Healthy Fast Food Guide: How To Leave The Drive-Thru With Less Regret

A dietitian shares her top picks for healthy choices when you need a quick bite.

January 23, 2018
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You’ve got back-to-back meetings, a project due by the end of the day, a post-work networking event, and a couple of errands to run to top it all off. Before you know it, it’s 2 in the afternoon, your stomach’s rumbling, and you’ve got just 10 minutes to find something to scarf down. Looks like fast food is the only solution today.

So as you enter the drive-thru, your eyes scan the menu. Juicy cheeseburger with piping-hot fries…crispy chicken sandwich on a fluffy white bun with a generous slather of mayonnaise…maybe even a chocolate milkshake to wash it all down. Looks like your healthy eating plan is out the window for today, right?

Not necessarily.

“Nowadays, there are lots of really healthy options at fast food restaurants,” Amy Goodson, a registered dietitian in Dallas, tells HealthyWay. “It doesn’t mean you have to eat a burger with fries and a milkshake every time you visit the drive-thru. You can make small changes to improve the overall nutrition value of the meal.”

Goodson teaches busy families, students, and professional athletes about the healthiest fast food options available when they’re on the go, and she wants to help you leave the drive-thru with a little less regret.

Here’s her expert advice on the healthiest fast food options at big chains and how to avoid a calorie bomb while still enjoying your favorite foods—because the last thing you need is to leave the drive-thru feeling remorseful on a jam-packed day.

Let’s face the facts.

You’re probably not surprised when you read news headlines about the unhealthy nature of most fast food. But what exactly makes some of these convenient meals so bad for you?

“The typical fast food choices, like burgers and fries and onion rings, are really processed. You’re looking at meat that’s generally not the leanest cuts, lots of processed carbohydrates, and tons of stuff that’s fried in oil,” Goodson explains.

It’s not that a burger in general is unhealthy, she adds. It’s just that the typical ones from the drive-thru have been prepared in a facility many miles away, loaded with preservatives to extend their lifespan, and infused with synthetic flavorings and large quantities of sodium to make it taste good.

“There’s a reason it only costs a couple bucks. If they were providing you with a lean cut of meat and high-quality ingredients, it would definitely cost more,” she notes.

In short: Fast food restaurants are on a mission to churn out tasty meals that can be made as quickly and cheaply as possible. And it comes at a cost to our health.

So why do we keep coming back?

Roughly 8 in 10 Americans eat at a fast food restaurant at least once a month, according to a Gallup poll. Yet the majority of those surveyed admit the food is not good for you. So why do we keep coming back?

“This day and age, people are always in a hurry,” says Goodson. “People are on the go, and they don’t have the time people once did to cook and make meals at home.”

Goodson also observes that fast food restaurants have become more ubiquitous over the years. In fact, the top 500 chains (which includes McDonald’s, Subway, and Starbucks) boosted the number of locations by 2.1 percent from 2015 to 2016. So when you’re out and about and you find yourself hankering for something quick to eat, chances are high that you’ll end up at a fast food restaurant—they’re everywhere!

The good news is that the industry is changing. Fast food restaurants have started displaying calorie information, offering nutritious alternatives (like apples instead of fries and milk instead of soda), and adding more fresh veggies to their menus in an effort to appeal to increasingly health-conscious customers. So even though we don’t have much time to cook at home and we’re surrounded by fast food chains, we can now make healthier choices when we need a quick meal on the go.

“Eat fresh!”

What’s the healthiest fast food restaurant in America? Although nearly all of the big chains offer a couple of nutritious options, Subway boasts the largest quantity of nutrient-dense meals, says Goodson.

“You can load your sandwiches up with lots of fresh vegetables and choose whole wheat or honey oat bread for more fiber,” she says. “They also offer a variety of lean proteins, like turkey and ham.”

Subways wins points for offering a variety of sauces without a lot of fat, like the sweet onion, honey mustard, and red wine vinaigrette. They boost flavor without adding significant calories to your meal.

Goodson also notes that Subways seem to be everywhere—there are more than 26,000 locations in the U.S. as of 2016. Whether you’re in the airport, shopping at the mall, or driving on the highway, you’ll probably stumble across a Subway—good news when you crave a healthy, quick bite.

“At Subway, you can make a smart choice when you’re traveling or busy, and it’s pretty inexpensive,” says Goodson.

The Short List

A cheat sheet can certainly come in handy as we browse fast food menus looking for something healthy. Here are Goodson’s picks for the healthiest fast food options to choose when you visit popular fast food restaurants:

At Chick-fil-A

Get the Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap, suggests Goodson. The lean protein will help fill you up, and the fresh vegetables add vitamins. She also says you can ditch the wrap and choose a grilled chicken salad to cut down on carbs.

By the Numbers

350 calories, 14 grams of fat, 29 grams of carbohydrates, and 37 grams of protein

At McDonald’s

Goodson recommends the Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad. “It’s lower in saturated fat than the crispy chicken because it’s skinless and grilled. Since the dressing comes on the side, you’re in charge of how much you put on, so you can keep it light,” she adds.

By the Numbers

350 calories, 11 grams of fat, 27 grams of carbohydrates, and 37 grams of protein

At Wendy’s

The Grilled Chicken Sandwich is Goodson’s top pick at Wendy’s. “They use good quality lettuce, whereas many fast food restaurants just use iceberg. They also use mustard instead of mayo, which makes it healthier,” she notes.

