Is junk food such a sin?

Takeaways bring instant pleasure, but needn't make you feel guilty. Sarah Edghill reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Y ou recognise the signs: sluggish limbs, bloated belly. There is a greasy taste in your mouth and the sofa is littered with cold chips, orange breadcrumbs and chicken bones. Last night you were in finger- lickin' good, takeaway heaven. This morning you feel as windy as the Balearics. You have descended into takeaway hell.

An average 20 million takeways are served up every week, according to a Mintel survey of 1993. In the same year consumers spent pounds 5.2bn on fast food, despite the fact that, according to an earlier survey by the London Food Commission, 83 per cent of people questioned said they would not believe fast food manufacturers who claimed their products were healthy.

Takeaways are a treat. Instantly gratifying, they are the perfect, painless way to kick off a Friday night spent watching television, smug in the knowledge that there will be no washing up to ruin a stress-free evening. Splashing out on a Chinese once a week, we tell ourselves, will harm neither our health nor our pockets. Dieticians, however, take a different view, especially when a treat becomes a habit.

"If people eat things like kebabs, fish and chips, and burgers almost every day, they are heading for their first coronary bypass operation," says Dr Tim Lobstein, co-director of the London Food commission and author of Fast Food Facts, an investigation into the takeaway business. "In general, this type of food is far too high in fat, salt and sugar."

The dreaded S-words are not the only offenders: it is the meat in so-called beefburgers that is particularly worrying. Burgers, especially those sold by street vendors, are often poor quality and can include mechanically recovered meat, obtained by scraping animal carcasses and pulverising the scraps from anything from the tail and head to tongue and sinew.

According to Joanna Blythman's recently published The Food We Eat (Michael Joseph), burgers are covered by a legal "minimum meat declaration" and should be at least 80 per cent meat. Despite this, they could still include water (up to 15 per cent) to add bulk, polyphosphates to retain added water, antioxidants to prevent rancidity, as well as up to 35 per cent fat. Burgers sold by street vendors are most likely to be "economy burgers" and can be as much as 40 per cent non-meat, according to Fast Food Facts. Even the meat parts can be at least 30 per cent pure fat.

Not all takeaways are bad for you, however. They can even be beneficial - in moderation. Chips contain vitamin C, for example, burgers are full of iron while milk shakes and pizzas contain calcium. But be warned: some fast food outlets add sugar to their chipped potatoes, some makes of burger may hide several teaspoons of pure fat, and a fried chicken meal can contain up to a teaspoon of salt.

High levels of fat and preservatives create that sluggish, bloated feeling and while the human body needs a certain amount of fat, adults should ensure that fats make up 30-35 per cent of their total calorie intake (see box opposite). In short, man cannot live on chips alone. To get his daily calcium requirement, for instance, one man would have to eat 60 portions of chips - thus also eating five times more calories than is needed.

"There is no such thing as a bad food, just a bad diet," says Adrienne Cullum of the British Nutrition Foundation. "Fast food in moderation is fine if it's part of a balanced diet. If you eat takeaways, make sure the rest of your diet is high in fruit and vegetables, and low in fat.''

If you really can't kick the habit you may as well know how healthy - or unhealthy - your eating habits are. We have looked at the most popular takeaways, telling you which are best avoided and which can be scoffed with impunity. Bon appetit!

Fast food health check

***** excellent

**** good

*** acceptable

** not to be eaten regularly

* to be avoided

BURGERS

The major fast food chains have been fighting their junk food image, increasing the fibre in their products, reducing the fat content and introducing healthy side orders such as salad. But burgers are still not good news.

A half-pounder could weigh in at over 900 calories - the equivalent of four KitKats - while you might as well slap the chips straight on to your hips since that's where they'll end up. Although potatoes are full of fibre, protein and carbohydrate, when fried they soak up fat like a sponge.

But if you stick to regular burgers you will only be taking in about 300 calories at a time, a third of them from fat. Leave out that slice of cheese; it is lower in fat than normal cheddar but full of salt and additives. Milk shakes are out; they are often made from full-fat milk with the equivalent of a dozen teaspoons of sugar. Go for orange juice, mineral water or plain milk instead.

**** Regular burger

A 106g hamburger in a bun filled with ketchup, mustard, pickle, onion, salad and mayonnaise, and a 74g portion of chips would provide:

260 calories

10g fat (of which 5g are saturated fat)

2g fibre

33 per cent of calories come from fat

* Half-pounder burger

A 313g hamburger in a bun filled with ketchup, mustard, pickle, onion, salad and mayonnaise would provide:

830 calories

54g fat (27g of which are saturated fat)

7g fibre

59 per cent of calories come from fat

** Regular chips

A 93g portion would provide:

290 calories

16g fat (of which 8g are saturated)

3g fibre

49 per cent of calories come from fat

FISH AND CHIPS

Great but greasy. Fish has plenty of protein, but once a piece has been dipped in batter and deep fried, it can contain up to 650 calories, with more than 50g of fat and just 5g of fibre. If you eat fish and chips regularly, get into the habit of leaving some of the batter (yes, we know that is the best bit) and ordering the smallest portion of chips.

It is a good idea to get friendly with your chippy and find out what sort of oil is used for cooking. If it is pure dripping or palm oil, find a shop that uses sunflower oil or a type of vegetable oil low in saturated fat. There is some good news though - the big, chunky chips that come wrapped in newspaper are much better for you than the fries served by burger chains because larger chips have less surface area for their weight, so absorb less fat. That is not a licence to go mad, but fish and chip fans deserve a crumb of comfort.

