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Healthy Fast Food

Tips for Making Healthier Fast Food Choices

Healthy chicken wrap

When you’re hungry and on the run, fast food can really hit the spot. It’s quick, tasty, and, best of all, convenient. But it’s also loaded with calories, sugar, sodium, and fat—often enough in one meal for an entire day or more. And if you’re feeding your whole family, it can be expensive, too—often more so than cooking at home.

Fast food menus are tricky when you’re watching your weight or your health. Finding a healthy, well-balanced meal in most fast food restaurants is a challenge. But there are always healthier options hidden among the diet disasters. You just need to know where to look and how to order.

Can fast food really be healthy?

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult to follow a healthy diet when you’re eating regularly at fast food restaurants. Fast food restaurants typically use the cheapest ingredients possible in order to keep costs down. That means that foods that otherwise could be considered healthy may not be when ordered from a fast food chain. For example, cheese can be a good source of protein and calcium, but the cheese topping your burger or covering your pizza is most likely heavily processed, made from non-dairy ingredients. The same goes for meat, chicken, and eggs. Fast food is also typically high in trans fat, unhealthy saturated fat, hidden sugar, sodium, and calories. At the same time, it tends to be low in nutrients and almost totally lacking in fruits, vegetables, and fiber.

That doesn’t mean you have to avoid fast food entirely. It’s OK to indulge a craving every once in a while, but to stay healthy you can’t make it a regular habit; consuming fast food regularly will almost certainly have a negative affect your health. The key is moderation—both in how often you frequent fast food chains and what you order once you’re there. There are always choices you can make that are healthier than others. The following tips and menu recommendations can help you stay on track. Just remember that even the healthiest fast food options often have nutritional drawbacks so try to keep fast food to the occasional treat.

Aim to keep your entire meal to 500 calories or less. The average adult eats 836 calories per fast food meal—and underestimates what they ate by 175 calories. So don’t guess! Most chains post nutritional info both on their websites and at the franchise location. Take advantage of this information.

Opt for foods that are lower in fat and higher in protein and fiber. Look for items with more good stuff, like fiber, whole grains, and high-quality protein. Also aim for options that are relatively low in saturated fats—while not all saturated fats are bad for you, most of those found in fast food restaurants are.

Steer clear of trans fats. Small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats can be found in meat and dairy products but it’s the artificial trans fats used to keep food fresh that are dangerous to your health. Avoid anything containing “partially hydrogenated” oil—even if it claims to be trans fat-free—or any foods that have been deep fried. While no amount of artificial trans fat is considered safe, the USDA recommends at least limiting trans fat to no more than 2 grams per day.

Keep an eye on sodium intake. 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. That can be tough to do when eating fasting food—a burger and fries can easily exceed your daily limit.

Bring your own add-on items if you really want a health boost. Even when you order wisely, it can be pretty tough to get enough fiber and other important vitamins and nutrients from a fast food menu. If you plan ahead, you can bring healthy sides and toppings like dried fruit, nuts and seeds, carrot sticks, apple or pear slices, and cottage cheese or yogurt.

Beware of added sugar

One of the biggest problems with fast food is the amount of added sugar—and it’s not just in sodas or desserts. Even the average burger contains 5 to 10 grams or more of added sugar, about the same as a couple of cookies. Salad dressings, ketchup, dips, and BBQ sauces are also packed with added sugar. Your body gets all it needs from sugar naturally occurring in food so all this added sugar just means a lot of empty calories that can add inches to your waistline and contribute to diabetes, depression, and even an increase in suicidal behaviors.

According to the American Heart Association, men shouldn’t eat more than 37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day and women 25 grams or 6 teaspoons. While that may sound like a lot, the grams can quickly add up when you’re dining at a fast food restaurant:

  • A 12-ounce soda contains up to 40g of added sugar; a 64-ounce soda about 200g of sugar, or more than 5 days’ worth.
  • A medium shake contains about 45g of added sugar.
  • McDonald's Hotcakes and Sausage contains 46g of sugar.
  • A large side of coleslaw at Popeye’s contains 45g of sugar.
  • Wendy’s Apple Pecan Chicken salad contains 40g of sugar.

When you opt to eat at a fast food chain, try to plan ahead if possible and eat low sugar in the meals leading up to and following your fast food meal. You can minimize some of the damage by requesting salad dressing on the side, limiting ketchup, eating subs, burgers or sandwiches open-faced, and skipping dips or sides that are packed with sugar.

Additional Resources and References

Many fast food chains post nutritional information on their websites. Sometimes, these lists are confusing and hard to use, but they are the best source for accurate, up-to-date information on their menu options.

