Fast food items are often high in calories — but you didn’t need us to tell you that. In May 2018, the FDA began requiring every restaurant and fast food chain with more than 20 locations in the U.S. to display calorie information on their menus. The goal of the law, according to the FDA, was to help keep consumers informed about what they’re choosing to eat and, thus, make healthier choices. However, one 2016 study revealed that "calorie labeling in menus is not effective to promote healthier food choices." Still, there may have been some positive impact from the change.
A report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed that menu labeling resulted in fast food restaurants coming up with new offerings that were 12-20 percent lower in calories than they had been were before labeling. Still, there are plenty of fast food items out there that boast far more calories than you might expect. And oftentimes it’s the seemingly "healthy" items, like fast-food salads and veggie burgers or plant-based smoothies, that pack the biggest punches. Here are some deceivingly high-calorie fast food items to look out for.
Panera Bread’s Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt on Black Pepper Focaccia
Chicken is lean protein source and avocado is considered a healthy fat. Knowing that, it makes sense that you might gravitate towards Panera Bread’s Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt in Blackened Focaccia when you’re trying to to choose a healthy lunch. While it’s true that the sandwich contains plenty of nutrients from the chicken and avocado, it’s also true that the sandwich is high in calories, clocking in at 850 for one sandwich. What’s more, over 40 percent of those calories come from the sandwich’s 41 grams of fat, 14 of which are from saturated fat.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting no more than 10 percent of your total calories from saturated fat, as too much can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and other chronic diseases. If you consume 2,000 calories per day, that equals about 200 calories, or 22 grams of saturated fat.
If you’re really craving this Panera sandwich, you may want to consider opting for the half (430 calories) and pair it with an apple on the side, which will add heart-healthy fiber and other nutrients.
Chick-fil-A’s Cobb Salad with Nuggets
Unlike some other salads, Cobb salads are typically loaded with calories and saturated fat. They usually contain hard-boiled egg, bacon, blue cheese, avocado, and deli meat, atop a bed of vegetables tossed in a creamy dressing. Chick-fil-A’s standard version (Cobb Salad with Nuggets), however, features breaded nuggets, bacon, egg, and cheese. It may look and taste delicious, but it rings in at 540 calories. And by the way, that’s before adding dressing. Depending on which kind you choose, you could be adding anywhere from 25 to 310 calories.
If you’re trying to keep the calorie count low, consider light balsamic, light Italian, or fat-free honey mustard dressing. Or, ask to hold the bacon or the cheese to cut back on the saturated fat content. You can also swap the breaded nuggets for grilled chicken. This salad is still loaded with nutritious veggies and has protein and fat to help keep you satisfied so even without adaptations, you’ll likely find it more filling than a fried chicken sandwich — even though the latter is actually lower in calories.
Subway’s Turkey, Bacon & Guacamole Wrap
Subway made a name for itself when now-infamous Jared Fogle went on what he called the "Subway diet," which consisted of eating a 6-inch turkey sub for lunch and a footlong veggie sub for dinner, along with a diet soda and bag of chips at both meals. The former spokesperson managed to lose 245 pounds on the diet. While his sub choices were low-calorie and nutrient-rich, there are some much higher-calorie items hidden in Subway’s menu. And we’re not even talking about the meatball sub.
One Turkey, Bacon & Guacamole Wrap packs 760 calories, and that’s before you add a bag of chips or a famously rich Subway cookie. Luckily, there are a few easy ways to cut back the calorie count on this one. Ask for just a small smear of guacamole instead of several heaping scoops. You can hold the bacon entirely, or just ask your sandwich maker to halve the amount they typically use. You’ll get the same flavor profile, with fewer calories and less fat.
Shake Shack’s ‘Shroom Burger
When you’re standing in line at a burger shack and looking up at a long menu of choices, the lone mushroom burger might stick out as the healthy option. At Shake Shack, though, that isn’t the case. The vegetarian ‘Shroom Burger is deep-fried and filled with cheese, making it higher calorie than the traditional ShackBurger, as well as the classic hamburger and cheeseburger options.
If you’re a vegetarian looking for a lower-calorie option at Shake Shack, consider the vegan Veggie Shack, which comes in at 390 calories. Even better, go for the Grilled Cheese! Not something you were expecting to hear, we bet. The burger chain’s 350-calorie grilled cheese features American cheese melted into a pressed potato bun.
You may want to watch out for the side dishes at Shake Shack. An order of crispy crinkle-cut fries will add 470 calories to your meal, and that’s before adding any condiments like ketchup, mayo, or mustard. For dessert, a single cup of vanilla frozen custard will only set you back 220 calories, according to the Food Network. A shake, on the other hand, will contain a minimum of 500 calories.
