Fast food provides a quick and easy solution to those times when we leave our lunches at home, are too exhausted to whip up dinner, or are just straight up in a rush. Plus, hopping up to a drive-thru is convenient and usually fairly inexpensive. According to data from 2013 to 2016 collected by the CDC, around 37 percent of adults consume fast food on any given day.
This may seem like no biggie, but fast food can have quite the impact on a person’s health. "If you’re eating fast food with any sort of regular frequency, you’re typically going to be getting more saturated fat, more sodium, and more sugar than you would if you were cooking at home," registered dietitian Lindsay Malone told the Cleveland Clinic.
Even the portion sizes offered tend to be way too big — not to mention the sweetened beverage they often come with — leading us to consume high amounts of calories. At Health Digest, we researched the healthiest options you can choose from some of the most popular fast food chains. So when fast food is the only option, you can feel good eating it.
Way back in 1940 when McDonald’s was a solo "Bar-B-Q" restaurant, its menu had the staple 15-cent hamburger (via McDonald’s). These days, you’ll be paying a bit more than 15 cents, but choosing a single cheeseburger pays off in the form of not breaking your calorie bank.
"If you are craving a burger, the basic cheeseburger is the way to go!" Amy Goodson, registered dietitian, told Eat This, Not That. "With 15 grams of protein and only 300 calories, this burger can satisfy your craving without killing your calorie budget for the day." Although red meat provides several important nutrients, it’s best to have it sparingly. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine states that eating 100 grams of red meat (around 3.5 ounces) each day increased risk of stroke, breast cancer, cardiovascular mortality, colorectal and prostate cancer.
If you’re hitting the McDonald’s drive-thru in the a.m., opt for healthier breakfast options like the Egg McMuffin (310 calories, 13 grams of fat, 17 grams of protein), Fruit & Maple Oatmeal (320 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein), or the Sausage Burrito (310 calories, 17 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein).
Taco Bell Crunchy or Soft Taco served "fresco style"
Wanting to "Live Más" and eat your next meal at Taco Bell? According to the restaurant, about 75 percent of their menu items are 500 calories or fewer. "Taco Bell has a surprising number of better options," Lindsey Janeiro, registered dietitian, told Women’s Health. "They have an in-house registered dietitian who oversees the whole menu and works to remove additives and preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, high-fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oil, and reducing sodium across the menu."
Taco Bell recommends ordering items "fresco style" if you’re looking to cut back calories even further. Doing this replaces higher-calorie and higher-fat extras such as mayo-based sauces, cheeses, and sour cream with diced tomatoes, reducing your calorie and fat intake by up to 25 percent.
One of the best choices is a fresco-style Crunchy Taco with beef for 140 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 6 grams of protein. If you’re more of a soft shell taco fan, you still have a healthy option at 160 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 8 grams of protein.
Wendy’s Jr. Hamburger Deluxe
Popular cheeseburger joint Wendy’s is known for their famous square patty. And you don’t have to miss out just because you’re watching what you eat. "The Jr. Hamburger Deluxe is a great way to keep your protein portion in check," Amy Shapiro, registered dietitian, told Women’s Health. "Take off the top bun to decrease the carb load and empty calories. Bonus points if you ask for extra pickles, tomatoes, and lettuce to doctor up the patty." Even eating the Jr. Cheeseburger Deluxe without modifications won’t set you back too much, with 320 calories, 18 grams of fat, 14 grams of protein.
If you want to lay off the beef, try one of Wendy’s salads. To keep the right portion, order a half salad instead of a full. Their options include the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad (340 calories, 21 grams of fat, 21 grams of protein) and the Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad (210 calories, 13 grams of fat, 18 grams of protein). Be aware that dressing does bump up calories and fat, so use sparingly!
Chipotle Burrito Bowl
With its assembly line of Mexican-style food, Chipotle makes it easy to eat healthy. The options are easily customizable, after all. When speaking with Cosmopolitan, many registered dietitians sang the praises of the Burrito Bowl. Since it doesn’t come wrapped in a tortilla, it’s automatically fewer calories. The nutrition experts also provided some creative tips to bulk up the bowls in healthy ways.
Registered dietitian Danielle Omar told Cosmopolitan, "I don’t eat meat, so I usually get double beans (instead of rice) for protein. And I always get double veggies for extra fiber." On the other hand, dietitian Rachel Berman said she skips the beans altogether. She explained, saying, "I go with rice and skip beans to limit my starches and choose white rice because I don’t love the taste of brown rice. I prefer barbacoa over other meats because it’s the most flavorful without being the fattiest." And although guac is extra (money and calories), it’s worth it since it provides healthy fats that protect your heart (via UT Southwestern Medical Center).
Burger King Whopper Jr.
