Subway’s identity problem (and why it matters).

If you are looking for a healthy place to eat lunch, chances are you will think of Subway. More than any other fast food restaurant, Subway has developed a reputation for being a healthy choice, consistent with losing weight and an active lifestyle. While you can get healthy food at Subway, you may end up eating a meal that is similar to traditional fast food in terms of calories, fat, and sodium.

This “identity problem” — Is it a healthy option to regular fast food? Or just an alternative to fast food? —  is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.  This matters, of course, because you may well be fooling yourself into thinking you are making healthy choices when you aren’t.

Subway has long been thought of a healthy alternative to traditional fast food. This is largely due to a menu that has fresh-looking sandwiches rather than burgers and fries. Food at Subway looks healthy. This image is enhanced by a marketing strategy that associates Subway with health and wellness, something they seem to do better than any other fast food chain. Advertisements featuring former Olympians were abundant during the winter Olympics television broadcasts and the continuing association with Jared Fogle, who lost nearly 250 pounds by drastically changing his diet—including eating at Subway—and becoming more active strengthen this image.

The Subway menu does include several sandwiches designated as Fresh Fit choices that are low in fat and calories and could contain a full serving of vegetables. If you read the fine print you will see that this is true if you order a 6-inch sandwich on plain bread with meat and veggies, but no condiments or cheese. Adding mayo, sauces, and cheese or substituting another bread will increase the calories and fat in the sandwich. But, if you make smart choices, select a healthy side such as apple slices, and have water, unsweet tea, or another calorie-free drink, you can get a healthy, low-calorie meal.

However, that does not mean that all of the sandwiches at Subway are good choices if you want limit calories or fat. One of the sandwiches featured currently is the Fritos chicken enchilada sandwich, which is served exactly as it sounds: shredded chicken topped with enchilada sauce and Fritos chips. But if it comes from Subway it must be healthy, right?

Wrong! If you look at the nutrition information you will find that this sandwich has 580 calories, 26 grams of fat (which account for 40% of the calories), and 1170 milligrams of sodium (nearly half of what you should get in a whole day). The best traditional fast food comparison is the Big Mac at McDonald’s, which has 550 calories, 29 grams of fat, and 970 milligrams of sodium. Considering that many people eat at Subway in an effort to avoid the fat and calories of fast food, this would not be a good choice.

The point is that while you can get a healthy meal at Subway, many menus items are as high in fat, calories, and sodium as food at other fast food restaurants. The image that Subway has carefully cultivated likely conceals this fact, leading people to think they are eating a healthy meal when, in reality, they are not. It is also possible to get a meal at McDonald’s and many other fast food restaurants that is nutritionally similar to the healthier sandwiches at Subway.

This is a good lesson, since menus at many restaurants include a “healthy choices” section. Keep in mind that food that appears to be healthy may not be and that a restaurant typically thought of as a poor choice may have healthy menu items. The trick is to check out the nutrition information and make smart choices.

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