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 us 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 280 calories per serving, this savory wrap contains a very filling 20 grams of protein and 4 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 480 calories and 29 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 Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad contains an impressive 330 calories, 11 grams of fat, 33 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 500 calories and 25 grams of fat.
Taco Bell has been a vegetarian staple for generations, but today, the chain quietly offers all diners an easy, tasty way to cut calories. It’s called “Fresco style,” and it replaces high-calorie sauces and toppings with a bright, healthy pico de gallo. Even the Taco Bell Bean Burrito, a classic for low-budget vegetarians in a hurry, is available Fresco style…although the pico de gallo substitution only shaves 20 calories off this already-minimal dish. With 350 calories, 9 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein, and a whopping 11 grams of dietary fiber, even the non-Fresco Bean Burrito packs a filling and nutritious punch for those days when you have no time to stop and eat. While Fresco-style food from 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 contains 500 calories and fully half 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 370 calories per serving, 10 grams of fat, and 34 grams of protein. Compare this grilled chicken sandwich to the restaurant’s Homestyle Asiago Ranch Chicken Club. This deep-fried chicken breast sandwich is smothered in a creamy ranch dressing and Asiago cheese with a topping of bacon. The damage? 650 calories, 34 grams of fat, and almost double the sodium compared to the Grilled Chicken Sandwich.
In need of something more? Add a side salad or a plain 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 240 calories and 11 grams of protein to get your day started.
Looking for a meatless but still filling alternative? Dunkin’ Donuts’ Egg White Veggie Flatbread is a vegetarian option that still contains plenty of protein with very little fat. Speaking of the Veggie Egg White Flatbread, it’s part of Dunkin’ Donuts’ DDSMART collection. Look for the DDSMART logo to find choices that contain a quarter less fat, sodium, sugar, or calories than the restaurant’s typical fare.
If you don’t spot the DDSMART logo, be careful ordering off the Dunkin’ Donuts menu. There are some real calorie bombs here. For instance, the Sausage Egg & Cheese Croissant is an example of a nutritionally catastrophic breakfast menu item. With 720 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 280 calories and is fairly low in fat and sodium. If you want to be even more virtuous and skip the cheese, a plain Burger King hamburger has only 240 calories and 10 grams of fat. It’s also comparatively 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. Unlike a regular cheeseburger, this sandwich weighs in with 790 calories per serving and 51 grams of fat per serving.
No discussion of health and Burger King is complete without a look at the famous Impossible Whopper, which features a high-tech plant-based patty that’s virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Does the lack of animal protein make the Impossible Whopper any healthier, though? Sadly, the answer is “not really.” An Impossible Whopper contains 630 calories, compared to the beef Whopper’s 660. Not much difference there. The same goes for fat; the Impossible Whopper contains just 6 fewer grams than the real thing, which has 40 grams of fat. Both burgers are catastrophically high in sodium. The traditional Whopper contains 980 milligrams of the stuff, and the Impossible version has 1,080 milligrams.
For context, the American Heart Association recommends a hard limit of 2,300 milligrams of sodium for most adults, and they’d really prefer we limit ourselves to less than 1,500.
Subway has a reputation as a healthier alternative to the fried-and-greasy fast food model. Surely you can’t crash your diet on a fresh deli sub, right? Well, that depends. If you’re satisfied with a 6-inch Veggie Delite on 9-grain wheat bread—without cheese and substituting a splash of vinegar for calorie-rich mayonnaise—you can eat pretty healthy. Such a sandwich build (with lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, red onions, green peppers, and cucumbers as your only toppings) weighs in at just 200 calories and only 2 grams of fat, none of it saturated.
Not bad. This sandwich also has a relatively low share of sodium, with just 280 milligrams and a not-negligible amount of dietary fiber with 5 grams. If a sub like that sounds good, feel free to eat fresh all you want. If you’re more of an Ultimate Meatball Marinara kind of gal, watch out. Subway recommends ordering this sandwich on their Ultimate Cheesy Garlic Bread, which is a calorie-packed powerhouse.
