Across the globe, the food industry is in transition. Climate change and the effects of industrial processing have kickstarted a push towards efficiency and health, and food isn’t an exception. But food today is healthy only after caveats: Is it local? Seasonal? Is it organic? Cold-pressed? Free range? It goes on and on. In a space where we are increasingly questioning what we are putting in our mouths, do the ‘healthy’ options by fast food restaurants cut it? Wait… is ‘healthy fast food’ even a real thing?
I tried to answer this by scoping out the most healthy options at fast food joints in my home city, Chennai. Now, I am the sort who thinks happiness lies at the bottom of my millet and veggie bowl, the one who goes into KFC only if my bladder is bursting and I need a loo STAT. So, to do this challenge with a neutral palate and an open mind was tough, even though the rules were simple: order in or go out to eat the healthiest options at fast food chains or restaurants. We didn't go all calorie-counting and technical with the nutrient ratios, but went with our gut in determining how to make 'healthy fast food' as tiny an oxymoron as possible.
This is how it went down:
I start the day with a super fibre-packed meal (replacement) smoothie (Rs. 168) from Drunken Monkey, a milkshake and ‘healthy’ smoothie chain. The smoothie contains avocado, cashews, almonds, apple, banana, pineapple and green grape. It’s tasty, filling and much-needed at 11am. I gulp it down and get to work.
By 2:30pm, in the midst of writing a proposal, I’m starving again. This time, I need something filling. After much perusal, I arrive at the KFC Grilled Chicken. A ‘smoky’ alternative to their regular crispy-fried one. I pick up a 4-piece bucket for Rs. 325, and go to town. The chicken is juicy and fairly flavourful but also oozing that signature KFC oil. I find myself drifting into thoughts of how artificial the KFC chicken seems. A little googling reveals that I’m just a paranoid android. KFC does not serve mutant chicken. It was all a lie. The oil still smells suspect, though.
I get back to writing and am fully absorbed until 7.30pm when my stomach begins rumbling again. Not bad. Three chicken legs gave me enough energy to work at optimum levels. I eat the sole remaining chicken leg before making a beeline for Tibb's Frankie that has franchises across central and south India.
Here, I’m told that trials with wheat rolls are happening at their HQs in Mumbai to determine whether a pan-India launch will work. Maybe we’ll have an even healthier roll option soon. For now, I find a protein fix with a kadai paneer + egg roll. At Rs. 80 this is probably the most affordable meal I’ll eat in the whole week. I admit to having mild hunger pangs before I fell asleep, though.
Fast and furious: Palm oil in the chicken, and maida in the roll were causes of concern for me.
I skip breakfast (I know, I know, that’s terrible) after waking up too late. My brunch is a creamed spinach and corn sandwich (Rs. 191) from Café Coffee Day. I choose the multigrain bread option, which turns out to be fairly soft and tasty.
Once I’m back home working, I decide that dinner will be from Subway. A treat to myself after a long day of work and driving around. I decide to avoid the sweet sauces in the quest for an extra healthy sub. Eventually, I get the BMT sub with Southwest and mustard sauce (Rs. 209). For someone who scorns most fast food establishments, I gotta say I kind of like Subway. Something about how they position themselves as a healthy brand must work for them real well.
Fast and furious: With food that doesn’t tell you where it’s come from, I'm always a bit suspect about freshness, or worse, pesticide content.
I decide to start my day with a solid shake from the Thick Shake Factory. The most healthy options on their menu have superhero names. I get Wonder Woman which has fresh strawberries and a dash of protein powder. I’m fairly stuffed by the time I’m done slurping. The weather is great today so I embark on a walk through the Adyar Creek with a friend. By the time it’s early evening, I’m starved and haven’t eaten lunch.
Growfit to the rescue. I order a brown rice and veg Thai green curry (Rs 180) from the health food chain that prides itself on its Keto-friendly meals. They even have Keto pizza. My Thai curry, albeit bearing a striking resemblance to palak paneer, tastes fairly delicious. The portion is so filling that I save some for later and eat the leftovers for dinner.
Fast and furious: Nothing about today’s meal plan raised flags for me. Tasty treats and good weather made my day.
I start my day with a salad wrap (Rs. 107) from McDonalds, the most seemingly healthy thing on their menu. When it arrives, I have a signature ‘expectation vs. reality’ moment. The roll is half the size of what’s suggested by the packaging. I find it unappetising but power through the lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo overload in the interest of not skipping breakfast. The wrap is too doughy. I wish I had ordered a paneer wrap. Post whining, it's time to work.
The next meal is late lunch/early dinner: a ‘mutton overlad’ wrap from Faasos (Rs. 238) to balance out the healthy veggie overload of the salad wrap with some protein, in spite of being wrapped in the famously unhealthy maida.
My lack of optimism is more than made up for by this very solid roll. Massive tender, flavoured chunks of meat balance out the crunchy onions and before I know it, I’m stuffed. I end up taking a break before I can finish the whole roll. That was actually pretty delicious. +5 for Faasos.
Fast and furious: Doughy maida wraps and rolls…. ugh!
For breakfast, I eat something off the supermarket shelf: Epigamia’s Greek Yoghurt Snack Packs (Rs 70). The flavoured low-fat probiotic yoghurt with granola is tasty and easy to eat. It’s hardly filling though. I had to eat, well, three before my stomach felt some semblance of satisfaction.
