How Fast Food Can be Healthy

Props to Chipotle for its "food with integrity"

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By Lisa Browdy

Health Blogger

Before I was a blogger and health coach, I was a Yelper – one of those people who have to write a review about every place she eats and visits. Now most Yelpers are good kids, but many look disdainfully at chain restaurants. Of course, authentic mom-and-pop places are usually better. And I certainly have no love for the majority of fast-food chains that have overrun our highways and waistlines.

But I must admit that I have a deep fondness for Chipotle, the quick-casual Mexican restaurant chain that has shown impressive growth in recent years, in spite of the poor economy (Fortune magazine placed it at #54 on its list of "The 100 Fastest-Growing Companies for 2011). Chipotle may not provide the authentic burrito that you would get at a taqueria in Pilsen or Berwyn, but you gotta give them props for making it a priority to use naturally raised meat and produce, and spending a lot of time educating people on why that is important.

On Oct. 1 I ventured to Lincoln Park to check out the Chipotle "Cultivate" Festival. This day-long, one-city-only event brought music, food and awareness together in a really enjoyable package. There were five tents that educated in a non-preachy way about the differences between factory farming of meat and produce, and natural methods that produce healthier, better tasting ingredients. It was a detailed illustration of the company's motto: "Food With Integrity is our commitment to finding the very best ingredients raised with respect for the animals, the environment, and the farmers."

I saw pictures of animals penned-up and pumped full of drugs in factory farms and those raised naturally with room to roam and a vegetarian diet. I learned that the American pork industry uses over 10 million pounds of antibiotics a year to keep confined pigs from getting sick, which is more than three times the amount used to treat all human illness! I also learned that Chipotle uses organic, family farmed and local produce for their fillings and toppings whenever possible. It's not at 100 percent yet, because there are more Chipotle restaurants than natural farms these days.  Chipotle's huge influence in the market is hopefully encouraging more farms to go the humane route.

You could learn all this stuff at the Chipotle website, of course, but having live bands and a craft beer tent certainly got the attention of people who might not have learned this stuff otherwise. The Festival also had a tent that showcased local food artisans (I had a delightful blueberry galette) and two tents where well-known chefs gave demonstrations.

Like most restaurant food, Chipotle's offerings can pack a punch in calories, fat, and sodium (I'll call it CFS for short). But there is a way around it if you order carefully. First, stay away from the flour tortilla. You would be surprised how this seemingly benign wrapper has a higher CFS count than any of the meat fillings! And it really doesn't add much in the way of flavor, when you think about it. White flour is metabolized by our bodies in much the same way as sugar is, so except for special occasions I try to avoid it.

It would be nice if Chipotle offered a whole-wheat tortilla, but they don't, so go for the corn tortillas (only available in taco form) when possible. Surprisingly, the CFS is lower for the crispy corn taco shells than the flour burrito wrap. Go figure. You can also opt for the Burrito Bowl with a base of cilantro-lime white rice, or a Salad with all your burrito ingredients atop some romaine lettuce.

Check out the statistics for yourself at the Chipotle nutrition page here:  You can also try out this handy nutrition calculator that lets you pick out your ingredients and informs you of calories, fat, sodium and protein of your Chipotle meal. My favorite entree – crisp corn tortillas (they're fried but at least they're whole grain), black beans, chicken, salsa, lettuce and a cheese – came out to a respectable 610 calories and 22 grams of fat. The sodium is half my daily allowance, which is to be expected at almost any restaurant. All is well until I add the chips, which doubles the totals. So watch out for those lovely I lime-dusted chips, and if you get them try to share one order with at least two other people.

Are you a Chipotle fan? How many calories are in your burrito?

Email: Twitter: LisaBrowdy

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Reader Comments

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Lisa Miller Browdy from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 10th, 2011 7:01 PM

Thanks for pointing that out, Rachel! So many people are gluten intolerant/ allergic these days, and I didn't even think to mention it. But even those who have no problem with wheat should stay away from those flour tortillas -- "muy" calories and "poco" flavor.

Rachel Grossman  

Posted: October 10th, 2011 8:04 AM

And I think almost everything it serves, except the flour tortillas, is gluten free, which makes it one of the very few fast food possibilities for people who are gluten-intolerant. Of course, you do have to watch for cross-contamination, but we usually get the salad and steer clear of anything near the tortillas.

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