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FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2010 file photo, a customer grabs lunch at a McDonalds drive-through in Chicago. Fast-food chains such as McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's are trumpeting pricier, premium offerings to shed their image as purveyors of greasy junk food and convince customers to spend a few extra bucks.(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
A case for the fast-food value menu: It’s not as fattening
First Published Aug 07 2013 10:57 am • Last Updated Aug 07 2013 03:43 pm

If you’re trying to watch calories while keeping your meal under $5 at a fast-food restaurant, sticking to the value menu might not be a bad idea.

Fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are trumpeting pricier, premium offerings to shed their image as purveyors of greasy junk food and convince customers to spend a few extra bucks.

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These "premium" products tend to have a relatively healthier glow. They’re more expensive, so people assume they’re made with higher-quality ingredients, thus making them better for you. On the flipside, items on value menus tend to have a bad rep; the assumption is that the cheapest foods are low quality, and by extension not as good for you.

But the fact is that "premium" items can come with a big caloric payload.

Of course, cooking at home is the ideal for eating well without spending a lot. But there may be times when you want a greasy fix, or feel too lazy or time-strapped to cook.

The number of calories you should eat in a single meal varies depending on your size and activity level, said David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell. But generally, it’s hard to go wrong if you keep it under 600 calories.

With that in mind, here are a few points for when deciding what to get at a fast-food chain:

Premium doesn’t mean healthy

Items on value menus generally aren’t as fattening simply because they tend to be more basic. Trading up means you get more calories, whether it’s in the form of more meat, cheese or extras such as bacon.

Take McDonald’s; all three sandwiches on the Dollar Menu are under 400 calories, with the Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger coming in at 310 calories.

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By contrast, five out of six of the new premium chicken wraps come in at more than 400 calories; the Chicken & Bacon wrap is 620 calories if you opt for "crispy" version, which in fast-food parlance means deep-fried. That’s more than a 550-calorie Big Mac. Yet there’s something about a wrap that makes people feel they’re being virtuous about their diets.

The story isn’t that different at other chains.

Four out of five of the sandwiches on the value menu at Wendy’s are less than 400 calories, with a Jr. Cheeseburger being the lowest-calorie option at 290 calories and 99 cents. Nixing French fries can save a buck or so, while dramatically reducing calories.

Even if you need a starch with your burger, adding an order of value menu French fries to your Jr. Cheeseburger at Wendy’s would still only bring your meal to about $2 and 510 calories. If you’re among those who feel greasy fare needs to be washed down with soda, go for a diet variety from the value menu. That tacks on 99 cents to your receipt and zero calories to your diet.

By contrast, consider the new premium offerings Wendy’s is pushing; the new Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger alone clocks in at 680 calories. The suggested price is also $4.69, which is a markup of $1, or more than 27 percent, compared with a regular bacon cheeseburger.

Take a step back, and the same theory applies on a larger scale; just because you’re eating at a place with a spiffier image doesn’t mean you’re on track to a smaller waist. Chipotle, for example, is popular in large part because of its "food with integrity" slogan, with the company stressing the quality of its ingredients. But a chicken burrito can easily top 1,000 calories, depending on toppings.

Build your own order

Fast-food chains employ a variety of methods to bypass your good intentions and get you to spend more, which usually translates into inhaling more calories.

Subway, which positions itself as a fresh, healthy alternative, isn’t exempt. The potato chips it sells, for example, aren’t just on a rack off to the side, but also line the counter that people walk alongside to order.

The strategic placement is intended to boost the chances you’ll grab a bag while you’re dictating what you want on your sub. Once you get to the register, a shelf of cookies beckons as well.

The classic example of the upsell, of course, is the combo meal, which makes it easier for you to order quickly while also helping you spend and eat a little more.

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