Taco Bell’s Fiesta Taco Salad Nachos
Choosing a salad over a cheesy burrito or a pile of tacos might seem like the obvious choice, but Taco Bell’s Fiesta Taco Salad Nachos packs a caloric punch: 1,370 calories, over half of the recommended number of daily calories for many people (via Healthline). How is it so high in calories? For starters, this salad isn’t really a salad. It’s more of a rice bowl topped with some veggies, ground beef, cheese, refried beans, and sour cream — and all housed in a giant fried tortilla shell. In other words, it’s like eating several deconstructed tacos stuffed inside a humungous deep-fried taco, with ample amounts of sour cream on top.
If you really love the dish but are concerned about the calories, you can shave off a significant amount by eating the salad sans the shell. You can also customize your meal with less rice and more lettuce, to add fiber and nutrients but cut back on the total carb and calorie count.
Panera Bread’s Ten Vegetable Soup Bread Bowl
Think a brothy vegetable soup containing ten veggies is a great low-calorie choice at Panera? You’re right, actually. But turn that cup of soup into a bread bowl and, well, the calorie count of your meal increases more than ten-fold. A Panera Ten Vegetable Soup Bread Bowl contains 730 calories total, whereas a cup of the veggie soup contains 60 calories, and a bowl contains 200. That means a vast majority of the calories in this meal are coming from the sourdough bread. The fix here is obvious: Ditch that bread bowl and order a cup of soup instead.
Panera has plenty of options to choose from, and you can even get a slice of a French baguette on the side for just 140 calories. That way, you still have doughy bread to help soak up your soup and round out your meal, but you aren’t accidentally taking in far more calories than intended. The bread bowl might look cool and seem like a real novelty, but calorie-wise, this simple swap is a total no-brainer.
Pei Wei Asian Kitchen’s Signature Chicken Lettuce Wraps
On a menu filled with spring rolls, pan-fried dumplings, and oily stir-fry dishes, lettuce wraps filled with chicken and some greens probably seems like the way to go. Unfortunately, Pei Wei Asian Kitchen’s Signature Chicken Lettuce Wraps deliver a shocking 810 calories per order, plus 60 calories for the sauce. Of the calories in the wraps, a whopping 420 come from fat. There are also 21 grams of sugar in the chicken, the vast majority of which is surely added sugar.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar to 12 teaspoons (50 grams) or less per day. If you’re going to get these lettuce wraps and are concerned about the sugar, skipping the sauce will save you a little, but not much. This is because the chicken is "wok-tossed" in the "savory soy sauce," according to Pei Wei. You may want to consider ordering a steamed veggie-and-protein entree over white or brown rice instead.
Taco Bell’s Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme
Many vegetarians love Taco Bell, and for good reason. There are countless veggie items on the menu — from the Bean Burrito to the Veggie Power Menu Bowl. But one vegetarian item stands out as being significantly higher-calorie from the rest of the offerings: the Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme. In addition to containing 510 calories — which is more than many menu items — it’s also got a whopping 1,080 milligrams of sodium, more than half of the 2,300 milligrams per day than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends to lower your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
Luckily, there are so many other choices on Taco Bell’s menu that can fill you up. A side of Black Beans and Rice contains 170 calories and just 320 milligrams of sodium, which is really quite low for a fast food item. And a simple Cheesy Roll-Up has just 180 calories but packs an impressive 9 grams of protein.
Jamba’s Plant-Based Pumpkin Smash
Here’s the deal with smoothies: While most of them are filled with nutritious fruits and vegetables, they also tend to pack loads of calories and sugar into a relatively small portion. Think about it — you probably wouldn’t eat a banana, a handful of berries, half an avocado, and two peaches in one sitting, but you likely wouldn’t think twice about throwing all of that into a smoothie. Still, fruit contains so many important nutrients, so it’s generally okay to start your day with a smoothie a few times a week.
However, this Plant-Based Pumpkin Smash smoothie from Jamba is something else. A large contains 780 calories before even adding any mix-ins like protein powder, fruits, or veggies. So what does the smoothie have in it? Oat milk, a pumpkin spice blend, and oat milk frozen dessert, according to Jamba’s site. This pumpkin spice blend is made with pumpkin, but it also contains sugar and inverted sugar syrup, as well as coloring and preservatives. In other words, this smoothie is all about the sugar and not about the fruits or vegetables. You’d be way better off making your own pumpkin smoothie.
