10 Things You Didn’t Know About Fast Food

8 minute read

You’ll never look at a tray of burgers and fries the same way again.

They may seem relatively harmless, but Ronald, Wendy and that Burger King guy are all members of an underground society of fast food owners—a club with more tricks up its sleeve than Houdini. The good news: Protecting your waistline and wallet doesn’t mean you have to always ditch the burgers, sandwiches and fries you hate to love. Once you’ve learned the fast food industry’s trade secrets, it’s easy to place healthier orders, lose weight and save your hard-earned dollars.

1. It can make you sad

Strange but true: Even if you generally eat a healthy diet, consuming fast food can increase your risk for depression, according to a Public Health Nutrition study of nearly 9,000 participants. In fact, those who eat greasy burgers, hot dogs and fries are 51 percent more likely to develop depression that those who don’t indulge. Thankfully for those who only hit up the drive through once in awhile, the researchers observed a dose-response relationship between the blues and the burgers. “The more fast food you consume, the greater the risk of depression,” explains Almudena Sánchez-Villegas, lead author of the study. The takeaway here: Try to limit your fast food habit to once or twice per month at the very most. Or better yet, stick to one of these healthy fast food restaurants when you need to grab grub on the run.

2. Most of us have no idea how caloric it is

If you’re an avid Eat This, Not That! reader, you probably have a pretty good idea how many calories are in your go-to fast food order. But the majority of folks aren’t as knowledgeable, according to a Harvard Medical School report. To come to this finding, researchers asked 1,877 adults, 330 school age children and 1,178 adolescents dining at Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s how caloric they thought their meals were. Compared with the actual figures, participants underestimated their meal’s calorie content by 175 calories, 259 calories, and 175 calories, respectively. If the calorie information is printed on the menu, give it a peek and look for something with 500 calories or less. (At BK that’s might mean ordering a Whopper Jr. Sandwich, a side salad with half a dressing packet and a water.)

3. Just living near it can make you heavier

Your pal Ronald put his restaurant by your house on purpose: he wants you, bad. And that’s because one of the strongest influences on fast food consumption is ease of access. Basically, if we see it and can easily get it, we will eat it. In fact, having a fast food restaurant within 0.1 miles of a school increases the probability of obesity among students by 5.2 percent, according to a joint study conducted by Columbia University and University of California, Berkeley. For pregnant women, having a restaurant within 0.5 miles increases the probability of gaining over 44 pounds during pregnancy by 2.5 percent. (Experts typically recommend that women with a healthy BMI gain no more than 25 to 35 pounds after becoming pregnant.) To maintain your trim figure, keep healthy, grab-and-go snacks in your car or bag. If you’re prepared with your own healthy fare, you’ll be less apt to give in to temptation when your tummy starts to rumble. These 25 Eat This!-Approved Snacks are all solid options.

Read more: 25 Easy Ways to Lose 10 Pounds

4. Kentucky eats the most of it

Kentucky may be called the Bluegrass State, but maybe it should change its nickname to the Fast Food State. With more than four establishments per 10,000 residents, they have more fast food joints than anywhere else in America. (Considering they are home to Papa John’s International Inc. and Yum! Brands Incorporated, the company that owns fast food giants Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, we can’t say we’re totally shocked.) Kentucky also has the twelfth highest adult obesity rate in the nation, according to the non-profit organization Trust for America’s Health. A few possible reasons why there’s a connection: Not only is it harder to resist temptation when there’s fast food all around, it also drives down the cost, making it even more accessible and attractive, say researchers.

5. It’s not cheap

Contrary to conventional thought, eating dinner at a fast food chain isn’t cheap. In fact, it costs about $30 for a family of four to have dinner at their local McDonald’s. On the flip side, for just $12 you could easily buy a pound of millet, ($1.99) a pound of ground turkey ($5.99), and a bag or two of frozen veggies ($2.00-$4.00) and cook up a big bowl of yum and nutrition. For even more ways to save dough on your groceries, check out these 17 Simple Swaps That Save $255 a Month on Groceries!

6. The flame-grilled flavor is fake

Have you ever wondered how your favorite burgers and chicken sandwiches get that fresh-off-the-fire taste even though they’re frozen and cooked indoors? We have. And as it turns out, that smokey flavor is isn’t legit. When a fast food item contains something called “natural smoke flavor” it likely was created by Red Arrow Products Company, a commercial flavor firm. To create the flavor, the company burns wood, captures the flavor of the smoke in water, bottles it and sells it to places like Burger King and Wendy’s. We bet that burger seems a little less appetizing now, right?

Read more: 14 Ways to Lose Your Belly in 14 Days

7. They serve nutritionist-approved meals

“Not only do I eat guilt-free at McDonald’s, I think they get a bad rap all too often,” says Christine M. Palumbo, a Chicago-area registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant. Other diet experts concur. We’ve sat down with countless experts and asked them when they order at places like Burger King, Mickey D’s, Panera, Wendy’s, and Starbucks and they never come up short. It’s all about navigating the menus with some knowledge on your side. To ensure you know everything you need to know to eat fries without expanding your waistline, check out our exclusive report, How to Eat Fast Food—Without Gaining Weight!

8. They decorate to make you crave

Have you noticed that a lot of fast food chains use the same colors on their logos and inside their restaurants? That’s no coincidence. Pizza Hut, In-N-Out Burger, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King—just to name a few—all use yellow and red in their logos. These hues have been proven to grab consumers’ attention, stimulate appetite, increase the speed in which we eat and make us crave all things convenience—including fast food, say University of Rochester researchers. To keep your appetite in check, order from the drive-thru window and enjoy your food at home. Nowhere near your house? If the weather is nice, eat outside the restaurant at a picnic table or take your meal to a nearby park.

9. They use words against you

A lot of health-minded folks go into fast food joints with the best of intentions but somehow end up leaving with a bacon cheeseburger and a soggy order of fries. Here’s why it keeps happening: Food marketers tend to use descriptive phrases on their menus and in-store ads such as “Finger lickin’ good” and “hot n’ juicy” to boost the craveability of menu items they’re hoping to sell. (The only problem is, they’re not typically pushing the healthy stuff; those dishes are less apt to get you hooked.) In fact, customers are 27 percent more likely to order an item if it’s described with yummy-sounding adjectives, say Cornell University researchers. The same group of scholars also found that certain menu design elements such as fancy fonts, colors, and graphics tend to draw the eyes toward specific items and can sway customers’ orders. Next time you hit up a fast food joint, your best bet is to decide on an order (preferably one of these 20 healthiest fast food orders) before you arrive and stick to your guns when you get up to the counter—no matter how “finger lickin’ good” those ribs may sound.

Read more: 55 Best Ways to Boost Your Metabolism

10. “Medium” is actually a large

Duke University researchers discovered that chains often encourage customers to buy larger sodas by increasing the number of ounces in all their sodas. That’s because people subconsciously pick the middle option, so the larger the “medium,” the more they can charge for it—those sneaky devils! Consider this just one more reason to stick to water and avoid the chemical-spiked sugar water altogether.

To learn more about fast food facts, read the rest of the article at Eat This, Not That!

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com