Healthy Eating

Healthy Fast Food OptionsFind the Healthiest Fast Food

Looking for healthy fast food options for breakfast, lunch, or a takeout meal? Here’s how to make healthier choices in your favorite fast food restaurant.

Can fast food 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 is typically loaded with calories, sodium, and unhealthy fat—often enough in one meal for an entire day. It also tends to be low in nutrients like vitamins and minerals, and almost totally lacking in fruit, vegetables, and fiber.

That doesn’t mean you have to avoid fast food entirely. When you’re hungry and on the run, fast food can be a convenient option that really hits the spot. It’s often quick, tasty, and can offer a more affordable option when you’re short on time. But while it’s okay to indulge a craving every now and then, there are healthier options out there. The key is moderation—both in how often you frequent fast food restaurants and what you order once you’re there.

Fast food menus can be tricky when you’re watching your weight or your health. Finding a healthy, well-balanced meal in most fast food restaurants can be a challenge. But there are always choices you can make that are healthier than others. The following tips and menu recommendations can help you stay on track.

Aim to keep your entire meal to no more than a third of your recommended daily caloric intake. For most of us, that means between 450 to 850 calories. 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 that are more nutrient-dense rather than just calorie-dense, meals that contain fiber, whole grains, and high-quality protein. Also aim for options that are relatively low in saturated fats. And steer clear of all items that contain trans fats.

Bring your own add-on items if you really want a nutrient boost. Even when you order wisely, it can be pretty tough to get enough fiber and other important vitamins and minerals from a fast food restaurant. 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.

Be aware of your sodium intake

High sodium intake over time can be 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. Unfortunately, that’s tough to do when eating fast food, even when you’re eating lower calorie meals. Your best bet: plan ahead if possible and eat low sodium in the meals leading up to and following your fast food meal. However, you can minimize some of your sodium intake by requesting that your burger or meat be cooked without added salt.

Guides can help you make healthier choices

Many fast food chains post nutritional information on their websites and in their restaurants. Sometimes, these lists can be confusing and hard to use, but they are the best source for accurate, up-to-date information on your menu options. There are also many other websites and apps that provide nutritional information, often in easier to use formats.

Choosing healthy fast food options on the go

Making healthier fast food choices can be easier if you plan ahead by checking the nutritional guides. Having an idea of what you’re going to order ahead of time can also help prevent you from making decisions based on cravings or hunger pangs when you arrive. But if you don’t have the chance to prepare, you can still make smarter choices by following a few broad guidelines.

Ordering healthier fast food options

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 lean meats. Try to avoid or limit fried and breaded items, such as crispy chicken sandwiches and breaded fish filets. Instead, opt for turkey, chicken breast, lean ham, or lean roast beef. Many fast food restaurants offer a grilled chicken item, which is often your best bet.

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

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. Another option is to ask for additional lettuce to make a lettuce wrap.

Don’t assume that healthy-sounding dishes are always your best option. For example, the dressings and fried toppings of some fast food salads can make them higher in total calories and saturated fat than burger alternatives. This is where reading the nutrition facts before you order can make a huge difference.

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Tips for keeping fast food calories under control

Be mindful when it comes to condiments and dressings. When choosing items, be aware of calorie- and fat-packed salad dressings, spreads, sauces, and sides such as cheese and sour cream. Mayonnaise- and oil-based sauces in particular can add a lot of calories. Try holding the mayo and asking for a packet of ketchup or mustard, enabling you to control how much you put on your sandwich.

Stick to zero- or low-calorie beverages. Soda can be a huge source of hidden calories. The average large soda packs around 300 calories, mainly from added sugar, which can quickly gulp up a big portion of your daily calorie intake. Shakes are often even higher than this, with up to 800 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat. Don’t be fooled by lemonade and fruit-from-concentrate drinks, which add calories and sugar without much in the way of nutrients. Order water, diet soda, 100% fruit juice, or unsweetened tea 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 (keeping an eye on the toppings), fresh fruit cups, corn on the cob, or apple slices.

Look for alternative to French fries. Choose one of the sides listed above that are more nutrient-dense and can help you avoid that post-meal sluggish feeling that’s common after a high-calorie fast food meal. If your meal doesn’t sound complete without fries, opt for the smallest size (which can be 400 calories less than a large serving).

Skip the 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 saturated fat and calories. Instead, try ordering extra pickles, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, or mustard to add flavor without the additional fat.

