Northern Illinois University

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Sandra Meister
Sandra Meister

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

August 29, 2007

Graduate student in nutrition creates
guide to healthy fast food in DeKalb

DeKalb — College students are like most adults: busy and on a budget.

The temptation of fast food, with its convenience and affordability, lures many into the drive-through lanes. Extra pounds usually come as part of the package.

But fast food lovers can avoid obesity if they just choose wisely, says Sandra Meister, a graduate student in nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University.

Meister analyzed the menus of 19 local restaurants, all of which accept Huskie Bucks, in an effort to find the healthy selections. Her 16-page report lists the best options from each with occasional tips on how to eat even smarter.

“There are more healthy choices out there than I thought there would be,” says Meister, a master’s student in the School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences, housed in NIU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

“On each menu, I was looking for the leanest meats possible for sandwiches; whole grains; grilled items rather than fried; vegetable toppings for pizza and sandwiches; and low-fat dressings and condiments,” she adds. “For side items, if instead of choosing fries you could choose baked chips or fruit or something else, then I had that as an option, too.”

For example, Meister offers several good decisions at McDonald’s. Among them:

  • Hamburger
  • Premium Grilled Chicken Classic Sandwich
  • Grilled “Snack Wrap” with ranch or honey mustard dressing on the side
  • Small fries (“If you must eat fries,” she writes, “small is best.”)
  • Asian or Caesar salads with grilled chicken; dressing on the side (“Watch portion!”)
  • Side salad
  • Snack-size fruit and walnut salad

At Chipotle, Meister recommends chicken, steak and vegetarian selections.

“Salsas are fat-free and full of veggies. You can’t eat too much of these,” she writes. “Choose as many veggies as possible. Black beans and pinto beans add complex carbohydrates and fiber and taste great! Go light on the cheese, sour cream and guacamole (one small spoonful of sour cream and/or guacamole is plenty).”

Headed to KFC? Order the chicken breast without skin or breading, Meister says. Long John Silver’s? The baked cod is best, she says. Pizza? Forget the sausage and pepperoni, she advises, in favor of chicken, green peppers, ham, jalapeños, mushrooms, pineapples, red onions and tomatoes.

Some items in the document, such as smoothies, milk shakes, pasta and pizza are included because the project was originally developed for use by athletes who need carbohydrates to fuel their activity. The general population must know that all foods should be eaten in moderation and within caloric needs, Meister says.

Judith Lukaszuk, a professor in the School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences, says Meister’s “in-depth and thorough” work is valuable to everyone on campus.

“It’s promising that there are some better choices to make. You have to be educated,” Lukaszuk says. “Some people think they’re doing really well by getting a salad, for instance, but then they load it up with crumbled bleu cheese and then dressing. They would’ve been better off getting a sandwich.”

Meister’s informal research stems from a project last year to analyze the diets of NIU athletes. Lukaszuk, a licensed professional, supervised the interaction.

“I know that a lot of the athletes use their Huskie Bucks for their meals, and it’s a fast way for them to eat after practice. I saw a lot of McDonald’s dollar-menu items, twice a day, in their diets,” Meister says. “You can’t always choose those.”

She found an online list of restaurants that accept Huskie Bucks and visited each in search of menus and nutritional guides. Taking the pile home, she dug through them for the choices that make the best dietary sense.

The report came together over a long weekend. Meister then e-mailed her work to one Huskie football player, who had expressed interest in a copy, and to Clete McLeod, an assistant coach in strength and conditioning.

McLeod calls Meister’s report “very comprehensive.”

“We’ve shown the athletes the information. We’ve displayed the information. We’ve given it to them in print,” he says. “At this level, eating well is their job. It’s as important as any other part of their training. They really need to treat their bodies like the job it is.”

McLeod, who holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, says he and Meister enjoy an ongoing collaboration. “We approach all the athletes about nutrition, and then I refer them to Sandra,” he says. “Any help that I can get with the athletes over here is welcome.”

“Sandra’s report is a nice tool for them to use,” Lukaszuk adds. “It says, ‘Hey, this is where you could make improvements. You would have more energy if you would eat more of these types of foods.’ A lot weren’t getting enough carbohydrates, and carbohydrates give you energy for your muscles.”

Now Meister is mulling the next step.

“I wish I could go into those restaurants and put a little Huskie symbol by each of those healthy menu choices,” she says. “It would be so helpful for the athletes if they didn’t have to think about what to order: Just eat what’s by the symbol. It’s a healthier choice.”

Of course, Meister’s own diet is not a stranger to fast food.

“But I know exactly what to choose,” she says. “If I’m in a hurry, and I go to Taco Bell, I eat grilled chicken taquitos, Fresco style. They come with a salsa mix of tomatoes and onions. It’s probably one of the healthiest choices I can make.”

The report is online at http://www.niu.edu/northerntoday/2007/aug27/healthyguide.shtml.

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