Fast food is cheap, convenient, filling, and to many of us it tastes good.
Unfortunately, eating just one fast food meal can pack enough calories, sodium, and fat for an entire day or more. Eating fast food on a regular basis can lead to a host of different health problems. Still, the quick-and-cheap temptation can often be hard to resist. As an informed customer, you can make healthier choices and still enjoy the price and convenience of fast food restaurants.
When is it healthy to eat fast food?
The short answer is: rarely. Typically, fast food is low in nutrition and
high in trans fat, saturated fat, sodium, and calories. Some examples:
- One sack of “hash bites” or “potato snackers” from White Castle, for
example, contains 10 grams of very unhealthy trans fat. The American Heart
Association recommends we consume less than 2 grams of trans fat per day. So in
one side order, you’ve just eaten more than five days’ worth of heart-busting
- A single meal of a Double Whopper with cheese, a medium order of fries, and
an apple pie from Burger King contains more saturated fat than the American
Heart Association recommends we consume in two days.
Learning to make healthier choices at fast food restaurants.
Making healthier choices at fast food restaurants is easier if you prepare
ahead by checking guides that show you the nutritional content of meal choices
at your favorite restaurants. Free downloadable guides help you evaluate your
options. If you have a special dietary concern, such as diabetes, heart health
or weight loss, the websites of national non-profits provide useful advice. You
can also choose to patronize restaurants that focus on natural, high quality food.
If you don’t prepare ahead of time, common sense guidelines help to make
your meal healthier. For example, a seemingly healthy salad can be a diet
minefield when smothered in high-fat dressing and fried toppings, so choose a
salad with fresh veggies, grilled toppings, and a lighter dressing. Portion
control is also important, as many fast food restaurants serve enough food for
several meals in the guise of a single serving.
Tips for making healthy choices at fast food restaurants
- Make careful menu selections – pay attention to the descriptions on
the menu. Dishes labeled deep-fried, pan-fried, basted, batter-dipped,
breaded, creamy, crispy, scalloped, Alfredo, au gratin, or in cream sauce are
usually high in calories, unhealthy fats, or sodium. Order items with more
vegetables and choose leaner meats.
- Drink water with your meal. Soda is a huge source of hidden
calories. One 32-oz Big Gulp of regular cola packs about 425 calories, which
can quickly gulp up a big portion of your daily calorie intake. Try adding a
little lemon to your water or ordering unsweetened iced tea.
- “Undress” your food. When choosing items, be aware of
calorie- and fat-packed salad dressings, spreads, cheese, sour cream, etc. For
example, ask for a grilled chicken sandwich without the mayonnaise. You can ask
for a packet of ketchup or mustard and add it yourself, controlling how much you
put on your sandwich.
- Special order. Many menu items would be healthy if it
weren't for the way they were prepared. Ask for your vegetables and main dishes
to be served without the sauces. Ask for olive oil and vinegar for your salads
or order the dressing "on the side" and spoon only a small amount on at a time.
If your food is fried or cooked in oil or butter, ask to have it broiled or
- Eat mindfully. Pay attention to what you eat and savor each
bite. Chew your food more thoroughly and avoid eating on the run. Being mindful
also means stopping before you are full. It takes time for your body to register
that you have eaten. Mindful eating relaxes you, so you digest better, and
makes you feel more satisfied.
Tips for what to AVOID at fast food restaurants
- Supersized portions. An average fast food meal can run to
1000 calories or more, so choose a smaller portion size, order a side salad
instead of fries, and don't supersize anything. At a typical restaurant, a
single serving provides enough for two meals. Take half home or divide the
portion with a dining partner.
- Salt. Fast food restaurant food tends to be very high in
sodium, a major contributor to high blood pressure. Don’t add insult to injury
by adding more salt.
- Bacon. It’s always tempting to add bacon to sandwiches and
salads for extra flavor, but bacon has very few nutrients and is high in fat
and calories. Instead, try ordering extra pickles, onions, lettuce,
tomatoes, or mustard to add flavor without the fat.
- Buffets – even seemingly healthy ones like salad
bars. You'll likely overeat to get your money's worth. If you do
choose buffet dining, opt for fresh fruits, salads with olive oil & vinegar
or low-fat dressings, broiled entrees, and steamed vegetables. Resist the
temptation to go for seconds, or wait at least 20 minutes after eating to make
sure you're really still hungry before going back for more.
Watch your fast food sodium intake.
High salt/sodium intake is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends that adults stay under 1500 mg of sodium per day, and never take in more than 2,300 mg a day. A study by the New York City Health Department surveyed 6,580 meals bought at fast-food restaurant chains and found that:
- About 57% of the meals exceeded the 1,500-mg daily sodium level.
- Fried chicken outlets including KFC and Popeye's were the worst offenders,
with 83% of meals exceeding 1500 mg of sodium and 55% of the meals surpassing
2,300 mg of sodium.