A 6-inch Ultimate Meatball Marinara with that bread option contains 730 calories—and that’s without any toppings whatsoever. Load on the melted mozzarella, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles, and you’re up to 830 calories for a 6-inch sub. This build also contains 52 grams of fat and more sodium than the American Heart Association recommends all day (1,720 milligrams).
Eaters on a strict caloric budget aren’t likely to seek out fried chicken, but sometimes you just have to eat. If KFC is all you see, that’s where you’ll end up. And the truth is that the calorie counts on certain KFC menu items might surprise you (in a good way).
The trick here is to avoid the breading. Stick with Kentucky Grilled Chicken, which, yes, is actually what it’s called. A single drumstick, grilled, only contains 90 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 290 milligrams of sodium. If you can’t resist the temptation of KFC Original Recipe fried chicken, you actually don’t have that much to worry about as long as you exercise portion control. A single Original Recipe drumstick contains 120 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 380 grams of sodium.
Even the sandwiches at KFC aren’t out of control, calorie-wise. A Crispy Colonol’s Sandwich contains 470 calories—which isn’t great, but won’t put you over the top in a single sitting. You do have to watch out for sodium with KFC sandwiches, though. The above example contains 1,170 milligrams of the stuff, which is more than half of the American Heart Association’s absolute hard ceiling of 2,300 milligrams.
Jack in the Box
Typically, a late-night dinner at Jack in the Box means you’ve made a bad decision somewhere along the way. But you don’t have to pile mistake on mistake with your order; Jack in the Box has a few items that will fill you up without breaking your diet goals.
You might have noticed a grilled-chicken trend here. Jack in the Box keeps up the streak. Check out their Chicken Fajita Pita, which makes a decent meal with 340 calories, 12 grams of fat, and a whopping 23 grams of protein. Unfortunately, the Chicken Fajita Pita wasn’t created with heart health in mind. It contains 1,000 milligrams of sodium—and that doesn’t include the side of salsa that comes with each order. Even better is the Jack in the Box Side Salad, although it won’t make a very satisfying meal on its own. With just 20 calories (or 45 with a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette), this dish probably isn’t enough to beat the hunger pangs. Still, it makes a smart addition to one of the outlet’s grilled chicken dishes.
Stay away from the Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger, though. This grease bomb packs 930 calories, 65(!) grams of fat, and almost 1,600 milligrams of sodium. When you absolutely must have a burger, stick with the plain Jack in the Box hamburger, which weighs in at 340 calories and 18 grams of fat.
For healthy eating at your neighborhood Sonic, the word to remember is “wraps.” More specifically, the Grilled Chicken Wrap. It isn’t exactly low in calories—it has 480 of them—but it’s among the lighter options on this particularly heavy menu. A word of warning to sodium-conscious eaters, though: The Sonic Grilled Chicken Wrap is salty. It contains 1,720 milligrams of sodium, which is a lot. A less sodium-packed option is the Jr. Burger. This is a better choice for the health-conscious among us, with 330 calories, 16 grams of fat, and 610 milligrams of sodium. The trade-off, of course, is that this is a small sandwich with just 15 grams of protein. You may be more satisfied by the Grilled Chicken Wrap, which offers 31 grams of protein.
As for menu items to avoid, where do we start? The SuperSONIC Bacon Double Cheeseburger with mayonnaise is loaded with 1,030 calories, 65 grams of fat, and 1,880 milligrams of sodium. A Chicken Club Toaster Sandwich, which sounds healthy enough, contains 770 calories and 43 grams of fat. And, if you can resist the temptation, you probably want to avoid the Footlong Quarter Pound Coney Hot Dog. This beast has 790 calories, 49 grams of fat, and 2,300 milligrams of sodium. Oof.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
Chipotle famously only uses 51 ingredients in all their dishes. But how healthy are those 51 ingredients in their various combinations? As with Subway, that all depends on you. Fast food restaurants that give their customers wide leeway in constructing their own dishes complicate the attempt to eat healthy—but they also give you more power over what you’re putting into your own body. All in all, it’s a beneficial trend, we’d say. Anyway, for a healthy, satisfying meal at Chipotle, start with a burrito bowl. A single burrito-sized flour tortilla contains 320 calories, all of which could be spent on tastier, healthier ingredients.