Many other websites and apps provide nutritional information, often in easier to use formats.

Tips for making healthier fast food choices

Making healthier fast food choices is easier if you plan ahead by checking the nutritional guides that most chains post on their websites. But if you don’t have the chance to prepare, you can still make smarter choices by following a few common sense guidelines.

Healthier fast food ordering guidelines

Keep your eye on portion size. Many fast food meals deliver enough food for several meals in the guise of a single serving. Avoid supersized and value-sized items, and go for the smallest size when it comes to sandwiches, burgers, and sides. You can also find more reasonable portions on the children’s menu.

Focus on grilled or roasted meats. Avoid fried and breaded items, such as crispy chicken sandwiches and breaded fish fillets or processed meats such as sausage, bacon, hot dogs, or ham. Choose turkey, chicken breast, or roast beef instead.

Pay attention to the descriptions on the menu. Dishes labeled deep-fried, pan-fried, basted, batter-dipped, breaded, creamy, crispy, scalloped, or au gratin are usually high in calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium. Same with items in Alfredo or cream sauce.

Don’t be afraid to special order. Many menu items can be made healthier with a few tweaks and substitutions. For example, you can ask to hold the sauce or dressing or serve it on the side. Or you can request a wheat bun for your hamburger or whole-grain bread for your sandwich.

Don't assume that healthy-sounding dishes are always your best option. For example, many fast food salads are a diet minefield, smothered in unhealthy dressing and fried toppings. This is where reading the nutrition facts before you order can make a huge difference.

Tips for keeping fast food calories under control

Be careful when it comes to condiments and dressings. When choosing items, be aware of calorie- packed salad dressings, spreads, sauces, and sides. Mayonnaise- and oil-based sauces in particular add a lot of calories. Try holding the mayo and asking for mustard or a packet you can add yourself—controlling how much you put on your sandwich.

Watch what you drink. Soda is a huge source of hidden sugar and calories. The average large soda packs around 300 calories and 19 spoonfuls of sugar. Shakes are even worse, with up to 800 calories and a staggering 120 grams (30 spoonfuls) of sugar. Switching to diet soda isn’t the answer, as the artificial sweetener it contains can trigger sugar cravings that contribute to weight gain. And don’t be fooled by lemonade and fruit drinks, which add calories and sugar without much in the way of nutrients. Order water or unsweetened tea or coffee instead.

Be wise about sides. Watch menu items that come with one or more side dishes. Sides that can quickly send calories soaring include fries, chips, rice, noodles, onion rings, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, biscuits, and mashed potatoes with gravy. Better bets are side salads with light dressing, baked potato (easy on the toppings), fresh fruit cups, corn on the cob, or apple slices.

Pass on the French fries. Do you really need those fries? A sandwich or burger should be plenty filling on its own.

Skip the bacon. It’s always tempting to add bacon to sandwiches and salads for extra flavor, but processed meat has very few nutrients and is high in fat and calories. Instead, try ordering extra pickles, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, or mustard to add flavor in a healthier way.

Make sure your fast food salad isn’t a stealth diet saboteur

  • Ask for dressing on the side so you can control how much you use.
  • Skip unhealthy toppings such as bacon bits, processed cheese, croutons, and crispy noodles. They can add hundreds of calories!
  • Avoid taco salads. The deep-fried shells, tortilla chips, cheese, and sour cream make them high-fat, high-calorie diet busters.
  • Choose salads with grilled chicken, shrimp, or vegetables. Avoid salads with breaded chicken or other fried toppings.

Healthier fast food menu options by type of chain

When it comes to fast food, you have a lot of options, from traditional burger and chicken joints to coffee and donut chains and Asian and Mexican food franchises. The menus at fast food restaurants tend to change often and there’s currently a shift in the industry with many chains trying to meet the increased demand for fresher, healthier fare. So it’s worth keeping an eye out for new menu options available at your favorite fast food outlets.

Wherever you choose to eat, following commonsense nutrition guidelines goes a long way to make the healthiest choices, but you can also save yourself a lot of dietary grief with the following chain-specific tips.

Healthier fast food at burger chains

Healthy Fast Foods: Burger Chains

The typical fast food meal of a burger, fries, and a drink can easily add up to a whole day’s worth of calories. That’s a nutritional (and weight control) recipe for disaster. The burger alone at many fast food joints can pack between 1,000-2,000 calories, particularly when loaded up with extra patties, bacon, and cheese.

To keep calories and fat down, you also should pay particular attention to portion sizes, high-fat toppings and sides, and hidden sugar. Everything that you add to your meal counts—from fries to soda or a shake.