- At only one of the 11 chains included in the study, Au Bon Pain, did more
than 7% of meals contain less than 600 mg, the FDA’s "healthy" sodium level
for meals. But even there, 46% of meals had 1,500 mg or more of sodium.
- Even those eating lower calorie meals were likely to exceed their daily
sodium limit within a single meal.
Source: MedPage Today
Guides can help you make healthier meal choices
Many fast food chains post nutritional information on their websites.
Unfortunately, these lists are often confusing and hard to use. Instead, you can
go to other websites that provide health and nutrition information, but in
easier to follow formats. Some publish downloadable comparison guides,
inexpensive pocket guides, or mobile apps for your smart phone. There are also
many websites geared towards making healthy choices at restaurants depending on
your specific dietary needs, whether your concern is diabetes, cancer, heart
disease, or weight management.
Healthier fast food at burger chains
Figuring out healthier options at your favorite fast food burger chain can be tricky. A
typical meal at a burger joint consists of a "sandwich", some fries, and a
drink, which can quickly come in at over 1700 calories for something like
Burger King's Triple Whopper with a large fries and a 16 oz. soda. A better
option would be a regular single patty burger, small fries, and water, which is
about 500 calories. Alternatively you may enjoy a veggie burger smothered in
grilled onion and mushrooms. Or if you want a large beef burger, then skip the
fries and soda and have a side salad and water instead.
The Big Burger Chains
Less Healthy choices
- Double-patty hamburger with cheese, mayo, special sauce, and bacon
- Fried chicken sandwich
- Fried fish sandwich
- Salad with toppings such as bacon, cheese, and ranch dressing
- Breakfast burrito with steak
- French fries
- Chicken “nuggets” or tenders
- Adding cheese, extra mayo, and special sauces
- Regular, single-patty hamburger without mayo or cheese
- Grilled chicken sandwich
- Veggie burger
- Garden salad with grilled chicken and low-fat dressing
- Egg on a muffin
- Baked potato or a side salad
- Yogurt parfait
- Grilled chicken strips
- Limiting cheese, mayo, and special
For a healthier fast food option at a burger restaurant try:
- McDonald's Hamburger: 260 calories, 9g fat (3.5g saturated fat).
- Wendy's Jr. Hamburger: 280 calories, 9g fat (3.5g saturated fat).
Healthier fast food at fried chicken chains
Although certain chains have been advertising “no trans fats” in their food, the fact is
that fried chicken can pack quite a fattening punch. According to the
restaurant’s nutrition info, just a single Extra Crispy Chicken breast at KFC
has a whopping 440 calories, 27 grams of fat, and 970 mg of sodium. A healthier
choice is the drumstick, which has 160 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 370 mg of
sodium. Alternatively, if you like the breast meat, take off the skin and it
becomes a healthy choice at 140 calories, 2 grams of fat, and 520 mg of
Some tips for making smarter choices at fast food chicken restaurants:
The Big Fried Chicken Chains
Less healthy choices
- Fried chicken, original or extra-crispy.
- Teriyaki wings or popcorn chicken
- Caesar salad
- Chicken and biscuit “bowl”
- Adding extra gravy and sauces
- Skinless chicken breast without breading
- Honey BBQ chicken sandwich
- Garden salad
- Mashed potatoes
- Limiting gravy and sauces
For a healthier fast food option at a fried chicken restaurant try:
KFC Original Recipe Chicken Breast (with breading and skin removed) and a
side of green beans: 190 calories, 4.5g fat (1.5g saturated fat).
Healthy fast food at Mexican chains
Fast food chains that specialize in tacos or burritos can be caloric minefields or
they can be a good option for finding healthy fast food. Rice, beans, salsa,
and a few slices of fresh avocado can make a very healthy meal. But adding
cheese, sour cream, and tortilla chips can turn even a good meal into an
unhealthy one. Also, it’s very important to remember portion control in these
types of restaurants, as many offer enormous serving sizes. Simply eat half and
take the rest home for another meal.
Several chains, like Taco Bell and Baja Fresh, have “healthy” menu options
that feature less fat and fresher ingredients.
The Big Taco Chains
Less healthy choices
- Crispy shell chicken taco
- Refried beans
- Steak chalupa
- Crunch wraps or gordita-type burritos
- Nachos with refried beans
- Adding sour cream or cheese
- Grilled chicken soft taco
- Black beans
- Shrimp ensalada
- Grilled “fresco” style steak burrito
- Veggie and bean burrito
- Limiting sour cream or cheese
For a healthier fast food option at a Mexican restaurant try:
Taco Bell Taco Salad (without the shell, sour cream, or cheese): 330
calories, 13g fat (5g saturated fat)
Healthy fast food at sub sandwich chains
Many of us love the many different types of sandwiches available: hot, cold,
wrapped, foot long—often served with a salad instead of fries. While their ads
promote the health benefits of sandwich shops, studies have found that many
people eat more calories per meal at a sub shop than at McDonald's. This may be
because people feel so virtuous eating “healthy” as the ads suggest, they
reward themselves with chips, sodas, or extra condiments that can turn a healthy
meal into an unhealthy one.
