the drive-thru at some point.

And when you do, sometimes you think to yourself, “oh well, already here, might as well splurge.” Before you know it, you’ve eaten more calories in one meal than you should’ve had for a whole day. (And don’t even look at the sodium – that’ll really give you a heart attack.) What’s worse is when you try to be judicial – “Oh, I’ll just get a salad.” By the time you add the dressing, if you’re not careful, you’d have been better off calorie-wise with the double-cheeseburger.

Luckily, there are some great resources out there to save us from ourselves. First of all, regardless of where you stand on the issue of printing calories on fast-food menus, they will help you make better choices. McDonald’s in Nashville has just added these, and they might as well have had someone standing at the drive-thru menu throwing a cup of cold water in your face. (A Rolo McFlurry has 700 calories?!? They may never sell another one.) For the record, you can get a hamburger (250 calories) and fries (230 for the small) for under 500 calories. Yes, you can also get a couple of salads for under 500 calories, but sometimes you just wanna get your burger on. You can also upgrade to a cheeseburger (300 calories) and swap the fries for a fruit parfait (150 calories) and still roll in under 500 calories.

[funfacts] offers a list of fast-food salad options around 500 calories. Most of these, you should note, include either the low-fat or fat-free dressing or only use a half-pack. (If you’re not disciplined enough to use only a half-pack of delicious honey mustard while the other unused half sits nearby, forlorn, then go with the fat-free. You’ll thank yourself.) Some of the salads they choose are Wendy’s Apple Pecan Chicken Salad , with a full packet of Pomegranate Vinaigrette, for 510 calories; KFC’s Grilled Chicken BLT Salad, with Hidden Valley Ranch Fat-Free dressing, for 265 calories; Taco Bell’s Steak FiestaTaco Salad, Fresco Style, for 220 calories; and McDonald’s Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken and a half-packet of Southwest dressing for 370 calories.

Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Be careful with those salads, though. WebMD cautions that these same menus can trip you up. Swapping grilled chicken for fried – euphemistically called “crispy” on most menus – is typically a gut-busting idea from a calorie standpoint. The Premium Grilled Chicken Sandwich at McDonald’s is 350 calories. The same sandwich with “crispy” chicken is 510 calories. And not all steak salads are equal at Taco Bell, where the Chipotle Steak Taco Salad weighs in at a hefty 900 calories.

Here are a few more fast-food meals you can get for under 500 calories, according to WebMD, and my own research:

– Baked potato and small chili at Wendy’s, 460 calories.
– Grilled chicken breast, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob at KFC, 430 calories
– Veggie Delite sandwich (6-inch) and Fire-Roasted Tomato Orzo soup from Subway, 360 calories
– Roast Chicken Filet Sandwich with applesauce and a 20-ounce Diet Peach FruiTea from Arby’s, 470 calories
– Chicken Fajita Pita, Side Salad with Low-Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing and a 20-oz Fresh Brewed Iced Tea from Jack in the Box, 390 calories
– Whopper Jr., hold the mayo, with Garden Salad and 10-oz Minute Maid Orange Juice at Burger King, 445 calories

Most places these days have nutrition info on their websites, and if they don’t – or if you think they’re being a little less than honest – there are lots of other places to get the info that are only a Google search away.

There are still going to be times when you make bad choices. I know I will. But if you force yourself to think about it a little, and do a little research beforehand so you know what you’re really consuming (my beloved little Krystal Chik is a whopping 300 calories, dang it!), you can probably live longer. To make even more bad choices.

By Ellen Margulies

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