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Fast-food Diners Finding Healthier Alternatives

Dieters can now grab lunch on the go without super-sizing their intake of fat and calories at a burger joint. The answer: “fast-casual” restaurants.

Eateries like Panera Bread, Au Bon Pain, Baja Fresh and Subway are inching ahead in the battle for fast-food appetites. With nearly 65 percent of adults overweight, these often healthier alternatives are looking better than ever.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Fast-food establishments are also attempting to better their menus and offer healthy alternatives to their grease-ridden burgers and fries. Burger King offers a veggie burger and McDonald’s features a Cobb salad with Newman’s Own salad dressing. 
McDonald’s is also considering adding sliced apples and perhaps other fruits, vegetables and low-fat yogurt to its Happy Meals, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Cobb salad is just one of several premium salads the fast-food giant rolled out recently, and an all-white meat chicken nugget is also being tested. 
With healthier dining options available for those in a rush, McDonald’s has little choice but to offer healthier alternatives. The fast-food king recently posted its first ever quarterly loss.

The fast-casual market is getting a boost from 18- to 34-year-olds, who represent about 37 percent of its customers, according to Trendsetters.com. This age group has traditionally been faithful fast-food customers. 
The fast-casual group represents the fastest-growing segment of the industry, grabbing a $5 billion share of the $128 billion spent on the fast-food industry. The fast-casual market has been growing 25 percent per year for the past three years, compared to <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />2 to 3 percent growth for regular fast food.

And people apparently don’t mind paying a little more for alternative fare.  
Fast-casual restaurants generally feature more personal service, an upgraded décor and an $8 average meal cost—double the typical fast-food bill.

But nutrition watchdog the Center for Science in the Public Interest said consumers still need to keep their wits when choosing from fast-casual restaurants’ generally more healthy fare. 
“Amidst the bean soups and veggie-laden salads at chains like Panera Bread, Au Bon Pain, and Briazz are some nutritional surprises whose fat, saturated fat, or sodium can eclipse that of the worst fast-food burgers,” CSPI reported in its “Nutrition Action Healthletter.”

Picking selections that mix salads, sandwiches and soups are a great start, but steer clear of calorie- and fat-laden choices like broccoli-cheese soup, sandwiches with large amounts of cheese and salads topped with bacon, eggs and bleu cheese dressing, the newsletter advised.