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Top Picks: Healthy Fast Food Restaurants

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedFebruary 29, 2024

Fast-food restaurants are known for serving calorie-laden, high-fat, and sugary meals, making them less than ideal for those seeking a balanced diet.

Research shows that 70% of fast-food meals in 2015-2016 were of poor dietary quality, highlighting the need for healthier options. Despite these challenges, you can still make more nutritious choices at these establishments, especially when choosing a healthy fast-food restaurant.

In this article, we'll explore how to find those healthy options and highlight some top choices for nutritious fast food.

🔑 Key Takeaways:

  • You can make choices that align with your dietary goals through menu research, customizing your orders, and being mindful of ingredients, even when dining at a healthy fast-food restaurant.
  • Most fast-food chains offer detailed nutritional information on their websites, enabling you to plan your meals and make informed choices before arriving at the restaurant.
  • Fast food portions often exceed recommended serving sizes. Opt for smaller portions or consider sharing a meal with a friend or family to avoid overeating.
  • Chipotle has fresh ingredients while avoiding processed or artificial additives, a commendable practice for a fast-food chain.
  • Chick-fil-A is the first to eliminate trans fats from its menu, a significant step in offering healthy choices at fast food restaurants. Their kids' menu includes items like fruit cups and milk, encouraging healthier choices for children.
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Tips For Choosing Healthier Fast Food Options

Identifying healthy options at fast food restaurants with healthy options is possible with some knowledge and planning. By researching menus, customizing orders, and being mindful of ingredients, you can make healthier choices that align with your dietary goals.

To learn more, check below for valuable tips on identifying healthy options and making better choices at your favorite fast-food joints:

1. Research The Menu In Advance

Before heading to a fast-food restaurant, research their menu online for a few minutes.

Most fast-food chains provide detailed nutritional information on their websites. This will allow you to plan your meals and make informed choices before entering the restaurant.

If you plan to visit a popular burger joint, check their website for nutritional information and look for options with lower calorie and fat content.

💡 Did You Know?

Burger cravings can trouble many with IBS, as trigger foods like greasy burgers often lead to symptoms like abdominal pain, gas, and digestive issues within just a few hours of consumption. Learn more in our article about food to avoid with IBS.

2. Opt For Grilled Instead Of Fried

Eating healthy at fast food restaurants is possible by making wise choices. Many fast-food restaurants offer both grilled and fried versions of their menu items.

When possible, opt for grilled options over fried ones. Grilled chicken or fish are lower in saturated fat and calories than their fried counterparts.

If you find yourself at a fast-food chicken restaurant, consider selecting grilled chicken sandwiches or salads instead of crispy fried chicken.

3. Control Portion Sizes

Fast food portions are often much larger than a healthy serving size.

Order smaller portions or share a meal with a friend or family member to avoid overeating. Some restaurants even offer "kids' meal" options that can be a suitable size for adults.

For instance, opt for a small burger and a side salad instead of a regular-sized burger and large fries.

4. Customize Your Order

Finding healthy food at fast food restaurants is possible by customizing your order. Most fast-food restaurants allow you to make adjustments to make your meal healthier.

You can take advantage of this by asking for modifications such as no mayonnaise, extra veggies, or a whole-grain bun, which can significantly enhance the nutritional profile of your meal.

For instance, when ordering a sandwich, consider asking for it without cheese or a whole-grain bun to make a healthier choice.

5. Watch For Hidden Calories

Some fast food items may seem healthy but contain hidden calories like dressings, sauces, and toppings. Be cautious and ask for these condiments on the side so that you can control how much you use.

For instance, a salad might appear healthy, but the calorie count can skyrocket when drenched in creamy dressing. Ask for dressing on the side and use it sparingly.

6. Consider Low-Fat Dressing Options

Some fast food items may appear healthy initially, but they can hide extra calories in dressings, sauces, and toppings. To ensure you're making a healthier choice, requesting these condiments on the side is a good idea. This way, you have more control over how much you use.

For example, salads may seem healthy, but excess creamy dressing can spike their calories. To enhance nutrition, ask for dressing on the side, use it sparingly, and choose low-fat or vinaigrette options if available.

7. Choose Water Or Unsweetened Beverages

Sugary drinks like soda and fruit juices can add significant calories and sugar to your meal. Opt for water, unsweetened iced tea, or diet beverages to keep your calorie intake in check.

