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Making Healthier Fast Food Choices

Opt for lean, grilled meats, keep the portion size small and skip the soda

Person enjoying taco in a bowl at a street fair while talking on phone.

It’s no secret that fast food isn’t good for us. But life happens, right? Sometimes, we find ourselves in a pinch when plans go awry.

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And we get it. Fast food is convenient, inexpensive and in our busy society, it’s sometimes the only option.

“I wouldn’t classify fast foods as healthy by any means, but there are certainly choices we can make that are superior to others,” says registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. “Fast food has come a long way. There are some more varieties of fast foods these days that can offer some healthier options.”

We talked with Zumpano along with registered dietitian Kate Patton, RD, LD, to learn the tricks to ordering healthy fast food, so you’ll feel better prepared the next time the drive-thru is your only choice.

Healthy fast food is possible

“Calories and nutrients are pretty readily available if you look online or by the register,” Patton says. “Knowing what you’ll order ahead of time or how you’ll order can give you a better attitude toward fast food. It doesn’t have to derail your whole day.”

Finding a well-balanced meal at a fast food restaurant may require making some special requests, but don’t worry — you won’t be the first person to ever ask for some tweaks. Don’t be afraid to ask for extra veggies, to make a substitution or leave something off.

Keep these three quick tips in mind when making your fast food order:

  • Aim for lean protein, veggies and fiber.
  • Avoid supersized or jumbo meals.
  • Try to keep your meal at about 500 calories or less.

Burgers

This fast food staple can pack in the calories. And all the grease can leave your belly feeling off. But if you’re craving a burger, there are ways it can be calorie controlled.

  • Order the leanest type of burger you can. Or better yet, ask if they have a turkey burger or a vegetarian option.
  • Order a single burger, rather than a double or triple stack.
  • Order a junior or kid size.
  • Stack your burger with as many veggies as you can. (Skip the iceberg lettuce and aim for baby spinach instead, if that’s an option.)
  • Order your burger without a bun or ask for it to be lettuce-wrapped.
  • Skip the bacon.

Chicken

A step up in nutrients from traditional meat burgers, chicken sandwiches or chicken nuggets can be a good source of lean protein.

  • Always opt for grilled chicken instead of fried. (At many places, you may see a “crispy” option. That’s another word for fried.)
  • Skip the sauce (like mayo) and order without cheese. These items can quickly add calories.
  • Try ordering without a bun and dipping the chicken in mustard.

Fish

If you’re looking for a taste of the sea when it comes to fast food, tread carefully. While it may sound like a healthier choice (fish is a lean protein source, after all), a lot of fish options at fast food restaurants are actually high price in calories and fat.

  • Avoid breaded or fried fish items.
  • Tuna salad is usually packed with mayonnaise and is often beyond a normal day’s fat guidelines. Ask to see a list of ingredients before ordering.

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Salads

We know — if fast food is on the menu, you probably didn’t have a salad in mind. But a number of fast food restaurants are making salads these days. Even still, some of the toppings you’ll find on those salads can diminish their health potential. Keep your fast food salad healthy by:

  • Aiming for a lean source of protein like grilled chicken, beans or eggs.
  • Including a variety of food groups in your salad like fruits, nuts and seeds.
  • Asking for spinach or other dark leafy greens instead of iceberg lettuce.
  • Ordering dressing on the side or bringing your own healthier version. (Tip: Dip your fork in the dressing before you dig in. It can help keep your dressing use lower.)

Burritos and tacos

When it comes to these popular fast-food meals, it’s best to skip the tortilla and opt for a bowl instead. If you’re a serious athlete who needs the carbs, you can go for the tortilla, but otherwise, you’re going to be better off without it.

  • Start with lettuce as your base. Add brown rice and load up on veggies. Peppers, salsa and onions are good options.
  • Aim for lean meat, pinto beans or black beans for protein. (Avoid getting double meat. Your body can only absorb so much protein at a time.)
  • Get a small size or split up the larger size and eat half now and half later.
  • Skip the sour cream and cheese or ask for a small amount. Or bring your own Greek yogurt to add on top. Avocado is another great topper and full of healthy fats.

Sides

French fries are one of America’s favorite foods and a staple at many fast food joints. But they’re often overly processed, deep-fried and chock-full of saturated fat.

  • Your best bet is to avoid anything fried. Side salads, a baked potato, apple slices, fruit cups or yogurt are healthier side choices.
  • If you’re really craving fries, get the smallest size possible.

Drinks

Soda and fast food seem to go hand-in-hand. But it’s no secret that soda isn’t good for us. (That includes the “diet” kinds, which are full of artificial sweeteners that should be avoided.) But you can find healthier choices on just about any fast food menu.

  • Opt for unsweetened tea or stick with water.
  • Avoid shakes, which could easily run you up to 800 calories.

Sauces

Condiments, dips and seasoning can wreak havoc on an otherwise healthy meal. That’s in part because most have a ton of hidden sugar and sodium.

  • Be mindful of how much you’re actually using. Measure it out if you can.
  • Bring your own healthier or homemade version.
  • Mustard, guacamole, salsa, vinegar, hummus and hot sauce are all great options for adding flavor without sacrificing the rest of the dish’s calories.
  • Avoid (or at least ask to ask to go light on) mayonnaise and creamy sauces.

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Dessert

Sometimes, you just need a sweet treat. Plus, who wants to take the kids to the ice cream shop and not get anything?

  • Opt for a small cone or kid’s cup.
  • Consider frozen yogurt or no-sugar-added treats.
  • Skip the candy toppings.

Make it an occasional thing

A survey by Cleveland Clinic found that nearly half of Americans eat fast food every week. Even when you’re making healthier fast food choices, you don’t want to overdo it. Zumpano suggests working to limit your intake of fast food to once a week at the most.

“Most fast food is made from packaged and processed ingredients,” Zumpano explains. “So, it’s going to be very high in sodium. It’s void of vitamins and minerals, too, so it’s not providing us much in the way of nutrition.”

If you need an occasional indulgence on quick eats, it’s OK. We all need a convenient bite here and there. But knowing there are healthy choices to be made, even at the drive-thru, can help ensure you get that convenience without derailing your day.

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