Later in the day, I speak to Aksha Nanavati, founder of Soul Souffle, a subscription-based health food service. “Epigamia is a tasty option, but they neglect to mention the use of added refined sugars in their products,” she tells me, warning me about how what is marketed as healthy might not be so, and that there are loopholes to watch out for. “This (the reality) is important for anyone making smoothies or using them as a low-fat alternative to regular dairy, and not necessarily natural”.
Three hours later, I’m already starving and ready for my Taco Bell lunch. To keep it healthy, I skip the fried tacos and chicken, avoiding unhealthy oils. Instead, I eat the veg fajita taco and a soft chicken taco. My friend orders a crispy chicken taco though, and I can’t resist taking a bite. Taco Bell surprises me because their ingredients seem fairly fresh, their cheese is melty-tasty, and their hot sauces are the bomb. Not bad Taco Bell, not bad.
When dinner time rolls around after a long day of writing and editing, I’m surprisingly not hungry. I decide to eat a fruit salad with cream (Rs. 170), a specialty at snack joint and dessert parlour Bombaysthan (which serves the same spread as Mumbai’s Haji Ali Juice Center). It’s a sinfully delicious meal in itself. I convince myself about the health angle because of fruit fibre and healthy, creamy fat.
Fast and furious: Sugar overload in fruits/yoghurt, processed cheese and doughy taco, processed cream, and pesticides in the fruits—WTF have I turned into?
I’m looking for a quick but lazy Sunday breakfast, when Goli Vada Pav around the corner from my house saves the day. I choose the sabudana vada, but spend considerable time researching whether it’s actually healthier than an aloo pav. Turns out it isn’t much healthier because it is filled with carbs and most of the nutrition is lost on frying, but sabudana (tapioca) has slightly higher protein content than potato and is also gluten-free. It does the trick. Temporarily.
By lunchtime, I’m already feeling the need to spice up my life with some gourmet goodness. I resist ordering from a number of places until a friend mentions she’s arriving from Pondicherry. I seize the moment and ask for a prawn curry rice bowl (Rs 200) from The Tasty Truck. Their motto is ‘fast food, slow cooked’ which is evident in the thick, wholesome prawn curry served with a small portion of rice and a healthy portion of vegetables. Carb-filled rice isn’t the healthiest option but I’ve been missing it so much over the past few days that this just hits the spot.
Watching a movie over dinner at a friend’s house, I order a shawarma. If you’ve lived in Bangalore or Chennai you know that the best shawarma spots are the Malayali owned, straight outta Dubai establishments like Hotel Empire, Zaitoon and Savoury Sea Shells. Grilled, tender, slow-cooked meat, packed into pita bread with fresh and pickled vegetables. Sounds pretty good, no? I top the shawarma with a fruit salad to seal the health deal.
Fast and furious: The chicken—I wonder if it is broiler or country. The lack of accessible information when it comes to fast food is kinda starting to piss me off.
I’m weak. I’m craving home food. I feel like eating a full thali meal. Instead I order a dosa from Mr. Pando’s, a joint which is a variation of what folks in Mumbai and Bengaluru may remember as ‘99 Variety Dosa’. My favourite is a custom dosa. Spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes smashed together, topped with grated beetroot and copious amounts of cheese. The folks at the shop tell me they use besan or chickpea flour in their batter, making it protein and fibre rich. Not to mention, pretty filling.
As the day progresses, my cravings intensify and I cave in. I eat pulao with raita at home, and it is amazing. I go into an existential funk. Why am I on this junk diet masquerading as a healthy one? How can anyone not love home food, the healthiest diet of them all? What is the meaning of life? Are we even alive?
Luckily, dinnertime isn’t too far away. I order a Domino’s Pepperoni Pizza (but who eats chicken pepperoni though? Seriously!) with a wheat crust instead of a regular crust. I’m hoping the healthy wheat crust balances the processed chicken pepperoni. As is usually the case with me, I’m in a stuffed catatonic daze post pizza.
Fast and furious: Furious no more. I’m done with this madness.
After a week of healthy fast fooding, I seem to have lost a kilo and developed a new love for my cook’s phenomenal home cuisine. So, what’s the verdict? Can fast food be healthy? Surprisingly, yes but in moderation. Some food is better than none, and a few brands seem to genuinely be able to match quality to scale and affordability in their offerings. Would I do it again? Probably not. I enjoy my millet bowls too much.
Would I recommend it to anyone? Nope again—I don’t think it's either affordable or healthy enough (I spent Rs 3,095 on this week’s diet, as opposed to Rs 1,500 that I usually do on a week of home-cooked meals). I would however recommend a taco from Taco Bell, or a Tibb’s Frankie if you’re starving and looking for a quick snack. Nanavati’s advice? “It’s definitely better to grab the healthier option from a fast food chain once in a while, but it will never be as nutritious as food made at home in a safer healthier space. Invest some time to buy your ingredients and cook your own meals. Get into the habit of precooking and packing your meals, or opt for a service for prepared meals. And don’t forget, exercising to stay fit tops every healthy diet ever.” One last, possibly-TMI detail (read on at your own peril): My poop through the week was far from as satisfying/amazing as it is on a better diet. I guess it's called gut feeling for a reason.
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