** Fish and chips

A 477g portion of cod and chips would provide:

1,054 calories

56g fat (of which 9g is saturated fat)

5g fibre

48 per cent of calories come from fat

INDIAN TAKEAWAY

Popping out for a curry can actually be rather good for you, if you stick to some basic rules. Avoid poppadoms like the plague - they are fried in fat and the chutney you ladle on to them is full of sugar. The same goes for paratha because it is buttered and deep fried. However, plain naan bread is not too bad, and make sure you ask for plain, boiled rice rather than pilau, which is likely to contain colour additives and is surprisingly high in calories - up to 400 per portion.

With main dishes, vegetable variations are always the healthiest, but if you crave meat be sure to avoid kormas of any description - they are full of cream - and dansaks - very oily. A much better option are tikka or tandoori dishes, which are generally dry fried - there might be only about 350 calories in a generous portion of chicken tikka. The occasional bhaji or samosa will not harm you but, again, avoid chutney as an accompaniment.

** Chicken madras

A 339g portion would provide:

431 calories

23g fat (of which 4g are saturated fat)

6g fibre

52 per cent of calories come from fat

***** Pilau rice

A 241g portion would provide:

388 calories

3g fat (of which 1g is saturated fat)

1g fibre

8 per cent of calories come from fat

* Onion bhaji

A 118g portion would provide:

355 calories

24g fat (of which 2g are saturated)

5g fibre

60 per cent of calories come from fat

FRIED CHICKEN AND CHIPS

Three pieces of deep-fried chicken with chips could contain 900 calories, so if you must eat this it should be as a main meal, not an after-the- pub snack. The meat is good for protein but short on dietary fibre. If the chicken is coated it may contain monosodium glutamate and colouring agents. Up to 60 per cent of calories can come from fat - twice the recommended amount. "You might also find it doesn't taste great because the bits of chicken are often the cheapest available," says Tim Lobstein. "Legs or wings with not much meat on them." Many fried chicken outlets have introduced healthy side orders. Corn on the cob or barbecue beans are filling and relatively low in calories.

** Fried chicken and chips

A 252g portion (three pieces of chicken with chips) would provide:

783 calories

44g fat (of which 15g is saturated fat)

No information on fibre

For the chicken, 58 per cent of calories come from fat

For the chips, 39 per cent of calories come from fat

CHINESE TAKEAWAY

Oriental cooking is very healthy, but Chinese restaurants in this country use more animal and saturated fats than those in the East, and add monosodium glutamate and sugar to increase flavour. Avoid prawn crackers, deep fried in fat, and spring rolls - at least 300 calories apiece. A good low-calorie starter is chicken and sweetcorn soup. For main courses ask for plain boiled rice and noodles, rather than egg fried or "special fried" versions. Chow mein is out because noodles are boiled then fried with additional fat. Avoid beef and duck in favour of chicken and prawns, but even here care is needed: a serving of sweet and sour chicken could contain several teaspoons of sugar, and sweet and sour pork might have 1,000 calories. A good choice is prawn chop suey - low in fat and about 400 calories a portion.

** Beef chow mein

A 408g portion would provide:

571 calories

28g fat (of which 2g is saturated fat)

4g fibre

44 per cent of calories come from fat

PIZZAS

Again, a relatively healthy option. Pizza bases contain carbohydrate, but stick to regular ones because deep pan pizzas have a high fat content. Also be wary of "thin crust", which may have been fried in more oil to make them as crispy as possible. Low-fat toppings such as vegetables, tuna and prawns are ideal, but the biggest villain is cheese. A four- cheese variety, with Dutch, Swiss, Italian and mozzarella cheese, is a disaster for cholesterol levels and waistlines. Even a basic cheese and tomato pizza could have more than 600 calories.

According to PizzaExpress, a Quattro Formaggi pizza contains 759 calories, and for every extra serving of cheese (on average about 27g) you will be adding 115 calories and 9.5g of fat. An extra portion of mushrooms, by contrast, adds two calories and no fat.

Meat pizzas are a danger zone. A PizzaExpress American Hot, for example, comes in at a staggering 931 calories, and contains nearly 50g of fat - way over the recommended limits. A safer option is their lasagne at 382 calories.

**** Cheese and tomato pizza

A 293g portion of regular (not deep pan or crispy crust) cheese and tomato pizza would provide:

692 calories

21 grams fat (no figures available for saturated fat)

5 grams fibre

27 per cent of calories come from fat

KEBABS

Choose wisely, and kebabs could be your healthiest option. Avoid the doner variety, where meat is sliced from a vertical revolving slab; it's usually composite meat, lamb that has been reformed with breadcrumbs and extra fat. Go for shish kebabs - plain chunks of meat grilled on skewers. Served in pitta bread with salad, this is a relatively low-fat meal.

**** Shish kebab

A 370 gram portion with salad would provide:

485 calories

16 grams fat (of which 6 grams is saturated fat)

6 grams fibre

30 per cent of calories come from fat

* Doner kebab

A 265 gram portion would provide:

745 calories

49 gm fat (of which 25 are saturated fat)

3gm fibre

59 per cent of calories come from fat

Figures takes from 'Fast Food Facts', Tim Lobstein, Camden Press, available from the London Food Commission, 0171-628 7774.

How to check your fat intake

Take the grams of fat in a product and multiply the figure by nine to get some idea of the calories coming from fat. Aim for fats to make up to 30 to 35 per cent of total calorie intake. Someone with a daily intake of 2,000 calories, for instance, should aim to eat about 70 grams of fat a day.

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