A New Road Map for the Fast Food Nation

The statistics are familiar, the warnings redundant. Fast food is bad for you. Trans fat is less an ingredient than a death sentence handed down by overgrown teenagers in paper hats. If you want to live -- and live well -- cut the cheese fries out of your diet. No quarter for the "quarter pounder!"

In New York City, the mayor pushed for and the health board passed a ban on trans fatty acids in restaurants. Out West, there's a movement to enact similar legislation against acrylamides, the known carcinogen that occurs when potatoes and other starchy foods are fried at a certain temperature.

The backlash against fast food in America has grown into an industry almost as profitable as the chains themselves. Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary "Super Size Me" made more than $10 million at the box office. By the time DVD sales are added in, you have almost as much as McDonald's takes in each day worldwide.

But while documentary filmmakers vomit symbolically in the parking lot of your local McDonald's, there are others -- doctors and writers included -- who seek a more pragmatic, practical approach to managing a diet under the strains of home and work.

Steven G. Aldana, a professor in the College of Health and Human Performance at Brigham Young University, is among them, and his newest book, the "Stop and Go: Fast Food Nutrition Guide" offers a straightforward and familiar guide to enjoying a responsible evening at the neighborhood burger joint.

"What we did," Aldana explains, "is take 3,500 fast foods in the U.S., basically every fast food that we had information on. We gave it to a national nutrition panel and we said, 'why don't you go ahead and rate these based on the nutrition content, and color code these red, yellow, and green. Just like the colors of a stop light.'"

The criteria were simple. If a food has more than one gram of trans fat, saturated fat, or an above average combination of sodium and calories, it gets the red light. Anything that accounts for more than half of your daily requirements in a given category gets Aldana's so-called "red badge of horror," as well.

Scrolling through Aldana's report, there aren't too many shockers. Wendy's big bacon classic gets the red, as does just about everything with sausage and bacon on McDonald's breakfast menu. But there are some surprises. Wendy's chocolate frostie jumps off the page in the foreboding blood-red font, as does a small order of McDonald's French fries.

As an "occasional treat," these may be fine, but Aldana warns that the presence of red items in a person's daily diet "will probably lead to chronic diseases."

The news, of course, is not all bad. On the other side of the spectrum are old favorites like the plain hamburger (sorry, got to cut out that cheese) and every pre-teen's favorite, the fruit and walnut salad with yogurt.

"Green foods are really the ones that you can eat everyday and do just great," said Aldana, "and since about half the dollars we spend in America on food are for fast food, we're now able to pick and choose which of those foods are going to be the better options. The greens are ones you can do everyday."

But not everyone is convinced.

"What really scares me about the fast food diet is the lack of fruits and vegetables," said Dr. Lynne Eldridge, co-author of "Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time."

"People that step foot in a fast food restaurant two or more times per week are twice as likely to be obese, and three times more likely to develop diabetes" than those who keep their visits to a minimum, the doctor reported.

Recent steps by companies like McDonald's to heal their deteriorating reputation with healthier menus and revamped ad campaigns, are window dressing, according to Eldridge.

"Baby steps," she said. "The fact of the matter is that people's bodies don't know how to deal with trans fats. And though I'm sure there are some good people [working at fast food corporations], they're much more concerned about keeping business."

If you really want to lose weight and cut your chances of developing heart disease or diabetes, the best bet is to cook dinner yourself.

"It doesn't mean you need to cook every night," Eldridge said. "If you plan ahead, come up with meals -- and there are so many good cookbooks -- you can freeze things and use them again later in the week."

It's a reasonable suggestion, but for many hamstrung American workers, there simply isn't enough time to cook Sunday dinner on a Wednesday night.

Eric Defeo contributed to this report.