You can’t not get a burger at Burger King, right? And thankfully, one of their healthiest items is a burger. "For lunch at Burger King, I’d order a Whopper Jr. sandwich without mayo. At 240 calories, 10 grams of protein, 10 grams of fat and 410 milligrams of sodium, it’s a relatively healthy choice and quite satisfying," Christine Palumbo, registered dietitian, said in an interview with Eat This, Not That. The key here is to order the junior version of the Whopper, as the regular Whopper is 657 calories, almost 40 grams of fat, and close to 1,000 milligrams of sodium (via Burger King).
Want fries with your burger? Registered dietitian Keri Gans told Eat This, Not That, "I would eat my burger open-faced, without the top bun, leaving room for the value-size fries (the smallest size they have)." Other sides available include the side Garden Salad (without dressing) at 60 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 4 grams of protein and value size onion rings at 150 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 1 gram of protein.
Chick-fil-A Grilled Nuggets
Have a hankering for chicken nuggets? Make a stop at your nearest Chick-fil-A. "Believe it or not, Chick-fil-A has a grilled chicken nugget option," registered dietitian Leah Kaufman told Eat This, Not That. "With only 140 calories and 25 grams of protein, this high protein entrée is a great alternative to the traditional fried chicken nuggets." Now, we all know a chicken nugget is only as good as the sauce it comes with. While you’ll want to steer clear of the Garden Herb Ranch, Chick-fil-A Sauce, and Polynesian Sauce, which are all nearly as many calories as the nuggets themselves, all the other sauces make great choices.
Kaufman also personally recommends adding a vegetable to your nuggets to complete a well-rounded meal, and you don’t even need to leave Chick-fil-A to accomplish that. The restaurant’s Kale Crunch Side salad contains not just kale, but green cabbage and roasted almonds along with an Apple Cider and Dijon Mustard vinaigrette (120 calories, 9 grams of fat, 3 grams of protein). If you’re a more of a classic salad lover, they also have a Side Salad with mixed greens, cheese, charred tomatoes, and red bell peppers (160 calories, 10 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein).
Popeyes Bonafide chicken leg
Ready to chow down on Popeyes’ Cajun-influenced deep fried chicken? Believe it or not, opting for their mild or spicy chicken leg is the healthiest option. "A leg is your best bet," registered dietitian Jennifer McDaniel told Women’s Health. "One might think that the breast would be the best, but the leg has significantly less fat and fewer calories than the other options."
One Bonafide chicken leg from Popeyes is 160 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 14 grams of protein. Can’t eat your chicken without a sauce? No problem. "Try the BoldBQ sauce as a lower-calorie option; just use it sparingly," Jamie Lee McIntyre, registered dietitian, advised when speaking to Women’s Health. She also loves the buffalo sauce for its lower sugar content.
Even though Popeye’s is known for their chicken options, you might be tempted to give their popcorn shrimp a try. "Although this dish is relatively calorically dense, shrimp does have small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats that are beneficial to your health," remarked McDaniel.
Jimmy John’s Slim subs
Freaky fast and, apparently, freaky healthy, Jimmy John’s can easily be your pit stop for a meal under 500 calories. In an article for Self, registered dietitian Willow Jarosh recommended three sub options that are flavorful and nutritious.
Ordering a Slim turkey breast sub with avocado spread, cucumber, tomato, and sprouts packs a protein punch without a ton of calories. Next up is the Slim tuna salad, but ask them to go light with the tuna and scoop out the inside of the top piece of bread. Order with cucumber, sprouts, and lettuce and you’ll be eating 460 calories, 18.5 grams of fat, and 24 grams of protein. Lastly, the Pepe (ham and cheese) with scooped bread, mustard instead of mayo, and extra veggies will give you 468 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 31 grams of protein.
Jimmy John’s also offers an "unwich" option, which wraps your favorite sub sandwich into fresh lettuce. According to the company’s website, switching from French bread to the unwich can reduce your calories by up to 350. Can’t go wrong with more veggies!
Subway Veggie Delight and customized subs
Subway is one of the largest fast food chains in the United States. At Subway, it tends to be a lot easier to eat healthy compared to other fast food joints. Brierley Horton, nutrition director, shared tips with Cooking Light some great tips to avoid extra calories, fat, and sodium while dining at Subway.
One of the first things that you’re asked when ordering a sub is "what kind of bread?" Horton said, "Overall, choose a sandwich made on their whole-wheat subs. While wraps may sound like a better alternative to bread, the sodium found within some tortilla-based options is excessive compared to Subway’s wheat bread." When it comes to sauces, skip the pre-mixed ones. "Go for oil and vinegar when you can, as this dressing only adds around 45 calories and is light on everything else," advised Horton.
Cooking Light recommends a handful Subway sandwiches that will keep you under 350 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 950 milligrams of sodium. They include the Veggie Delight, turkey and provolone, and black forest ham, among others.