Tips for making healthier choices at fast food burger joints:

Stick to a single hamburger patty. No double or triple burgers! Burgers with two or three beef patties add loads of unnecessary calories and unhealthy fat (up to 800 calories and 40 grams of fat).

Go easy on special sauces, which add a lot of calories and sugar. If you don’t want to do without, ask for the sauce on the side. A little goes a long way.

Say no to bacon, cheese, onion rings, and other calorie-laden burger toppings. If you want to add some interest, go with extra pickles, tomatoes, or heart-healthy avocado.

Ask about no-meat burger or sandwich options, such as the veggie burger at Burger King or the grilled cheese at In-N-Out Burger.

Skip the fries. You’ll save hundreds of calories (510 calories for a large McDonald’s fries, 340 calories for a medium).

Check out the kid’s menu. Junior and children's-sized hamburgers usually have between 250-300 calories, making them a healthier choice.

Healthier fast food burger options

INSTEAD OF

TRY

Double-patty cheeseburger

Regular, single-patty hamburger without cheese

French fries

Baked potato or a side salad

Chicken “nuggets” or tenders

Grilled chicken strips

Salad with toppings such as bacon and cheese

Garden salad with grilled chicken, dressing on the side

Milkshake

Plain milk and apple slices

Healthier fast food at chicken chains

Healthy fast food: Fried chicken chains

Broadly, opting for a meal from a fast food chicken restaurant can be healthier than eating at a burger or pizza place.  However, you still need to make careful choices. Much of it has to do with how the chicken is prepared—grilled or rotisserie chicken is far healthier than battered and fried, for example.

Tips for making smarter choices at fast food chicken restaurants:

Choose baked, broiled, grilled, or rotisserie chicken over fried or breaded chicken. And don’t think chicken nuggets are healthy—they’re loaded with as much fat and sodium as a burger.

Go easy on the honey mustard, barbecue sauce, and other special sauces. Each sauce packet adds around 60 calories.

Be wary of sides. Half the fun when ordering chicken are the sides: coleslaw, biscuits, baked beans, mac ‘n cheese, and mashed potatoes. But these standard side dishes are all high in calories, so make sure to count them toward your meal. Better options are steamed vegetables, green beans, or corn.

Pass on the crispy chicken sandwich, which may be flavorful, but is fried and fatty. A much better choice is a grilled chicken sandwich.

Healthier fast food chicken options

INSTEAD OF

TRY

Fried chicken, original or extra-crispy

Chicken breast without breading

Teriyaki wings or popcorn chicken

Honey BBQ chicken sandwich

Fried chicken sandwich

Grilled chicken sandwich

Chicken and biscuit “bowl”

Mashed potatoes

Adding extra gravy and sauces

Limiting gravy and sauces

Healthy fast food at Mexican chains

Healthy fast food: Mexican chains

Mexican fast food restaurants can be a good option for finding healthy fast food. But they can also be caloric minefields—especially when it comes to burritos, nachos, and other cheese-heavy items. Portion control is also important, since the serving size on many Mexican fast food items is enormous. In order to enjoy what you want without blowing your diet, simply eat half and take the rest home for your next meal.

Several Mexican chains, including Taco Bell and Baja Fresh, have “healthy” menu options that are lower in fat and calories. You can also find healthier choices at chains such as Chipotle and Taco Del Mar, including whole-wheat tortillas and fresh vegetables. But portions are still huge, so limiting the amount you eat in one sitting is key.

Tips for making smarter choices at Mexican fast food restaurants:

Go easy on the rice and beans (including in your burrito). These starches add hundreds of calories to your meal.

Skip the sour cream, which can add 100-200 calories. For a healthier option, add avocado or guacamole.

Say no to chips. They add hundreds of calories (570 calories for an  order from Chipotle) along with lots of added sugar and sodium you don’t need.

Look for Baja-style fish dishes. Fish is usually the healthiest meat choice—as long as it’s not fried.

Opt for soft tortillas. Whether made of flour or corn, soft tortillas are lower in fat and calories than crispy, deep-fried shells. Soft corn tortillas are usually healthier than soft flour tortillas.

Try holding the cheese. You may be surprised how little you miss it in your burrito or taco, and it can save you over 100 calories.

Load up on fajita veggies. Adding them to your burrito or burrito bowl is an easy way to add tons of flavor and heart-healthy vitamins and phytochemicals without adding a lot of calories.