✅ Pro Tip:

Sugar is often used to add flavor or creaminess to your coffee, but for weight loss, consider using sugar-free sweeteners like stevia or Truvia and small amounts of low-fat milk instead. Avoid adding sugar and high-calorie creamers that can contribute unnecessary calories. Read more of our article about caffeine and weight gain.

For example, choose water or unsweetened iced tea instead of a large soda to accompany your meal.

8. Load Up On Vegetables

Whenever possible, add more vegetables to your meal.

Many fast food restaurants offer side salads or vegetable-based sides. Vegetables are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them a healthy addition to any meal.

For example, if you're ordering a sandwich, ask for extra lettuce, tomato, and other veggies to enhance its nutritional value.

9. Be Mindful Of Condiments

Condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise, and barbecue sauce can be high in sugar and sodium. Use them sparingly or, better yet, choose healthier alternatives like mustard or salsa.

For instance, if you love ketchup on your fries, try using less or switch to mustard for a lower-calorie option.

10. Limit Fried Sides

French fries and onion rings are popular fast food sides but are often deep-fried and high in unhealthy fats. Opt for alternatives like baked potato wedges, a side salad, or fruit when available.

For example, if you're at a fast food burger joint, consider ordering a side salad or a small serving of apple slices instead of fries.

11. Go For Lean Protein

Protein is essential for a balanced meal, but not all protein sources at fast food restaurants are equal. Choose lean protein options like grilled chicken, turkey, or fish over higher-fat choices like bacon or fried chicken.

For instance, opt for a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a double bacon cheeseburger.

12. Check The Nutritional Information

Many fast food chains must display nutritional information on their menus.

Take a moment to read this information to make informed choices. Look for items that are lower in calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

For example, if you see that a salad is labeled as low-calorie and low-fat, it's likely a healthier choice.

13. Skip The Combo Meals

Combo meals at fast food restaurants often include sandwiches, fries, and drinks. While they may seem like a good deal, they typically contain more food than you need in one meal. Instead, order items separately to control portion sizes.

For instance, order a sandwich and a side salad instead of a combo meal.

14. Be Wary Of "Super-Sized" Options

Some fast food restaurants offer "super-sized" or "extra-large" portions for a small additional cost. These oversized meals can contain excessive calories and should be avoided.

For example, stick with the regular-sized option instead of upgrading to a super-sized meal.

15. Choose Whole Grains

When available, opt for whole-grain options instead of refined grains.

Whole grains are higher in fiber and nutrients, making them healthier. Look for whole-grain buns, wraps, or bread for your sandwiches.

For instance, choose a whole-grain roll for added fiber if you're ordering a sub sandwich.

16. Practice Moderation

Finally, moderation is the key to maintaining a healthy diet when dining at fast food restaurants.

While it's okay to enjoy fast food occasionally, balancing it with a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains is essential.

🩺 A Doctor’s Note:

Occasional indulgence is acceptable, but maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet is crucial for long-term health and well-being. So, the next time you find yourself at a fast food restaurant, use these tips to make brighter and healthier choices without sacrificing convenience.

Best Healthy Fast-food Restaurants

Many fast-food restaurants with healthy foods have recognized the growing demand for healthier options among consumers.

These establishments offer convenient alternatives to traditional fast food, making it easier for individuals to maintain a nutritious diet even when short on time or energy to cook.

Here are the top three fast-food restaurants renowned for providing healthier menu choices:

1. Chipotle Mexican Grill

Source: Chipotle

Chipotle prioritizes using fresh ingredients and avoiding processed or artificial additives, which is particularly impressive for a side chain.

While it's true that some menu items can be calorie-dense, Chipotle offers ways to customize orders to reduce calorie intake significantly, potentially saving up to 900 calories.

One potential concern is sodium content, with items like flour tortillas and meat options containing varying amounts of sodium. When evaluating ingredient quality and commitment to real, unprocessed ingredients, Chipotle emerges as a healthier fast-food choice.

Chipotle's build-your-own approach allows customers to make healthier choices, ranging from a fully loaded burrito bowl to a salad equivalent. This customization feature empowers customers to create balanced meals that suit their dietary preferences and nutritional goals.

Chipotle strongly emphasizes transparency by listing the 53 ingredients used in their menu items and describing each. They prioritize real ingredients and healthier oils like rice bran and canola, rich in unsaturated fats and Vitamin E.

