Despite best-laid plans, the reality is that almost all of us rely on fast food on days when there isn’t enough time to prepare a meal from scratch. We’re in good company. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2013, 28 percent of Americans reported eating fast food at least once a week, while 16 percent reported having fast food several times a week.
The good news? Fast food chains have more healthy options than ever, and a nutritious and filling meal is now just a quick drive-thru trip away.
If you were to go by the lunches seen on social media and food blogs, you’d think that everyone else is going to open up picture-perfect Mason jar salads and intricately composed bento boxes once noon rolls around. As idyllic as this seems, the reality is that people—particularly millennials–are working longer hours and spending more money than ever on food outside the home.
Fast food chains are scrambling to benefit from this trend, and we can leverage that to the advantage of our schedules and our bodies.
Studying the effects of fast food consumption has traditionally produced some grim statistics; a study conducted over a period of 15 years by researchers at the University of Minnesota found a correlation between fast food consumption, weight gain, and insulin resistance leading to an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity. That same study also concluded that people who ate fast food two or more times a week were at a higher risk than those who didn’t eat fast food.
But eating fast food isn’t all bad news. In fact, this is the time to be seeking out healthy menu items. Popular chains that were once thought of as entirely unhealthy are introducing menu items that cater to a more health-conscious audience.
The New Yorker article “Freedom From Fries” describes how consumer trends such as the demand for food transparency and quality ingredients have been driving the fast food industry’s shift toward healthier food options.
Gone are the days when being health conscious while eating fast food meant a small order of fries and a sad side salad made of limp lettuce and slimy cucumber slices. But it is still important to do some research before buying what you think is healthy. What appears safe in terms of calories and fat can often be the complete opposite.
So how do you choose the healthiest option at your favorite fast food restaurant? Registered dietician Lindsay Pleskot specializes in teaching and inspiring her clients to make healthy choices and was able to offer HealthyWay some practical advice on how to get the most nutritional bang for your buck from fast food menu items.
Pleskot explains that ironically, some of of the most deceptive items on fast food menus are salads. Fast food entrée salads are notorious for being marketed as healthy choices when in reality they often have sky-high calorie counts and large amounts of saturated fat and sodium.
The problem, Pleskot says, is that “we seem to automatically associate salads with health and nutrition but often they are loaded with tons of dressing and toppings that will add up quickly; think cheese, nuts, croutons, and bacon, to name a few.”
Pleskot also gives a few general rules for keeping your fast food on the healthy side. She advises keeping a close eye on sauces and condiments when possible, seeking out grilled instead of deep-fried items, and asking for the dressing on the side. A spritz of lemon juice on a salad is a calorie-free way to stretch out the dressing so that you aren’t stuck using the whole packet.
Whether you’re a Starbucks kinda gal or a devoted fan of Taco Bell, there’s something at every major fast food chain for anyone in need of a healthy meal in minutes.
Here we break it down by some of our favorite big names in the fast food game.
There are some mornings when your alarm clock fights a losing battle against a few extra precious moments of sleep. When even a bowl of cold cereal takes too much time, the food menu at Starbucks includes healthy options that will leave you feeling satisfied and full until lunchtime. Pleskot advises skipping the lemon loaf and ordering the Spinach, Feta, and Cage Free Egg White Breakfast Wrap to start your day.
With only 290 calories per serving, this savory wrap contains a very filling 19 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber. Still feeling hungry? Pleskot suggests adding a fruit cup or veggies and dip to round out the meal.
Not all of Starbucks’ breakfast sandwiches are equally as healthy though. Be wary of their Sausage, Cheddar, and Egg Breakfast Sandwich,which has 500 calories and 28 grams of fat per serving.
Although entrée salads from fast food restaurants have a bad reputation for being full of empty calories and saturated fat, there are definitely healthier options to be found if you do your research.
For example, McDonald’s Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken contains an impressive 350 calories, 11 grams of fat, 37 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fiber, which, as a whole, should keep you feeling satisfied for hours.