Healthier Mexican fast food options

INSTEAD OF

TRY

Crispy shell taco

Soft taco

Ground beef or fried chicken or meat

Grilled fish or chicken

Refried beans or pinto beans

Black beans

Crunch wraps or gordita-type burritos

Grilled “fresco” style steak burrito

Beef burrito

Veggie and bean burrito

Healthy fast food at sub sandwich chains

Healthy fast food: Sub sandwich chainsThanks largely to Subway’s media campaign, sub sandwiches often come to mind when you think of “healthy” fast food. And while it is true that you can find relatively healthy choices at the top sandwich chains, their menus are not without their pitfalls. While sandwich shop ads promote their health benefits, 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.

Tips for making smarter choices at sandwich fast food joints:

Opt for the smaller sized subs. Ordering a 6-inch sub over the footlong can save you between 500-700 calories.

Choose whole-grain buns or bread instead of white bread, French rolls, or cheese breads.

Go easy on the mayonnaise and condiments. You can save even more calories by asking for the condiments on the side.

Dress your sandwich with mustard, olive oil, or vinegar instead of mayonnaise and calorie-heavy special sauces.

Go light on the cheese, or better yet, skip it altogether.

Eat half the sandwich at lunch and save the other half for later.

Load up on veggies, such as tomato, lettuce, pickles, onions, green and red peppers, and olives.

Skip the chips. Get something healthier on the side, such as an apple, a small side salad, or a yogurt.

Healthier fast food sandwich options

INSTEAD OF

TRY

Foot-long sub

Six-inch sub

Processed meat such as ham, bacon, salami, or meatballs

Healthier cuts of meat (roast beef, chicken breast) tuna, or veggies

Processed (American) cheese

Avocado

Keeping the sub “as is” with all toppings

Subbing out cheese and processed meat for extra veggie toppings

Choosing white bread or “wraps” which are often higher in fat than normal bread

Choosing whole-grain bread or taking the top slice off your sub and eating it open-faced

Healthier fast food at pizza chains

Pizza

Pizza isn’t considered health food—and for good reason. It’s high in calories and typically loaded with fatty meats and cheese with little nutritional value. But it is possible to indulge in pizza now and again without completely undoing your healthy diet—the key is portion control. Just two slices can easily add up to 600 calories, 12 grams of sugar, and more than a full day’s worth of sodium. Eating any more than that and it’s almost impossible to stay within healthy limits for calories, fat, sodium, or sugar.

Of course, not all pizza slices are equal. A large slice of pizza is almost 40% bigger than a medium slice of pizza, with the corresponding calorie bump. And don’t be fooled by the personal pan pizza, which are usually 800 calories or more. If you do choose a personal pizza, eat half and save the rest for later.

Tips for making smarter choices at pizza joints:

Order thin crust instead of regular crust, and avoid deep-dish or pan pizza at all costs! Not only is thin crust the healthiest option, but it’s also the most authentic version of a true Italian pie.

Order by the slice rather than a whole pizza, especially if you’re eating alone. It will satisfy your craving for pizza without tempting you to overindulge.

Order your pizza lighter on cheese. A little cheese can go a long way! You can also try substituting lower-calorie ricotta cheese for mozzarella. At the very least, don’t order extra cheese—many pizza chains use low quality, sometimes processed cheese.

Load your pizza up with veggie toppings. Most chains have lots of healthy options, including tomato, peppers, mushrooms, spinach, artichoke, garlic, onion, and broccoli.

Limit processed meat toppings, such as pepperoni, bacon, sausage, and ham. If you must have meat, stick to chicken or steak.

Avoid pasta, which tends to be less healthy than the pizza at fast food joints. Fast food pasta dishes are usually little more than a heaping serving of refined-carb noodles and calorie-heavy sauces.

Skip the sides. Say no to garlic knots, mozzarella sticks, and cheesy bread. You’ll cut out a lot of extra calories, carbs, and unhealthy fat.

Check out small, local pizza joints instead of the national chains. Some may use higher quality ingredients and offer healthier options.

Healthier pizza and Italian fast food options

INSTEAD OF

TRY

Cheese-filled or deep dish pizza

Thin-crust pizza (whole-wheat, if available)

Meat lover’s pizza

Veggie lover’s pizza

Pepperoni, meatballs, bacon, or sausage toppings

Chicken or steak

Garlic or “cheesy” bread

Plain rolls or breadsticks

Healthier fast food at Asian chains

Healthy Asian Food

Asian fast food may sound healthier than your typical burger or fast food sandwich. After all, you can usually get a decent amount of veggies. But if you’re not careful, you can end up with a meal that’s much higher in calories, fat, sodium, and added sugar than you may realize. If you’re smart about what you order, you can minimize the diet-busting damage.