You can make healthier choices at a deli or sub shop but you need to use
some common sense.
Subs, Sandwich and Deli Choices
Less healthy choices
- Foot-long sub
- High-fat meat such as ham, tuna salad, bacon, meatballs, or steak
- The “normal” amount of higher-fat (cheddar, American) cheese
- Adding mayo and special sauces
- Keeping the sub “as is” with all toppings
- Choosing white bread or “wraps” which are often higher in fat than normal
- Six-inch sub
- Lean meat (roast beef, chicken breast, lean ham) or veggies
- One or two slices of lower-fat cheese (Swiss or mozzarella)
- Adding low-fat dressing or mustard instead of mayo
- Adding extra veggie toppings
- Choosing whole-grain bread or taking the top slice off your sub and eating
For a healthier fast food option at a sub sandwich restaurant try:
Subway 6" Roast Beef Sub (on whole wheat bread with veggies, no mayo):
290 calories, 5g fat (2g saturated fat)
Healthier fast food at Asian chains
Asian cultures tend to eat healthily, with an emphasis on veggies and with meat used
as a “condiment” rather than the focus of the meal. Unfortunately, many Western
versions of these ethnic foods tend to be much higher in fat and calories—so
caution is needed. A great tip for all Asian restaurants—use the chopsticks!
You’ll eat more slowly, since you can’t grasp as much food with them at one
time as you can with your normal fork and knife.
Asian Food Choices
Less healthy choices
- Fried egg rolls, spare ribs, tempura
- Battered or deep-fried dishes (sweet and sour pork, General Tso’s
- Deep-fried tofu
- Coconut milk, sweet and sour sauce, regular soy sauce
- Fried rice
- Salads with fried or crispy noodles
- Egg drop, miso, wonton, or hot & sour soup
- Stir-fried, steamed, roasted or broiled entrees (shrimp chow mein, chop
- Steamed or baked tofu
- Sauces such as ponzu, rice-wine vinegar, wasabi, ginger, and low-sodium
- Steamed brown rice
- Edamame, cucumber salad, stir-fried
For a healthier fast food option at a Chinese restaurant try:
Panda Express Tangy Shrimp with a side of mixed veggies: 260 calories, 7.5 g
fat (1.5g saturated fat).
Healthier fast food at Italian chains
The anti-carbohydrate revolution has given Italian food a bad rap, but
Italian is actually one of the easiest types of cuisine to make healthy. Stay
away from fried, oily, or overly buttery food, as well as thick crust menu
items, and you can keep your diet goals intact.
Watch out for the following terms, which are common sources of high fat and
calories: Alfredo, carbonara, saltimbocca, Parmigiana, lasagna, manicotti,
stuffed (all have heavy amounts of cream and cheese). Generally Italian places
have lots of veggies in their kitchen so it’s easy to ask to have extra veggies
added to your meal.
Italian and Pizza Restaurant Choices
Less healthy choices
- Thick-crust or butter-crust pizza with extra cheese and meat toppings
- Garlic bread
- Antipasto with meat
- Pasta with cream or butter-based sauce
- Entrée with side of pasta
- Fried (“frito”) dishes
- Thin-crust pizza with half the cheese and extra veggies
- Plain rolls or breadsticks
- Antipasto with vegetables
- Pasta with tomato sauce and veggies
- Entrée with side of veggies
- Grilled (“griglia”) dishes
For a healthier fast food option at a pizza restaurant try:
Pizza Hut Fit 'N Delicious Chicken & Veggie Pizza (2
slices): 208 calories, 9g fat (4g saturated fat)
Chains with natural, high-quality fast food
Whether you choose to eat fast food at a McDonald’s, a Subway, or a local
deli, there are always menu choices that are healthier than others. However,
some fast food restaurants offer a greater variety of healthy menu choices than
others. In a recent survey of the 100 largest fast food chains in America,
Health magazine compiled a list of the healthiest fast food
restaurants. The top 5 were:
Panera Bread – provides a wide variety of healthy menu options, half-sized
portions, and organic chicken. Plenty of healthy choices on the kids’ menu,
too, but avoid the sticky buns on display at the counter.
Jason’s Deli – uses organic ingredients and encourages portion control by
offering smaller meals at a discounted price. Beware of the sodium content of
their sandwiches, though.
Au Bon Pain – serves healthy, low calories soups, salads, and sandwiches
using whole grains and organic chicken. Nutritional information is posted at
each restaurant, so it’s a good idea to check the sodium content before
Noodles and Company – cooks noodle bowls using healthy Soybean oil, fresh
vegetables and organic meat and tofu. The desserts, however, are much less
Corner Bakery and Café – offers healthy breakfast choices, plus healthy
salads, sandwiches, and soup. Check their website for nutritional information
first, though, as it’s not available in the restaurants.