By the Numbers

360 calories, 8 grams of fat, 38 grams of carbohydrates, and 35 grams of protein

At Dunkin Donuts

It might be hard to believe that a restaurant with “donuts” in the name serves up anything nutritious, but Goodson says that Dunkin actually has a good breakfast option. “Go for the ham, egg, and cheese on an English muffin,” she says. “The biscuits can top 300 calories without anything else on them, so the English muffin is better because it has fewer calories and fat. It’s a great choice for your way in to the office.”

By the Numbers

380 calories, 16 grams of fat, 37 grams of carbohydrates, and 21 grams of protein

At Subway

You’re spoiled for choice at Subway, but if you’re looking for the healthiest option, try the 6-inch Fresh Fit sub with turkey breast. “Turkey, ham, or chicken are much leaner sources of protein than pastrami or meatballs,” Goodson notes. Plus, it contains two full servings of fresh vegetables for a lunchtime win.

By the Numbers

280 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, 46 grams of carbohydrates, and 18 grams of protein

At Burger King

When it comes to the healthiest fast food, you won’t find too many nutrient-rich choices at Burger King, says Goodson. “But the Grilled Chicken Sandwich will help you cut back on the saturated fat found in other menu items,” she says. Skip the fries in favor of a side of applesauce.

By the Numbers

470 calories, 19 grams of fat, 39 grams of carbohydrates, and 37 grams of protein

At KFC

Not all the chicken at the restaurant formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken is fried, and the grilled version is your best bet if you’re watching what you eat, says Goodson. “Grilled chicken is a lot better than fried. Everyone eats the skin on fried chicken and it becomes a really high-fat item, but the grilled chicken is skinless,” she notes. Make a meal out of it with sides of green beans and mashed potatoes.

By the Numbers

For a piece of grilled chicken breast and a grilled drumstick: 290 calories, 11 grams of fat, 0 grams of carbohydrates, and 49 grams of protein

At Chipotle

Skip the tortilla shell and go for a burrito bowl with brown rice, beans, fajita vegetables, chicken, tomato salsa, and guacamole, Goodson suggests. “A typical tortilla at Chipotle has around 300 calories before you put anything in it. They’re huge! When you choose a bowl, you knock off quite a few extra carbs,” she notes. Why splurge on guac? “It’s a much better option than sour cream if you’re looking to round out your meal with a healthy fat, and you can still enjoy the goodness of what’s inside of a burrito.”

By the Numbers

795 calories, 36.5 grams of fat, 71 grams of carbohydrates, and 47 grams of protein

At Starbucks

Stay away from the Frappuccino, Goodson cautions. “They have lots of added sugar, calories, and fat. A Caffè Latte is so much better for you.” Lattes boast a high amount of protein compared to a typical beverage, coming in at 13 grams of protein in a grande.

By the Numbers

190 calories, 7 grams of fat, 19 grams of carbohydrates, and 13 grams of protein

At Domino’s

Pizza places make healthy eating a little tougher, but you can cut calories and fat by choosing a thin crust and topping it with vegetables, says Goodson. If you’re ordering Domino’s, try the Pacific Veggie specialty pizza on thin crust. “Blot your pizza to get rid of some of the grease (and fat) on top of it,” Goodson suggests.

By the Numbers

For ¼ of a medium Pacific Veggie pizza: 330 calories, 17 grams of fat, 29 grams of carbohydrates, and 15 grams of protein

As for the sides…

What would a fast food meal be without sides? Sure, it’s fun to indulge in french fries sometimes, but you can make the overall meal a lot lighter if you choose an alternative, says Goodson.

Apples, small salads, soups, yogurts, and fruit cups are some of the healthiest fast food sides on offer at chain restaurants. And if you do crave fries, try to make the entree portion of your meal a little healthier than usual.

Hard and Fast Rules

You won’t always have the nutritional info at hand when you visit a fast food restaurant. Fortunately, Goodson has some easy-to-remember rules that will help guide your food choices:

Choose a “healthy friend.”

“A lot of times, when people say they’re going to get fast food, they automatically think of a high-fat, low-nutrient meal. But if you pair your favorite item with something a little bit healthier, your meal improves,” she explains. For example, if you really want a cheeseburger, pair it with a fruit cup so you can satisfy your craving and do your body a little bit of good at the same time.

Check out the kids’ menus.

“Most have smaller portions and offer the option to pair the meal with something healthy,” says Goodson.

Don’t size up.

While customers are no longer asked if they want to supersize their meal, they still tend to order larger sizes than they need to get full, says Goodson. “Serving size is everything. If you’re eating a kids’ cheeseburger with some fruit and milk, that’s probably enough for lunchtime.”

Order your spreads and dressings on the side.

These tend to be high-fat items, so you want to limit how much you put on your meal. “Avoid the white, creamy spreads, like mayo, ranch dressing, and sour cream,” cautions Goodson. “They tend to be higher in fat than colorful options like mustard and balsamic vinaigrette.”

Choose whole grains over white bread.

“They’ll have more fiber and they’ll usually be a little less processed,” notes Goodson. “Choose thinner versions, like flatbread, to help cut down on carbs.”

Leave the guilt behind.

As much as you might try to avoid fast food, we all end up under the Golden Arches from time to time. It doesn’t have to mean your healthy diet plan is down the drain.

“If you have to grab fast food, it’s not a big deal. Just be aware of your choices and try to pick a healthy option from the menu,” says Goodson.

And when you lick the salt from the fries off your fingers, enjoy it. The other positive choices you make throughout your week will make up for it, and you’ll ultimately become a healthier, happier you—no guilt necessary.  

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