Likewise, it’s a good move to skip the rice. Black beans provide plenty of starch on their own. As for what to include, start with the veggie burrito bowl with black beans. Add an extra serving of fajita vegetables if you’d like, and don’t skimp on the guacamole. This condiment (if you can call it that) is relatively calorie-dense, with 230 calories per serving, but the heart-healthy fats of avocados tip the scale in guacamole’s favor. Choose tomatillo green-chili salsa to round out your lunch. A burrito bowl like this only carries 395 calories and 23.5 grams of fat. More importantly, it’s loaded with vitamin C and helps to keep you feeling full with 14 grams of dietary fiber. If you’re counting calories, you probably don’t want to build a carnitas burrito with white rice, pinto beans, and guacamole. A meal like that carries an incredible 1,100 calories, with 48.5 grams of fat and nearly 2,000 milligrams of sodium. They may be real ingredients, but they’re not necessarily diet food.
Hardee’s / Carl’s Jr.
Hardee’s (or Carl’s Jr., depending on where you live) may not seem like a healthy-eating mainstay, and that criticism is fair. However, you can’t credibly accuse the chain of failing to serve more health-conscious customers. The restaurant’s menu offers a selection of “better for you” options, including designations like “Low Carb It,” “Trim It,” and “Gluten-Sensitive.” Yep, this is a fast food restaurant where you can order a Thickburger in a whole-leaf lettuce wrap instead of a bun. For breakfast, try the “Trim It”-branded Frisco Breakfast Sandwich. It’s an eggy, meaty meal that will satisfy well into your lunch hour. This product contains 360 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 19 grams of protein.
Low-sodium eaters should steer clear, though; the Frisco Breakfast Sandwich is loaded with 1,100 milligrams of sodium. The “Trim It” collection’s Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich is Hardee’s original low-fat menu item, and it remains a decent choice for the hungry health enthusiast. The Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich provides 18 grams of protein, which is a lot for a lunch item that only contains 190 calories. It’s also low in fat, with just 3.5 grams. And while the Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich’s sodium content is a bit high at 910 milligrams, it won’t put you over the limit as long as you plan the rest of the day’s meals carefully. Avoid the ⅓-pound Bacon Cheese Thickburger, except as a very occasional treat. This sandwich is certainly hearty, with 850 calories and 42 grams of protein. However, the 54 grams of fat, 130 milligrams of cholesterol, and 1,700 milligrams of sodium make this item a no-go for those of us who are trying to eat healthier.
Steak ‘n Shake
If there’s a healthy milkshake out there in the world, we have not met it (though we’d like to). So we’re afraid we’ll have to stick to the “steak” side of the menu here. As you might have guessed, the healthiest lunch and dinner option on the Steak ‘n Shake menu is probably its Grilled Chicken Sandwich. It’s got 360 calories and just 7 grams of fat, but it provides a belly-filling 28 grams of protein.
If you’re in the mood for a burger, you can’t go wrong with the Steak n’ Shake Single. This no-frills steakburger contains 320 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 15 grams of protein. Maybe stay away from the Bacon ‘n Cheese Triple if you’re watching what you eat. Three burger patties is a lot, as reflected by this sandwich’s calorie count of 1,030. Add in the 74 grams of fat and 170 milligrams of cholesterol, and you’ve got a meal that bites back, health-wise.
We don’t mean to suggest that eating fast food is always damaging to your health. Just pull up this handy guide next time you find yourself in the drive-thru and choose carefully; there’s plenty out there that will fit into your eating plan. Also, 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!”