Ways to keep your fast food salad nutrient-dense

  • Choose low-fat and fat-free dressing and ask for it on the side, so you can control how much you use.
  • Skip high-fat toppings such as bacon bits, cheese, croutons, and crispy noodles. They can add hundreds of calories!
  • Try to avoid taco salads or at least be mindful of the toppings added and how much of the shell you eat. The deep-fried shells, tortilla chips, cheese, and sour cream toppings can make them high-fat, high-calorie choices.
  • Opt for salads with grilled chicken, shrimp, or vegetables rather than those with breaded chicken or other fried toppings.

Healthy fast food options at burger restaurants

The typical fast food meal of a burger, fries, and a drink can easily add up to a whole day’s worth of calories. Frequently eating like this over time can have negative impacts on your overall health and weight management. The burger alone at many fast food joints can pack between 1,000 to 2,000 calories, particularly when loaded up with extra patties, bacon, and cheese.

To keep calories and fat to more appropriate levels, try to pay particular attention to portion sizes and high-fat toppings and sides. Everything that you include in your meal adds up—from fries to soda or a shake.

Tips for healthier fast food options at burger restaurants:

Stick to a single hamburger patty rather than a double or triple burgers. Burgers with two or three beef patties add a lot of calories and unhealthy fat—up to 800 calories and 40 grams of fat, much of it saturated fat.

Hold or go light on the mayonnaise. You can eliminate around 100 calories. Add extra ketchup or mustard if you need a flavor kick.

Go easy on special sauces, which add can a lot of calories. 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 or heart-healthy avocado.

Ask about a plant-based burger or sandwich options, such as the veggie burger at Burger King or the grilled cheese at In-N-Out Burger.

Skip the fries or go small. 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 to 300 calories, often making them a better choice for keeping your portion size down.

Healthier fast food burger options

Double-patty cheeseburgerRegular, single-patty hamburger without cheese
French friesBaked potato or a side salad
Chicken “nuggets” or tendersGrilled chicken strips
Salad with toppings such as bacon, cheese, and ranch dressingGarden salad with grilled chicken and low-fat dressing (ordered on the side)
MilkshakeYogurt parfait or a small vanilla sundae in a cup (no toppings or cone)

Healthy fast food at chicken restaurants

Chicken may sound like a healthier, lower fat option than beef, but when it comes to fast food, that’s not always the case. Many menu items at chicken chains are higher in fat and sodium than a burger. That’s not to say that you can’t find healthier options, but don’t assume that chicken means “healthy.”

What kind of meat you order also matters. Chicken thighs are the highest in calories, followed closely by wings. Chicken breasts and drumsticks are much lower in calories, often making them healthier choices. If you prefer breast meat, you can make it even healthier by taking off the skin.

Tips for healthier fast food options at chicken restaurants:

Choose baked, broiled, or grilled chicken over fried or breaded chicken. And be mindful about chicken nuggets, which can be loaded with as much fat and sodium as a burger—sometimes even more.

Monitor your use of honey mustard, barbecue sauce, and other special sauces. Each sauce packet can add around 60 calories.

Consider your 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 tend to be high in calories, so make sure to account for them when ordering your meal.

Try to avoid the crispy chicken sandwich, which may be flavorful, but is fried and fatty. A healthier choice is a grilled chicken sandwich. Ordering it skinless or removing the skin before eating can make it even healthier.

Healthier fast food chicken options

Fried chicken, original or extra-crispySkinless chicken breast without breading
Teriyaki wings or popcorn chickenHoney BBQ grilled chicken sandwich
Fried chicken sandwichGrilled chicken sandwich
Chicken and biscuit “bowl”Mashed potatoes
Adding extra gravy and saucesLimiting gravy and sauces

Healthy fast food options at Mexican restaurants

Mexican fast food restaurants can be a good option for finding healthy fast food. But they can also be high in calories—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 can be quite large. In order to enjoy what you want without overeating, try to eat half, assess your fullness, and then 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 can still be large, so try to put aside leftovers if you can.

Tips for making healthier choices at Mexican fast food restaurants:

Try to limit the portion size of rice and beans (including in your burrito). These starches can add hundreds of calories to your meal.

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

Avoid or limit the chips. They add hundreds of calories (285 calories for a ½ order from Chipotle) and sodium you don’t necessarily need.

Look for Baja-style fish dishes. Fish is one of the leaner protein choices—and often packed with healthy fat—just opt for grilled rather than fried.

Try soft tortillas. Whether made of flour or corn, soft tortillas are lower in fat and total 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

Crispy shell tacoSoft taco
Ground beef or steakGrilled fish or chicken
Refried beans or pinto beansBlack beans
Crunch wraps or gordita-type burritosGrilled “fresco” style steak burrito
Beef or steak burritoVeggie and bean burrito

Healthy fast food options at sandwich chains

Thanks to Subway, sub sandwiches come to mind for many people when they 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 some sandwich chain ads promote their health benefits, one study 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. The following tips can help you make healthier choices at a deli or sub shop.

