The past 12 months have seen us utilise meal delivery services and takeaway more than ever before, and whether it is food you have delivered at home, or fast food you pick up on the run, the question remains… can takeaway ever be healthy?
Like many areas in the world of nutrition, there is not one definite answer to this question, simply as the definition of ‘healthy’ is so varied depending on the individual asking it. In saying this, as a dietitian, there are some core aspects of any meal which helps me to determine whether it is a good option nutritionally or not, and these are the questions that I ask…
Is it fried food?
The greatest issue with foods we pick up on the go is that many of them are fried options — fries, burgers, stir fries, coated chicken and fried seafood, heavily coated with oils and fats, which dramatically increases calorie content compared to a similar meal you would prepare at home. The second issue with this is that the type of oil commonly used in frying from restaurants, cafes and fast food joints tends to be relatively cheap, processed vegetable oil, which bumps up our intake of the worst types of fat.
The take home message if you are trying to eat healthy: avoid any fried foods.
Does it contain lean protein?
When you look at the cost of ingredients, proteins including chicken, meat, eggs and fish are relatively expensive compared to seasonal vegetables and carbohydrate rich foods like pasta and rice. This means when making fast food at a low price point, minimising the amount of protein in recipes; opting for fattier cuts such as mince, chicken thighs and wings and plain white fish and limiting the vegetable component will make meals significantly cheaper.
This is one of the greatest issues with takeaway and fast food meals — they tend to be packed full of cheap carbohydrates and contain minimal amounts of lean protein and veggies. For this reason when trying to make your takeaway healthy, make a concerted effort to seek out more lean protein and vegetables in any dish you order.
The take home message if you are trying to eat healthy: seek out lean meat, chicken, prawn, tofu or egg as the meal base.
Does it contain salad and veg?
Ideally a well-balanced meal will contain 2-3 cups of salad and vegetables to give us the dietary fibre and bulk that not only helps to optimise our nutritional intake, but that helps to keep us full for several hours after eating.
Very few takeaway and fast food meals offer any salad or vegetables at all — a few lettuce leaves and tomato slices on a burger do not count. For this reason, if you are choosing take away options, Thai, Mexican or Japanese meals that have a salad or veg base are much better options when it comes to eating a well-balanced meal.
The take home message if you are trying to eat healthy: order extra salad or vegetables to compliment any takeaway order.
How many calories are you really eating?
Whether or not we like it, the number of calories we consume is an important thing to consider, as too many calories over time equates to gradual weight gain over time.
When it comes to takeaway food, a quick check of the calorie content will reveal the average meal. Even healthy options will contain at least double the calories of a meal we would prepare at home thanks to the heavy carb and fat load, large portions and extras and sides we routinely add to our order. This means that even the healthiest takeaway (with the exception of sashimi) should only be consumed sporadically if your goal is to avoid gradual weight gain over time.
The take home message if you are trying to eat healthy: your take away order will contain a lot more calories than a meal you make at home, so enjoy it occasionally or split meals between two people.