Compare the grilled chicken salad to McDonald’s Southwest Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Salad for an eye-opening example of how food preparation and high calorie salad toppers can make a huge difference.
Thanks to the deep fried chicken, shredded cheese, and fried chili-lime tortilla strips, this salad comes in at 520 calories and 25 grams of fat.
Any item off of Taco Bell’s Fresco menu is guaranteed to have less than 350 calories and 10 grams of fat per serving. The Fresco Bean Burrito is a great vegetarian option for anyone looking to cut back on their meat intake.
With 350 calories, 9 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein, and a whopping 9 grams of fiber, this unassuming burrito packs a filling and nutritious punch for those days when you have no time to stop and eat.
While the Fresco menu at Taco Bell offers several healthy options, be wary of their regular menu items, as they can contain astronomical amounts of calories, fat, and sodium.
For example, the Cheesy Gordita Crunch Supreme contains 520 calories and 55 percent of the recommended daily intake of saturated fat.
As many health-conscious Wendy’s customers will know, this fast food chain has had quite a few diet-friendly side options for a while now. Their side salads, baked potatoes, and chili are all smart choices even if you’re aiming for a complete meal.
Ordering an entrée, however, takes a little bit of research. Pleskot advises always “looking out for anything deep fried and breaded. For example, opt for sandwiches made with grilled chicken breast instead of a crispy chicken sandwich … it offers just as much protein without all of the extra fat, calories, and salt.”
Wendy’s Grilled Chicken Sandwich fits the bill perfectly, with 360 calories per serving, 8 grams of fat, and 35 grams of protein.
Compare this grilled chicken sandwich to Wendy’s Asiago Ranch Chicken Club. This deep-fried chicken breast sandwich is smothered in a creamy Asiago cheese sauce and topped with bacon. The damage? 660 calories, 33 grams of fat, and almost double the sodium.
In need of something more? Add a side salad or baked potato for extra energy without a ton of calories.
The key to eating a healthy meal at Dunkin’ Donuts is to make a healthy food selection and then stick to drip coffee, an Americano, or a cappuccino made with skim milk as an accompanying beverage.
The Turkey Sausage Wake Up Wrap contains a satisfying 280 calories and 15 grams of protein to get your day started.
Looking for a meatless but still filling alternative? Dunkin’ Donuts’ Veggie Egg White Flatbread is a vegetarian option that still contains plenty of protein with very little fat.
On the other hand, the Sausage Egg & Cheese on Croissant from Dunkin’ Donuts is an example of a nutritionally catastrophic breakfast menu item. With 700 calories per serving, 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of saturated fat, and sky-high sodium levels, this is one breakfast sandwich to steer clear of.
Are you craving a burger but worry it will hinder your healthy eating goals? Believe it or not, a classic cheeseburger from Burger King is a relatively healthy choice when the need for a burger strikes. A single cheeseburger contains 270 calories and is fairly low in fat and sodium.
If you want to be even more virtuous and skip the cheese, a plain hamburger has only 220 calories and 8 grams of fat as is super low in sodium.
Feeling like a splurge? Pair a Burger King hamburger with a small order of onion rings to complete your traditional fast food meal with gusto.
While a Burger King cheeseburger may be relatively healthy option, beware the Bacon & Cheese Whopper Sandwich at all costs. Unlike a regular cheeseburger, this sandwich weighs in with 790 calories per serving and 51 grams of fat per serving.
It’s important to recognize that the problem with fast food isn’t that it’s fast; the issue is with how the food is prepared and the extra ingredients that are piled on for extra flavor. If fast food is a regular part of your diet, then stick to the tips in this article.
But, if it isn’t, take Pleskot’s advice about occasionally treating yourself to the real, greasy deal: “I think the first thing to consider when eating fast food or eating out in general is whether or not this is something you do all the time or is this a once in a while treat? If it really is just once in a while, enjoy your favorite and eat it mindfully!”