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Cheaper Meals Costing Americans their Health

Nutritionists warn that people in the United States are at risk of obesity and long-term health problems as they substitute cheap, fast food for healthy meals to try to weather the economic slump.

America has been called the "fast food nation" - and for good reason.

Studies suggest that U.S. consumers spend $110 billion a year on fast food.

As the effects of the recession take root, Americans are making more concessions to their lifestyles and budgets....and for many, that includes more of the cheap, convenient meals offered by fast food chains like Burger King, Popeyes, and Wendy's.

In fact, as most restaurants see their profits falling, fast food chains continue to see positive sales gains. In April, McDonald's recorded a 6.9 percent increase in global sales compared to the same period a year before.

Some customers in Washington D.C. say they have noticed more people lining up outside the Golden Arches.

"I am definitely eating more fast food now than I did six months ago," one customer, David Wilkinson said.

"I see people lined up every morning," consumer Virak Sath said.

"I find that people are turning to fast food franchises not because they really like it, but because you have to go where your money allows you to go, which means you can either go to McDonald's or starve," Joseph Pettus, Jr. explains. "So it's better to eat something than nothing."

But nutritionists warn that fast-food meals are often high in calories and fat, and don't include enough fresh fruits or vegetables.

Dr. Lalita Kaul of Howard University Hospital says that consuming too many burgers, fries, or other fried foods can have a lasting impact on health. "Over the long term, because that meal will be high in sodium and fat, and high fat, high sodium can lead to hypertension and arterial sclerosis...and it can end up a heart attack," Dr. Kaul said.

Many fast food customers choose to concentrate on the immediate effect on their wallets, not possible expenses down the road for heart disease, early-onset diabetes, and other diet-related illness.

"Today I got a chicken sandwich and an order of french fries and it only cost me $2.30 and that was really reasonable for me to eat for lunch," fast food consumer, Sandra Smith said.

"As far as me personally, I'm going," Isaac Odom said. "Because it's just something to fill my stomach."

To stay full and healthy, Dr. Kaul recommends looking for special offers at grocery stores on fruits, vegetables, and lean meats, using healthier preparation methods like baking instead of frying, balancing food groups, and eating in moderation.

She admits it can take time and creativity to plan out nutritious meals while sticking to a budget - but she says it's worth the effort.

"Three things are important in planning - taste, cost, and convenience...I have cost it out. You will see a difference at the end of the week - you will save $20 on the whole," Dr. Kaul said.

And the long-term health benefits that come with those minor savings will outlast the economic downturn.