In an effort to eat whole, nutritious food, many of us try our best to avoid “fast food,” which, over the decades, has gotten a rap for being ultra-fried, high in fat and overly processed. More recently however, fast food companies have been paying attention to the nutritional preferences of their patrons and offering healthier options that are more in line with diet and lifestyle goals, from salads, buildable bowls and even vegetarian and vegan options.
When you dig into the history of fast food in America, with the first spots being McDonald’s and White Castle, it makes sense why it was embodied by hamburgers and french fries. “The emphasis was on ‘fast’ rather than ‘food,’ with restaurants advertising quick food and attractive prices and profits being driven by cheap ingredients and labor,” explains Christen Cupples Cooper, Ed.D., R.D.N., assistant professor and founding director of the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at the College of Health Professions at Pace University. “Today, with consumers’ renewed focus on health and nutrition, many establishments have revamped their menus to offer healthier options such as salads, leaner meats and even fruit for dessert.”
Still, nutrition experts emphasize that just because an item is labeled as “healthy” on a fast food menu, or even appears to be healthy, it may not be the case. In fact, there may be some unhealthy components that make the seemingly “healthy” item or meal rather “unhealthy.” “For example, the dressing you get on the salad may be high in unhealthy fats and sugar, the produce in the salads may not be very fresh or may have many preservatives sprayed on it, and there is probably high amounts of gluten in the breads and condiments,” explains functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P.
The bottom line is that while there are healthier options at fast food restaurants, it’s still important to be a smart consumer and know what it is you’re really ordering. Here, nutrition experts share the healthy menu options they choose at fast food restaurants.
Grilled Chicken Sandwich at McDonald’s
“The chicken has less fat and calories than a burger and getting grilled instead of breaded and fried saves lots of extra calories and keeps it healthy,” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness. “Throw on extra lettuce and tomato and you can have this without negative hits to the diet—just make sure to tell them to leave the mayo off and swap it for something lower in calories.”
Bean Burrito at Taco Bell
This menu staple at Taco Bell has become a mainstay—and for good reason. Not only is it deliciously satisfying, but it’s also a much healthier alternative to some of their other options notes Dr. Adams. “It clocks in at under 400 calories and has 13 grams of protein and a whopping 11 grams of dietary fiber,” he says. “It’s hard to find many fast food items that pack both protein and fiber—a combination that will keep you feeling satisfied much longer than other fast food options.”
Chicken & Hummus Protein Box at Starbucks
If you frequent Starbucks and need something to go with coffee, Mary Opfer, MS, R.D.N., C.D.N., in Westchester County, New York and Clinical Assistant Professor at Pace University’s College of Health Professions, suggests the grilled chicken and hummus protein box. “The name speaks for itself—it’s high in protein and low in carbohydrates,” she says. “The protein will help you feel satisfied for longer than a sweet treat.”
Pizza Hut’s Gluten-Free Veggie Supreme Pizza
Few fast-food pizza spots are offering gluten-free crust, so it’s exciting that Pizza Hut has stepped up to the plate. “Not only is this gluten-free, but it is also loaded with veggies so you get a dose of antioxidants,” says Rodgers. “This may not still be the healthiest of pizzas, but it sure has a bunch of check marks to make it a better option.”
Roast Chicken Salad at Arby’s
“As long as you get the dressing on the side and just dip the tines of your fork into the dressing before stabbing your salad, this is a great option,” says Dr. Adams. “It’s low-fat, but has tons of flavor and can be thought of as a chicken sandwich without the bun.”
Panera’s Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich
“This sandwich is loaded with veggies, and if you are looking for lots of veggies but don’t want a salad, this is a great option,” says Rodgers. “You can stick with the feta cheese or you can opt for avocado for some yummy fats that are healthier than the feta cheese.” Rodgers also recommends choosing sourdough bread instead of the traditional bread that it comes on.
Breakfast Wrap from Dunkin’ Donuts
If you’re hungry in the morning, but don’t want to ruin your healthy-eating goals, consider a Wake-Up Wrap from Dunkin’ Donuts. “You are basically just getting egg, cheese, and a small tortilla-like wrap,” says Dr. Adams. “This is a much healthier option than other breakfast sandwiches loaded with bacon and sausage and won’t leave you feeling slugging like a donut.”
Chick-fil-A’s Grilled Nuggets
What Rodgers likes about these nuggets is that they’re not breaded or fried, making them a healthier protein boost. “This is a dish small enough that you can easily order a side of veggies, such as a small salad, to round it out and make it a healthier option,” she adds.