While some items on Chipotle's menu, such as queso and guacamole, are higher in sodium and should be consumed in moderation, the overall definition of healthy eating can vary based on individual factors like height, weight, sex, and lifestyle.

However, Chipotle's commitment to fresh ingredients, moderation, and customization options makes it a healthier choice among fast-food restaurants.

2. Chick-fil-A

Source: Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A was the first to eliminate trans fats from their menu, a significant step in providing healthier options. Their kids' menu includes items like fruit cups and milk, encouraging better choices for children.

Grilled chicken options offer lower-calorie and lower-fat alternatives to fried chicken. Various salads, customizable with grilled chicken, appeal to those seeking vegetable-rich meals.

Sauce options provide flexibility for healthier choices, and side alternatives like fruit cups and salads offer nutritious options.

Chick-fil-A's focus on chicken, which is generally lower in fat and cholesterol than red meat, is another health-conscious aspect. They also refrain from using hydrogenated oils, eliminating trans fats from food preparation.

💡 Did You Know?

Consuming foods rich in cholesterol, saturated fats, or trans fats can lead to elevated cholesterol levels. Reducing the intake of these specific foods can significantly decrease your chances of developing high cholesterol.

The Grilled Chicken Sandwich, served on a multi-grain bun, is a healthier alternative to the classic fried chicken sandwich.

1. Subway

Source: Subway

Subway’s feature is the ability to customize orders, allowing customers to choose ingredients and portion sizes that align with their dietary preferences and health goals.

The availability of fresh vegetables, including spinach, tomatoes, and peppers, makes it easy to add nutritious, low-calorie options to sandwiches and salads.

Subway offers healthier protein choices like grilled chicken, turkey breast, and veggie patties, which are lower in fat than other protein options.

Many items on their Fresh Fit menu have earned Heart-Check Certification from the American Heart Association, indicating that they meet specific nutritional criteria for heart-healthy options.

Ingredient transparency is another positive aspect of Subway's approach. They offer ingredient details for menu items, empowering customers to choose items with natural ingredients and avoid additives such as added sugar.

Subway avoids using hydrogenated oils in food preparation, eliminating the consumption of trans fats.

Adding avocado to any order enhances the meal's nutritional value by providing anti-inflammatory fats, fiber, antioxidants, and essential vitamins and minerals.

Subway also offers Heart-Check Certified kids' meals, making it suitable for families looking to provide healthier options for children.

🗒️ Related Articles:

To be well-informed, understanding weight management statistics is crucial for making healthier choices. Check out some of our articles:

Final Thoughts

You can make healthier choices at most healthy fast-food restaurants by researching menus, customizing orders, and paying attention to ingredients.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, Chick-fil-A, and Subway are notable fast-food chains prioritizing healthier options. Their commitment to fresh ingredients, lower-fat choices, and transparency in ingredient information make them stand out as some of the industry's most healthy fast-food restaurants.

To maintain a balanced diet while dining out, we recommend applying these strategies and being mindful of portion sizes and condiments.

FAQs on Healthy Fast Food Restaurants

Is fast food healthy?

Fast food is typically high in calories, sodium, and unhealthy fats while lacking essential nutrients like fruits, vegetables, and fiber.

Is KFC healthier than McDonald's?

KFC's reliance on greasy oils and high-calorie content makes it less healthy than McDonald's, which offers a more varied menu with healthier options.

How healthy is Burger King?

Burger King provides side salad options and a vegetarian burger, but most menu items are low in fiber and high in sodium. Choose higher fiber and lower sodium options to balance your intake.

Are shawarmas healthy?

Shawarmas are not a healthy choice due to their high-fat content and marination process, which make them even fatter. But you may choose from healthy fast food restaurants for alternative ingredients to make it healthy.

What's healthier than fried chicken?

When considering healthier alternatives at healthy fast food restaurants, grilled chicken is superior to fried chicken. Unlike fried chicken, which often loses these nutrients, grilled chicken loses fat during cooking and retains essential vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.

Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
Virtual weight loss solution
A personalized GLP-1 medication program delivered to you via our partner Korb Health
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
  • Free consultation; program starts at $269/mo
  • Checkmark Inside Circle.Customized online program and wellness coaching
  • Prescription medications and supplies shipped to your door