Panera Bread "You Pick Two" soup and salad
Can’t decide if you’d rather have soup or salad? Why not both? Panera Bread’s "You Pick Two" option gives you a half portion of each to satisfy your craving without being too heavy on calories. "The soup and salad are the perfect pair as part of the ‘You Pick Two’ option," registered dietitian Marisa Moore told Eat This, Not That. Moore explained how this pair-up can help to meet half the daily vegetable recommendation. She continued, saying, "That’s important since the large majority of adults miss the recommended daily vegetable mark."
According to Panera’s website, the combination of the half Fuji Apple Salad with Chicken and Ten Vegetable Soup provides a total of 350 calories, 19 grams of fat, and 19 grams of protein. If you want to cut calories and fat even further, try their Greek or Caesar salad options. When it comes to soup, Panera’s Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup is another low-calorie but protein-filled option.
Although best known for its roast beef, Arby’s offers a variety of sandwiches — with some being better choices than others. First things first, you should skip the big calorie-laden sandwiches and opt for a slider. These mini versions of their classic sandwiches can help keep portion sizes in check while still maintaining flavor.
Arby’s Roast Beef Slider has Swiss cheese and a split-top bun while containing 210 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 12 grams of protein (via Arby’s). If you’re not a fan of roast beef, try the Roast Turkey Slider (180 calories, 5 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein) or the Ham Slider (200 calories, 7 grams of fat, 11 grams of protein).
If the slider doesn’t fill you up, add a side of veggies. "Most options at Arby’s don’t fulfill a full veggie portion and are very high in sodium — some with more than a day’s recommended sodium," registered dietitian Willow Jarosh told Verywell Fit. "If you eat here on a regular basis, add vegetables (try the side salad) and other higher fiber foods to your meals, and opt for lower sodium options to maintain overall nutritional balance."
Starbucks Classic Oatmeal
If you’re swinging by Starbucks to sip on your favorite cup of joe and are in need of breakfast, you’re at the right place. Brigitte Zeitlin, registered dietitian, told MindBodyGreen her favorite breakfast choice (and sometimes lunch!) at Starbucks: oatmeal. "I get Classic Oatmeal, and I add in one bag of the nut medley and one portion of the fresh blueberries, then I head over to the coffee bar and shake on some cinnamon for sweetness," she revealed. "The nuts add some crunchy protein while the oats and bluebs give me a good amount of filling fiber. It’s warm and hearty and starts my day off on the right track."
If you’re not a fan of oatmeal, try the Spinach, Feta & Egg White Wrap, which sneaks vegetables into your morning meal and is only 290 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 20 grams of protein (via Starbucks). Registered dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth opts for Sous Vide Egg Bites with Bacon & Gruyere, she told MindBodyGreen. "They are absolutely delicious and just the right amount of calories and protein for a recovery snack. And if you’re keto, they work for you too."
Panda Express Firecracker Chicken Breast
If you’re in the mood for quick Americanized Chinese food, you’re likely going to find yourself at Panda Express. Unfortunately, many of the popular items (like the Orange Chicken) don’t make the cut, but you have several other tasty options to choose from.
"In general, you want to avoid anything breaded or fried and also the dishes that have a honey glaze or sweet and sour sauce, because they’re going to be higher in sugar," registered dietitian Kim Morton advised in an interview with Well+Good. And although Grilled Teriyaki Chicken (300 calories, 13 grams of fat, 36 grams of protein) does have a glaze, Morton revealed that it’s soy based, which keeps the sugar content low. If you like spicy dishes and want to incorporate veggies, try the Firecracker Chicken Breast. It only has 170 calories and 7 grams of fat.
Morton also suggests choosing the Super Greens as your side, which is a mix of broccoli, cabbage, and kale. "It has fiber [five grams], which is good for digestion," she explained.
Domino’s Pacific Veggie pizza
If you guessed vegetable pizza as the healthy choice at Domino’s, you would be right. Domino’s has over 6,000 locations across the United States, which makes it easy and convenient to grab a pie. The restaurant’s "Pacific Veggie" pizza includes onions, diced tomatoes, black olives, mushrooms, spinach, roasted peppers, as well as mozzarella, provolone, and feta cheese (330 calories, 13 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein per slice). "Vegetables are so important to include in every meal and having them on top of a comforting slice of pizza can satisfy a pizza craving without overindulging," registered dietitian, Niti Patel told Eat This, Not That.
If you’re looking to have something that includes meat, registered dietitian Kelli McGrane offered up her custom order in the same interview. "My go-to order is a medium-thin crust pizza with tomato sauce, light amount of cheese, premium chicken, roasted red peppers, and pineapple," she revealed. "I’ll also order a classic garden salad on the side for extra vegetables and fiber." She recommends avoiding processed meats and including at least one vegetable to your pizza. Customize as you see fit!