Tips for healthier fast food options at deli and sandwich restaurants:

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

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

Try to limit mayonnaise and condiments. You can save more calories by asking for the condiments on the side, as you’ll likely use less than the restaurant would put on your sub.

Dress your sandwich with mustard, vinegar, or low-fat dressing instead of mayonnaise and calorie-heavy special sauces.

Go light on the cheese or even 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.

Swap out the chips for a healthier, more nutrient-dense side such as an apple, small side salad, or yogurt.

Healthier fast food sandwich options

Foot-long subSix-inch sub
High-fat meat such as ham, tuna salad, bacon, meatballs, or steakLean meat (roast beef, chicken breast, lean ham) or veggies
The “normal” amount of higher-fat (cheddar, American) cheeseOne or two slices of lower-fat cheese (Swiss or mozzarella)
Keeping the sub “as is” with all toppingsSubbing out cheese and meat for extra veggie toppings
Choosing white bread or “wraps” which are often higher in fat than normal breadChoosing whole-grain bread or taking the top slice off your sub and eating it open-faced

Healthy fast food at pizza restaurants

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. Two slices can easily add up to 600 calories and more than a full day’s worth of sodium and saturated fat. But it is possible to indulge in pizza now and again without completely undoing your healthy diet. However, there’s no easy way to avoid the high sodium in pizza, so try to limit your sodium intake in the meals leading up to and following your pizza outing.

It’s also important to pay attention to portion sizes. This means watching the number of slices you eat, and keeping in mind that not all slices are made equal. Be aware that 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, try to eat half and, if you’re feeling satiated, save the rest for later.

Tips for healthier fast food options at pizza restaurants:

Try ordering thin crust instead of regular crust (and avoid deep-dish or pan pizza). Not only is thin crust the healthiest option, but it’s also the most authentic version of a true Italian pie.

Order your pizza with light cheese. A little cheese can go a long way! You can also try substituting lower-calorie ricotta cheese for mozzarella. At the very least, try to avoid ordering extra 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 high-fat meat toppings, such as pepperoni, bacon, sausage, Philly meat, ham, and beef. If you prefer to have meat, try to opt for chicken.

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

Skip the sides. Say no to garlic knots, mozzarella sticks, and cheesy bread. You’ll cut out a lot of calories, excess carbs, and unhealthy fats. It’s also likely that the pizza will be filling enough on it’s own.

Healthier pizza and Italian fast food options

Cheese-filled or deep dish pizzaThin-crust pizza (whole-wheat, if available)
Meat lover’s pizzaVeggie lover’s pizza
Pepperoni, meatballs, or sausage toppingsChicken
BaconCanadian bacon (90% less fat than regular bacon)
Garlic or “cheesy” breadPlain rolls or breadsticks

Healthy fast food at Chinese and Asian restaurants

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 and fat than you may realize. If you’re mindful about what you order, you can likely still order a balanced meal, but Asian fast food also tends to be very high in sodium. And unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about that—which makes Asian fast food best for the occasional indulgence, not necessarily a regular habit.

Tips for healthier fast food options at Asian restaurants:

Go easy on the rice, which packs on carbs and total 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 because of its fiber content.

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

Say no to pork dishes, which tend to be higher in fat than other meat options.

Limit or 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, Kung Pao, BBQ, or Sweet and Sour in the name. These sauces are high in calories and added 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. You may also find yourself feeling satisfied without overeating.

Healthier Asian fast food options

Deep-fried starters (egg rolls, tempura, fried wontons, etc.)Soup (healthier 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 riceSteamed rice (brown instead of white rice, if that’s an option)
Sweet and sour sauce or regular soy sauceHot chili sauce (a little goes a long ways) or low-sodium soy sauce
Meat-based dishesVegetable-based dishes

Healthy fast food breakfasts

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 sodium (even non-salty baked goods such as pastries and muffins). 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 fat.

Tips for a healthier fast food breakfast:

Limit or avoid sausage, bacon, and steak. These meats are high in saturated fat. Leaner breakfast meat choices include turkey, Canadian bacon, and ham.

Be mindful 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.

Focus on fiber. High fiber choices include bran muffins, oatmeal, and granola. Just be aware excess added sugar.

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

Say no to the breakfast burrito or opt for a smaller portion. These menu items tend to be loaded with carbs, calories, sodium, and fat.

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

Healthier breakfast fast food options

Bagel with cream cheeseEnglish muffin with jam
Egg on a biscuitEgg on wheat toast
Donut or pastryLow-fat bran muffin
SmoothieYogurt with granola and fruit
French toast sticks or cinnamon rollOatmeal
Last updated or reviewed on May 22, 2024