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Holidays in a Fast Food Nation

Local author offers tips for surviving the caloric season.

After shoppers crowd lines at shopping malls, the next logical destination for many of them is to line up in the drive-thru of the nearest fast food establishment.

That behavior, combined with the typical gorging of the holiday season, is a dietitian's nightmare. "The challenges today are many-fold; one is the tremendous amount of people on the run, and the tremendous amount of less-than-healthy choices, in your face 24/7," said Hope S. Warshaw, a nutrition consultant, diabetes educator and the author of several books about healthy eating.

"I think consumers are fairly confused about what to eat and what to do because they feel there's so much controversy about nutrition. The reality is that, today, there's a lot of solid footing about what's right to eat."

Warshaw, who lives in Alexandria, has written a new book called "What to Eat When You're Eating Out" ($9.95, Small Steps Press). The guide provides skills and strategies for finding healthy eating options at America's most popular chain restaurants; including some nutrition lowdown for more than 5,000 menu items from more than 60 national restaurant chains. "Where do you split the hair for fast food? It goes from Arby's to Baskin's to Dunkin's to Starbucks...if they're on Route 1, they're there," she said.

Warshaw acknowledged that battling the corporate media messages in our fast food nation — from catchy commercials to the use of cartoon characters to sell food — is difficult. She cited a scene in the documentary "Super Size Me" in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock asked a number of people to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in front of the White House; he then asked them to sing McDonald's Big Mac jingle. Those who couldn't recall "I pledge allegiance..." could quickly remember "Two all-beef patties."

"Being healthy and keeping your children healthy requires a certain amount of swimming upstream," she said.

YET WARSHAW believes there are actually some underrated nutrition benefits to fast food restaurants — such as with portion control.

Warshaw has written that at place like McDonald's and Burger King, managing the size of meals is easier than at some sit-down eateries. "You go to a burger chain, and you have choices in sizes — you can order a single, double or triple. You go to an Applebees, and you can't order a different size," she said.

Another aspect of fast food that she believes can be beneficial to the diet-conscious is the fact that it is so grab-and-go. People walk up to the counter, get their food and consume that meal in a matter of minutes; at a "sit-down" restaurant, time spent waiting for a meal is typically spent munching on complimentary chips or down selections from the bar. "The reality is that there are choices. My motto is that people can choose to eat healthy at 99 percent of restaurants — it's just that 'choose' is the operative word," she said.

AT HOLIDAY meals, choice can be trickier, as heaping portions continue to emerge from the family kitchen.

One of Warshaw's previous books — "Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy," now in its third edition — dealt with the nutritional pitfalls of dinner and the confusion about diet. "I think one of the greatest pitfalls is that people think about a diet as something you go on and off. The reality of the matter is that what people need to do is look at making changes to have a healthy lifestyle," she said.

When it comes to holiday eating, Warshaw said that trimming some calories before sitting down for a heavy dinner can help; as can physical activity and portioning. "Don't go to a holiday festivity starving, and always have a non-caloric drink available," she advised. "Food is delicious and should be enjoyed. People should really practice portion control, to a great degree."