Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The cheeseburger diet

McDonald's Salad Has More Fat Than Cheeseburger! screamed the headline yesterday on Yahoo! news, and I imagine that anybody who ever felt guilty about eating a burger when there was more allegedly healthful fare on the menu let out a whoop and pumped a fist in the air. What suckers, those salad eaters! They could have had something much more yummy and been healthier for it! McDonald's may pretend to offer choices, but it's all one big crock of McNuggets! That's sure the impression the headline gave, and the impression the story gave. But it's a cheap shot, and as one of those suckers ... um, that is, one of those salad eaters, I feel compelled to offer a rebuttal. As with anything that tries to tell you cheeseburgers are good for you, there's more to the story.

For one thing, the cheeseburger they're using for comparison is not a Big Mac with cheese (33 grams of fat) or a Quarter Pounder with Cheese (29 grams of fat) or a succulent Double Cheeseburger (26 grams of fat), it's the compact little number served with kiddie meals. Now I've eaten them for lunch, and I've been satisfied with that and a few fistfuls of french fries, but I don't think it's what people have in mind when they hear "cheeseburger." The nutrition index on the McDonald's USA Web site lists this cheeseburger as having 14 grams of fat. A small order of fries -- and certainly, we all want fries with that -- adds 10 more grams of fat. And since overall fat grams aren't as important as the type of fat we're talking about, it should be noted that the cheeseburger has 6 grams of saturated fat and the fries 1.5.

On the salad side, there are indeed salads that have more grams of fat, even without the dressing, than a cheeseburger and fries combined -- but they're the salads topped with deep-fried chicken, and anybody who's ordering that with the thought that it's healthful has probably been watching those KFC commercials raving about how low-carb the stuff is. If you order the highest-fat salad -- in the U.S. it's the Crispy Chicken California Cobb, at 21 -- and smother it with an entire two-ounce pouch of the highest-fat dressing -- Newman's Own Ranch, at 30 -- you could indeed put together an artery-busting feast with 51 fat grams, 10.5 of them saturated. That's way more than the simple cheeseburger, but not far off from a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, with 47 fat grams, 20 of them saturated.

But it's probably as unfair to choose the Crispy Chicken California Cobb slathered with Ranch Dressing as indicative of McDonald's salad fare as it is to choose the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese as indicative of its hamburgers. What if you actually do have a reasonable idea of what's good for you, and choose a salad with grilled chicken instead? The Grilled Chicken Cobb has 11 fat grams (5 saturated), the Grilled Chicken Caesar 6 (3 saturated) and the Grilled Chicken Bacon Ranch 10 (4.5 saturated). The Cobb dressing has 9 grams of fat for the whole pouch (1.5 saturated), the Caesar 18 (3.5), and a low-fat balsamic vinaigrette 3 (0). Personally, I usually use only about half a pouch of dressing at most, so my favored meal of a Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad with Caesar dressing comes out to about 15 grams of fat, 6.5 of it saturated -- a little more than the littlest cheeseburger, but less than that cheeseburger with fries, and a lot less than a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder.

The thing is, I'm skeptical as to the degree the general public really wants a place like McDonald's to offer truly healthy stuff. We like the idea; we expect them to do it and we're critical when it's apparently not healthy enough, but do we really want to sit at a table smelling hamburgers and french fries and eat nothing but vegetables and low-cal dressing? If we do, they'll accommodate us; all the salads are available without chidken, and the side salad has no fat at all. But we don't. We want to be able to eat a salad loaded with fried chicken and cheese and croutons and thick creamy dressing and pretend it's low-fat because it has the word "salad" in the name. Just like we want to believe that a big fat juicy cheeseburger is health food, too.

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