Nowadays, fast food restaurants carry a bad reputation for causing a wide range of health problems. Especially McDonalds. Terms like "McMansion" or "burger flipper" always carry a low-class connotation. Someone living in a McMansion is usually a professional/middle-class person who can afford to buy one of those very big, quickly constructed, cookie-cutter houses that clutter and represent American suburbia. Someone who flips burgers for a living does a minimum-wage job with little or no room for professional growth within the corporation, even though flipping burgers is a culinary skill not available to beginner cooks.
I do not believe that fast food restaurants deserve the condemnation from people for being "unhealthy". Instead, I believe that fast food restaurants serve food that may be healthy or unhealthy within a specific context.
Take the Big Mac, for example. The Big Mac has 540 calories, 28 grams of total fat, 25 grams of protein, and 46 grams of total carbs. Taking a look at the ingredients on the McDonalds website, I see that the Big Mac's bun is composed of enriched unbleached flour, water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, soybean oil, contains 2% or less: salt, wheat gluten, sesame seeds, calcium sulfate and ammonium sulfate as leavening agent, may contain one or more dough conditioners: sodium stearoyl lactylate, DATEM, ascorbic acid, mono and diglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, enzymes, calcium peroxide, and calcium propionate as preservative.
The cheese is composed of milk, cream, water, sodium citrate, cheese cultures, salt, color added, sorbic acid as preservative, citric acid, lactic acid, acetic acid, enzymes, and soy lecithin. The beef patty is composed of 100% pure USDA inspected beef (no fillers, no extenders) and prepared with grill seasoning (salt and pepper). The pickles are composed of cucumbers, water, distilled vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, alum, potassium sorbate as preservative, natural flavors, polysorbate 80, and extractives of turmeric for color.
The shredded lettuce is just shredded lettuce. The onions are just onions. The Big Mac sauce is composed of soybean oil, pickle relish (diced pickles, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, vinegar, corn syrup, salt, calcium chloride, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate as preservative, spice extractives, polysorbate 80), distilled vinegar, water, egg yolks, onion powder, spices, salt, propylene glycol alginate, sodium benzoate as preservative, mustard bran, sugar, garlic powder, vegetable protein (hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat), caramel color, extractives of paprika, soy lecithin, turmeric for color, and calcium disodium EDTA to protect flavor.
It is possible that the Big Mac is unhealthy for some people, particularly those who are sensitive to gluten, calcium propionate, milk and milk-based products, and soy products. But most people can consume the burger fine.
Depending on the city, the Big Mac may cost anywhere from $3 to $5. The Combo meal will certainly push the price up further than that, but assuming that you just buy the Big Mac, you will probably spend $3-$5 for 540 calories worth of food.
Whether the Big Mac is healthy or not depends on the individual. If the individual is sensitive to gluten, calcium propionate, milk and milk-based products, and soy products, then no, it's not healthy for that person. If the person's doctor recommends a low-sodium diet, then eating a Big Mac in one sitting is not following the doctor's orders, because the Big Mac has a whopping 960 mg of sodium. All that sodium is likely going to make a person thirsty. Hopefully, the person drinks the water from the water fountain in the restaurant instead of ordering one of the caffeinated beverages.
Judging the price of the Big Mac, it is not very economical to buy a 540-calorie Big Mac sandwich for $3-$5. On howmuchisit.org, a 5-pound bag of Russet potatoes at a retail store is $3-$5. Where I live, these bags of potatoes can become even cheaper to one dollar when on sale. Five pounds of baked Russet potatoes with flesh and skin (2267.96185 grams) yield 2,200 calories. On the same website, chicken breasts are $1-3 per pound (453.59237 grams).
After baking in the oven, the chicken breasts may yield about 635 calories per pound. According to Wikipedia as of 10/27/2016, a Big Mac contains 90.8 grams of beef, a more expensive kind of meat. On the same website, the value of ground beef is usually around $4 per pound for regular beef to $8 per pound for organic beef. Grass-fed Traditions ground beef costs about $7.50 per 1-pound package. Northern Harvest extra lean ground beef costs $5.79 per pound. The amount of calories in ground beef depends on how lean/muscular the meat is.
70% lean ground beef = 332 calories per 100 grams
95% lean ground beef = 174 calories per 100 grams
Grass-fed ground beef = 198 calories per 100 grams
So, ground beef probably consists of 789 to 1,506 calories per pound of meat. The Big Mac uses 90.8 grams of beef for 2 patties. Using 70% to 95% lean ground beef, two home-made Big Mac burger patties may be about 158 to 301 calories. So, theoretically, it is possible to make almost 10 Big Mac patties, which can be made into 5 hamburgers with every pound of lean ground beef.
According to this website, I found that the Big Mac weighs 216 grams. That means the burger patties make up 42% of the hamburger by mass. If the price of a Big Mac is $3-$5, then that's $1.26-$2.10 for the meat. 90.8 grams of beef make up only 20% of the pound of beef or about $0.80 (regular) to $1.60 (organic). I don't know about you, but if you want to get your money's worth of food, then that Big Mac burger must be organic and grass-fed! In reality, 100% organic burgers by McDonalds are coming to Germany.
How Fast Food Restaurants Can Be Useful
Fast food restaurants are businesses. They need to make a profit. They need to make the food enticing enough, so that customers will buy their products. One thing that people can learn from fast food restaurants is meal presentation. The food must look good, taste good, and smell good. Judging by the amount of calories and the price, fast food restaurants are not very cost-effective by the calorie. Bottom line: if you want to buy more food calories for your buck, then you are better off going to a regular supermarket.
It is possible to take inspiration from the fast food restaurant menu items and buy raw ingredients at a supermarket to make your own home-made fast food, using, for example, the McDonalds ingredients list as a guideline. To make the hamburger bun, you need enriched all-purpose flour, water, yeast, some kind of plant oil, salt, sesame seeds, and some replacement ingredients. High fructose corn syrup is just a form of sugar. Calcium propionate is used as a bread preservative. It naturally occurs in butter and some cheeses. There is no evidence that it is harmful to human health. But it can be replaced by butter, seeing that butter contains the chemical.
But all that cooking does take a significant amount of time, especially the bread. So, one big advantage that McDonalds gives to customers is that it offers fancy meals. Historically, McDonalds had skilled cooks working in the kitchen. Now, the restaurants have sophisticated, mechanized kitchens. McDonalds and other fast food restaurants don't deserve the poor reputation and the blame about serving unhealthy food. What does "unhealthy" really mean without context?
The unhealthy American diet is due to a combination of many factors: mothers who work full-time and don't have the time to make something good for their families, aggressive marketing towards children to instill a cradle-to-grave loyalty, public schools that have to make deals with fast food companies in order to bring in revenue, food deserts, and the perception of fast food as a cheap source of food. Only in this context, fast food restaurants are considered unhealthy. In contrast, if you eat at a fast food joint once a year, like on your birthday, and the rest of the year you have an overall balanced diet, then fast food is considered part of a healthy diet.