Tips for making smarter choices at Asian fast food restaurants:

Go easy on the rice, which packs on carbs and calories. Pass on fried rice, which is high in fat, calories, and sodium. Steamed white rice is a much healthier choice, and brown rice even better.

Limit the noodles. Fried Asian noodles add a lot of calories, carbs, and sodium, plus unhealthy fat. Stick to small portions of lo mein, chow mein, and chow fun, or avoid them altogether.

Say no to pork dishes, which are more likely to be cooked in sweet sauces packed with hidden sugar than other meat options.

Avoid sauce heavy dishes, such as orange chicken and Beijing beef. It’s also a good idea to pass on anything with General Tso’s, BBQ, or Sweet and Sour in the name. These sauces are high in calories and sugar.

Skip the fatty, deep-fried sides, such as fried wontons, egg rolls, tempura, BBQ spareribs, and crab Rangoon.

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.

Healthier Asian fast food options

INSTEAD OF

TRY

Deep-fried starters (egg rolls, tempura, fried wontons, etc.)

Soup (good choices include egg drop, miso, wonton, or hot & sour soup)

Battered or deep-fried dishes (sweet and sour pork, General Tso’s chicken)

Stir-fried, steamed, roasted or broiled dishes (chow mein, chop suey)

Fried rice

Steamed rice (brown instead of white rice, if that’s an option)

Sweet and sour sauce or regular soy sauce

Hot chili sauce (a little goes a long ways) or low-sodium soy sauce

Healthier fast food breakfasts

Breakfast Bagel

We all know the importance of a healthy breakfast, but it’s also the meal we usually have the least time for. And even though fast food isn’t the healthiest option, it can be the most convenient one when you’re running late for work or school.

However, many fast food breakfasts deliver a full day’s worth of fat and enough saturated fat for three days. Many breakfast items are also obscenely high in sugar and sodium. And that’s to say nothing of calories, which can top 1,000. But you can find healthier choices on most menus. The key is to look for items with both fiber and protein—which makes them more filling and satisfying—but not too much sugar.

Tips for making smarter fast food breakfast choices:

Avoid sausage and bacon. These processed meats are high in fat and low in nutrients. Healthier breakfast meat choices include turkey or steak.

Beware of meals labeled “low-fat”.In many cases, these foods have traded fat for added sugar to maintain taste—but the extra sugar can be worse for your health than the fat.

Order oatmeal with fruit instead of sugar. The taste won’t suffer—and neither will your heart or waistline. Ordering McDonald’s Fruit and Maple oatmeal without brown sugar, for example, can cut down on the total added sugar in the meal by a whopping 14 grams.

Be careful when it comes to baked goods. Not only are most breakfast pastries, loafs, and muffins high in sugar, they also tend to be high in sodium and dangerous trans fat.

Focus on fiber. Good choices include oatmeal and granola. Again, just watch out for excess sugar.

Go easy on the cheese and breakfast sauces. Ask for the sauce on the side to keep the sugar and calories down.

Say no to the breakfast burrito. These diet-busters tend to be loaded with carbs, calories, sodium, and fat.

Choose toast or English muffins over biscuits. Biscuits are usually higher in calories, sugar, and fat than toast or English muffins.

Healthier breakfast fast food options

INSTEAD OF

TRY

Bagel

English muffin

Egg on a biscuit

Egg on wheat toast

Donut or pastry

Granola and fruit

Smoothie

Yogurt with fruit

French toast sticks or cinnamon roll

Oatmeal

More help for healthy eating

Resources and references

Nutrition facts for menu choices at fast food restaurants

Fast Food Nutrition – Lists in-depth nutrition facts for menu choices at over 35 fast food restaurants.

Calorie Lab – Offers a nutritional facts database with information on 500 restaurant chain menus.

Healthy Dining Finder – Helps you find the healthiest choices at your local restaurants and includes instructions for reduced-sodium options and special requests. (Healthy Dining)

Restaurant reviews

All "Menu Mondays" Restaurant Reviews – Explore in-depth guides to eating smart at a wide range of popular chains. Includes details on the best and worst menu options. (Eating Rules)

10 Fast Food Chains that Serve Fresh and Healthy Cuisine – Learn about healthier fast food options at chains that focus on fresh food and even vegetarian and vegan fare. (Business Insider)

Special dietary needs at fast food restaurants

The Fast Food Challenge – Many useful tips to help you eat healthier when dining out at fast food restaurants. (American Diabetes Association)

Tips for Eating Fast Food – Suggestions and healthy substitutions for fast food restaurant items. (American Heart Association)

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: October 2016.