Takeaway foods are handy for those occasions when you don’t have time to prepare a meal or are away from home. Many are relatively cheap and this increases their appeal.
If you only have an occasional takeaway meal, say only every couple of months, it may not matter what you choose. For those who eat takeaway foods more often (on average Australians choose these foods 2.5 times per week), wiser choices are important for dietary balance and good health.
The following are some problems with takeaway foods.
Many takeaway food companies keep their prices down by using inexpensive ingredients which may include fatty meats as well as high levels of added fats, salt and sugar.
Most takeaway meals are also problematic because they include only minimal quantities of vegetables. Potatoes may be only available as fatty, salty chips and any salads are swamped with fatty, salty mayonnaise or dressings.
Many takeaway foods are high in fat. This may arise because of large portion sizes, fatty meats used in burgers or on pizzas; frying; croissants, banana bread and dessert items; or salads with mayonnaise dressings and bacon. Most pasta dishes sold from heated containers also have fatty sauces or added oil to prevent the pasta strands from sticking together.
The quality of frying fats is also of concern. Major takeaway chains have changed to using frying oils with only minimal quantities of a trans fat that can have adverse effects on heart health. Some smaller outlets, however, may still use frying fats with high levels of trans fat. They may be unaware of this as there is no legal requirement for the company selling the frying fat to label its trans fat content, unless the product carries a health claim. Others may use frying fats that are high in saturated fats, also a poor choice for heart health. Frying oils used over many hours will also degrade to form compounds that can be harmful to health. The solution is to minimise consumption of fried takeaway foods.
The salt levels in most savoury takeaway foods also put them above recommended level for sodium intake. Where possible, ask for no added salt.
Sugar is also a problem and comes in sweet drinks, muffins, banana bread and dessert items. The levels are usually well above the World Health Organization’s recommendation that we limit daily sugar to no more than 12 teaspoons, and preferably 6 teaspoons. To put this in perspective, a can of soft drink or a slice of banana bread has approximately 12 teaspoons of sugar, a ‘mud’ muffin has 16 teaspoons.
Many takeaway outlets compete to see who can give customers the most food or drink for the least cost. This has led to jumbo burgers, two-for-one meal deals, ‘buckets’ of fried chicken and chips, as well as single serve rolls, wraps, pizza, kebabs, muffins, smoothies and frappes that are big enough to feed more than one.
Making healthier choices
Burgers: Go for a simple regular sized burger with a meat patty and salad inside a bun. Avoid adding bacon, extra cheese and anything ‘double’. A ‘burger with the lot’ can triple the kilojoule count and send fat and salt intake soaring above .
Fries/chips: Compared by weight, the larger surface area on smaller fries means they will absorb more fat than bigger chips or wedges. Choose the smallest size serving and say no to added salt. With chips (and any other fried foods, steer clear of outlets where the fat is re-used over hours as vegetable oils degrade with long-term heating. If the fat in the fryer looks brown or you can smell it, go somewhere else.
Fish and seafood: Oysters (natural) are an excellent choice. Grilled fish or any other grilled seafood is also a good choice. Avoid battered or crumbed products as their coating absorbs large amounts of fat during deep-frying (see fries/chips).
Chicken: Flame-grilled chicken is a reasonable choice and better than rotisseried birds which are preferable to fried or crumbed chicken pieces. Avoid stuffing as it is salty and soaks up the fat that drips from the chicken during cooking. Avoid nuggets as they are made from re-formed chicken with added flour, thickeners and a large range of unnecessary additives.
Pizza: Pizza varies in its size and composition between different providers. A wood-fired pizza base is fine but a standard sized pizza is best shared between at least 2, and preferably 3 people. Choose a simple vegetable-based or marinara topping and avoid processed meats, double cheese and any fried toppings. Some menus have a range of “Good Choice” pizzas.
Salads: A simple green or vegetable salad is fine. Salads with quinoa or tabbouli or lentils or other types of legumes are also healthy choices that will provide dietary fibre and a good range of nutrients. Be wary of coleslaw, potato and other salads with mayonnaise as the dressing increases the kilojoules.
Sandwiches/rolls: Choose wholegrain bread if possible. With wraps and rolls, go for small sizes, avoid mayonnaise, fried fillings (eg schnitzel) and extra cheese.
Sweet items: A slice of raisin toast with a scrape of butter is a better choice (less than half the kilojoules) than muffins, cheesecake or banana bread.
Pasta: Tomato or vegetable based sauces are fine, but avoid creamy sauces. Ask for a small serving of pasta or share if serving sizes are large. Add a green salad.
Asian foods: Rice paper rolls or sushi are a healthy low-fat choice and almost always include fresh vegetables, although the quantities may be small. Minimise soy dipping sauces because of their high salt content.
Sashimi (raw fish) is an excellent choice, but check it is fresh and refrigerated. No problems with wasabi but soy sauce is salty, so use sparingly or skip it.
Edamame (green soy beans) are usually steamed and make a nutritious snack food.
Stir-fries are usually healthy, but watch the serving size and the accompanying rice portion.
Steaming is a healthy cooking method for fish, vegetables and dumplings. Take care with accompanying sauces due to their high salt content.
Fresh fruit with yoghurt is a good choice, as is porridge made with oats or chia.
Croissants, especially those with ham and cheese (1920 kJ) are high in fat, salt and kilojoules. Hot cakes and most muffins also pack a powerful punch of fat and banana ‘bread’ is a high fat, high sugar form of cake (2570 kJ). Toast (especially wholegrain) with avocado, tomato or egg is a healthier choice.
Green, black or white teas are suitable drinks. Avoid canned and prepared iced teas as they are high in sugar.
Coffee in moderation (up to 3 cups/day) is fine. Black coffee has virtually no kilojoules.
A regular-sized ‘eat-in’ flat white or latte will contain milk that provides 350 kJ (regular milk), 290 (reduced-fat milk) or 190 kJ (skim milk).
Takeaway coffees vary in size, so check with different companies. Average sizes are small (220 mL); medium (375 mL); large (475 mL). The milk used in these three sizes will provide 400 kJ, 675 kJ to 865 kJ for regular milk, or 325 kJ, 560 kJ or 720 kJ for reduced-fat milk. If skim milk is available, it will contribute 210 kJ, 360 kJ or 460 kJ. Each sachet of sugar will add 70 kJ.
Coffee or chocolate beverages with caramel, vanilla, chocolate, mocha or other flavoured syrups may have as much as 2340 kJ, or 2100 kJ for skim milk versions. A large Tim Tam iced chocolate drink comes in at 2830 kJ or 2590 kJ for the skim milk version!
Drinks that contain milk (or alternatives such as soy or nut milks), yoghurt and fruit provide nutrients. Take care, however, as some of these products also contain sugar syrups and fruit juice concentrates. Large sizes may contain the equivalent of over 30 cubes of sugar.
Soft drinks, energy drinks, juice drinks and ‘vitamin’ waters provide sugar and are best avoided.
|Sugar content of different drinks|
|Drink||Sugar content (tsp)|
|Sports drinks, 600 mL bottle||9|
|Soft drink, 1 can||10-12|
|Soft drink, large fast food restaurant size||17|
|Frozen cola, small||14|
|Hot chocolate, large||16|
|Frappe, range for small-large||12-26|
|Fruzie, range for small-large||13-31|