Sonic Drive-In’s Chicken Club Toaster Sandwich
With 770 calories and just under 1,600 milligrams of sodium, it’s safe to say that Sonic Drive-In’s Chicken Club Toaster Sandwich is a deceivingly high-calorie item. Where do all those calories come from? Several parts of the sandwich, actually. For starters, the chicken is fried, not roasted or grilled as in a traditional club sandwich. Then there’s the bacon and cheese, both of which add calories from saturated fat. The generous spread of mayo adds additional calories from fat and practically no nutrients. And to boot, the whole thing is served on thick-sliced white bread, which contains carbs and sugar without any filling, healthy fiber.
Frankly, you’re better off getting the Sonic Burger with ketchup, which has 540 calories and 22 grams of fat (compared to the Chicken Club’s 43 grams of fat). Or, you could choose a grilled Chicken Wrap for 480 calories and just 14 grams of fat.
Starbucks Southwest Veggie Wrap
You likely know that Starbucks Frappucinos are loaded with sugar and saturated fat. (If you didn’t know that, here’s a fun fact: A grande Caffè Vanilla Frappuccino has 400 calories, 9 grams of saturated fat, and an incredible 64 grams of sugar.) What you might not realize is that some of Starbucks’ food items are pretty high in calories, too. Sure, there’s the 290-calorie Spinach, Feta & Cage-Free Egg White Wrap. But there’s also the Southwest Veggie Wrap, which comes in at 590 calories. That’s more than the Double-Smoked Bacon, Cheddar and Egg Sandwich (which comes on a buttery croissant!) or the Chicken Sausage and Bacon Biscuit.
The lesson here? Don’t assume that the vegetarian option is automatically healthier or lower in calories. The next time you’re picking up coffee at Starbucks and decide to order breakfast along with it, take a gander at the calorie counts on items in the display case; you may be surprised. Oftentimes, a delicious and rich-sounding menu item is lower in calories than one that sounds "healthier."
Dunkin’ Donuts’ Pumpkin Muffin
Have you ever walked into a Dunkin’ Donuts and tried to pick something "healthy," choosing a veggie-filled muffin instead of a Boston Kreme donut? It’s hard to believe, but the muffins at Dunkin’ actually pack consistently more calories than the fried, sugar-glazed donuts they share a bakery case with. Why? For starters, the muffins are literally heavier, meaning they contain more flour, more sugar, and more oil.
A Pumpkin Muffin contains 550 calories, 24 grams of fat, 38 grams of added sugar, and just 2 grams of fiber. Next time you’re in the mood for a sweet, fall-themed treat, go for a donut instead. An Apple Cider Donut has 360 calories, while a Pumpkin Donut has 380 calories. Better yet, choose a classic like a glazed or jelly donut, both of which come in at under 300 calories and are sure to satisfy any craving.
Wendy’s Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad
The bad news? Wendy’s Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad delivers 520 calories. The good news? That does include dressing, and the salad is a flavorful and filling mix of chicken, lettuce, bacon, tomatoes, avocado, and cheese. Still, it’s not the lowest-calorie option on Wendy’s menu by any means. A Jr. Cheeseburger has 310 calories while a Jr. Cheeseburger Deluxe has 360 calories. A small Wendy’s Chili is another lower-calorie offering, with 240 calories and 4.5 grams of saturated fat, plus 16 grams of satisfying protein. You could also get a tasty, potassium-rich Sour Cream and Chive Baked Potato for just 310 calories.
The bottom line? Go for the salad if you’re craving it, since it delivers plenty of important nutrients from lettuce, chicken, tomatoes, and avocado. But don’t choose it just because you think it’s the lowest-calorie option available. Because of add-ins like bacon and cheese, it’s actually higher in calories than other traditional menu items. This is yet another example of how healthy-seeming items can be pretty deceiving when it comes to calories.
Bojangles’ Cajun Filet Biscuit with Pimento Cheese
Anyone from the south — heck, anyone who’s ever been to the south — knows that Bojangles and their flaky biscuits are absolutely everywhere, from roadside stops to busy street corners. And sure, not many people go into a joint famous for fried chicken and biscuits looking for a low-calorie meal. But if you’re watching your calorie intake and find yourself ordering at a Bojangles counter, you should know that the Cajun Filet Biscuit with Pimento Cheese is one of the highest-calorie items you can choose. It may not seem all that different from other biscuit sandwiches, but it very much is.
While pimento cheese is unquestionably delicious, it also contributes to the 15 grams of saturated fat and the 740 calories that this relatively small biscuit contains. Just skipping the pimento cheese shaves the sandwich down to 570 calories! Of all the biscuit sandwiches Bojangles offers, the Country Ham Biscuit Sandwich is your best bet, with 380 calories and 8 grams of saturated fat. A plain biscuit with egg adds up to 390 calories, making it another relatively low-calorie choice.