With a busy lifestyle, it can be hard to maintain a healthy diet. Many people turn to fast-food joints for nutrition, but options are typically loaded with calories, sodium, and saturated fat. In fact, one meal at a fast-food restaurant can exceed your recommended fat and calorie intake for the entire day, while providing little nutrients or fiber.
Nobody will begrudge you the occasional indulgence of a Big Mac or a Whopper. But if you’re regularly lining up at the drive-thru, it’s important to consider healthier options.
Before we delve into specific examples, let’s take a look at some general considerations concerning fast food.
- Keep your fast-food meals around 500 calories or fewer.
- Choose foods that are low in fat and higher in fiber and protein, and replace refined grains with whole-grain buns or bread.
- Avoid French fries, onion rings, noodles, macaroni and cheese, and so forth. Healthier sides include side salads with light dressing, fresh fruit, or plain baked potatoes. You can also pack your own sides from home, such as dried fruit, nuts, celery sticks, apple slices, and cottage cheese.
- When it comes to burgers, sandwiches, and other foods that come in large portions, go for the smallest size. Avoid value- or super-sized alternatives. Consider ordering off the kids’ menu for smaller portions and decreased calorie counts, or eating half your meal and saving the rest for later.
- Choose grilled or roasted meats vs fried or breaded ones, and stick to one burger patty. Eschew deli meats and bacon.
- Scrutinize anything that may sound healthy but probably isn’t—such as some fast-food salads, which often come with high-calorie toppings and high-fat dressing. Look for nutritional data, available online.
- Slow your roll with condiments such as mayonnaise- and oil-based sauces (ie, special sauces)—ketchup and mustard are better options. Go easy on cheese, sour cream, rice, and beans.
- Stick to zero-calorie beverages (no soda, fruit juice, lemonade, or shakes).
- With pizza, order thin crust instead of regular crust, deep dish, or pan. Also, choose veggie toppings vs high-fat meat toppings.
With these guidelines in mind, here are some of the healthier options on fast-food menus:
Grilled nuggets at Chik-fil-A
These bite-sized pieces of boneless chicken breast are marinated with a proprietary blend of seasonings, and grilled to be juicy and tender. This high-protein meal is much healthier than fried chicken nuggets, and can be paired with a side of veggies.
Nutritional information (12 piece): 170 calories, 31 g protein, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 610 mg sodium, 2 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 1 g sugar. Calcium: 2% of daily value; iron: 4% of daily value; vitamin A: 0% of daily value; vitamin C: 20% of daily value.
Grilled chicken wrap at Wendy’s
This wrap consists of herb-marinated grilled chicken breast in a flour tortilla, with a crisp spring mix and shredded cheddar cheese. It is also prepared with smoky honey mustard. When paired with a small cup of chili or a small side salad, you can keep your calorie intake for the meal under 500 calories.
Nutritional information: 300 calories, 20 g protein, 13 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 2 g polyunsaturated fat, 2 g monounsaturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 720 mg sodium, 230 mg potassium, 26 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 5 g sugar. Calcium: 10% of daily value; iron: 10% of daily value; vitamin A: 10% of daily value; vitamin C: 0% of daily value.
Grilled steak soft taco at Taco Bell
If you’re hankering for beef, the grilled steak soft taco is a good option. It features avocado ranch sauce, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes.
Nutritional information: 200 calories, 12 g protein, 10g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 510 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 2g sugar. Calcium: 10% of daily value; iron: 10% of daily value; vitamin A: 6% of daily value; vitamin C: 4% of daily value.
Tuna salad sub at Subway
Sure, the deli meat subs at Subway are lower calorie, but they’re also chock-full of preservatives. A 6-inch tuna salad sub is a healthier option, which you can pile high with low-calorie veggie toppings.
Nutritional information: 450 calories, 19 g protein, 25 g total fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 40 g cholesterol, 610 mg sodium, 38 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 5 g sugar. Calcium: 0% daily value; iron: 20% of daily value; vitamin A: 15% of daily value; vitamin C: 15% of daily value.
Steak burrito bowl at Chipotle
Here’s another beef option for those who’ve had their fill of chicken and salad. With the steak burrito bowl, opt for pinto beans, salsa, and veggies. Skip the calorie-packed rice, cheese, and guacamole.
Nutritional information (with the above options): 310 calories, 29 g protein, 7.5 g total fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 1,090 mg sodium, 27 g carbohydrates, 11 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar. Calcium: 7% daily value; iron: 32% of daily value; vitamin A: 46% of daily value; vitamin C: 26% of daily value.
Protein Style burger at In-N-Out
You can customize your order at In-N-Out by ordering off the Not-So-Secret menu. One option is to order a burger with lettuce in lieu of the bun. Ditching the bun with a Protein-Style burger will lower your intake of calories and carbs.
Nutritional information (for smallest size): 240 calories, 13 g protein 17 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 370 mg sodium, 11 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 7 g sugar. Calcium: 4% of daily value; iron: 15% of daily value; vitamin A: 20% of daily value; vitamin C: 20% of daily value.
MorningStar Veggie Burger at Burger King
This veggie patty at Burger King is packed with protein and fiber. You can also pick up a bit more calcium by adding a slice of cheese. Try pairing the veggie burger with fruits and veggies to increase satiety.
Nutritional information (without cheese): 390 calories, 21 g protein, 17g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, < 5 mg cholesterol, 980 mg sodium, 41 g carbohydrates, 5 g fiber, 9 g sugar. Daily values of calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C are not available.
This meal is packed with protein, as its name implies, but it also includes a healthy amount of fiber—not to mention fresh greens, tomatoes, roasted corn, and seasonings. And, unlike some other lower-calorie fast-food options, this protein bowl is probably enough to fill you up for lunch.
Nutritional information: 420 calories, 27 g protein, 17 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 1,030 mg sodium, 42 g carbohydrates, 9 g fiber, 11 g sugar. Daily values of calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C are not available.
Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s
The nice thing about the eggs at McDonald’s is that they are 100% real and free of any added ingredients. The same can’t be said for all fast-food morning fare. In addition to egg, this meal comes with lean Canadian bacon, cheese, and butter.
Nutritional information: 300 calories, 17 g protein, 12 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 245 mg cholesterol, 760 mg sodium, 30 g carbohydrates, 2 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar. Calcium: 15% of daily value; iron: 15% of daily value; vitamin A: 15% of daily value; vitamin C: 0% of daily value.
Finally, keep in mind that many of these “healthier” fast-food options still contain a lot of salt and sodium, which contributes to heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends fewer than 1,500 mg of sodium per day and to never exceed 2,300 mg per day. To put this value into perspective, consider that the healthy-looking Chicken & Quinoa Protein Bowl at Starbucks has 1,030 mg of sodium—which alone is about two-thirds of the recommended daily intake of sodium.