You’re trying to eat healthy, but all the shopping, prepping, cooking, and meal planning can be daunting – not to mention the hours spent on Pinterest pinning recipes. Sometimes you just want to eat right now. You want your food, and you want it fast. You want – fast food! But can you find something healthy to eat at fast-food restaurants? Surprisingly, you can.
When people talk of “healthy” foods, they are generally referring to those low in fat, sugar, or calories. But there’s more to eating healthy than watching your weight. You might be following a heart-healthy diet, for example, so you have concerns about sodium and trans fat. Or maybe you are sticking to complex carbs instead of simple carbs to keep your blood sugar level nice and even. You also want to consider what nutrients are contained in the food and if you’re getting enough fiber and protein. Will the meal fill you up and be tasty and satisfying? There’s a lot to consider. But if you do a little research, you can find fast food that is also healthy food.
Here are some yummy menu items that won’t have you stressing out about your health!
Sodium and trans fats are two key factors when eating for heart health. Trans fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL). Too much sodium can increase blood pressure. High blood pressure can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. If you’re eating to promote good heart health, you want to stick to fast food that is low in sodium and trans fats.
Here’s the bad news: Almost all fast food is high in sodium. Just why fast food restaurants serve food that contains so much sodium is a bit of a mystery. Sodium, which is a preservative, can make some foods easier to process. It could also have to do with our taste preferences – we just really like the taste of salty foods. And because we’re used to a lot of salt in our meals, if we don’t get an excess amount of salt, the food tastes weird to us.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends that we limit our sodium intake to 2,300 mg a day. That’s equal to one teaspoon. Just one burger-and-fries meal can blow your whole daily allowance in one sitting. Some meals can top 3,000 mg of sodium. The FDA’s standardized definition of a “low sodium” food is one that is under 140 mg per serving. That’s hard to find in the world of fast food restaurants. Most Americans consume about 3,400 mg of sodium a day, the FDA says – that’s way over the recommended 2,300 mark. Even if you can’t hit that 2,300 goal, cutting your sodium intake by 1,000 mg a day has many benefits for your health, the FDA says. So even if your fast food meal doesn’t technically qualify as “low sodium,” there are some “lower” sodium choices you can make.
• Panera Bread Full-size Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken: This one really hits the mark. At just 125 mg of sodium, it meets the FDA’s definition of low sodium.
• Panera Bread Half-size Ancient Grain & Arugula Salad with Chicken: Another officially low sodium winner at just 135 mg. (Note: This salad is seasonal and isn’t on the menu year-round.)
• Panera Bread Steel Cut Oatmeal with Almonds, Quinoa & Honey: 280 mg
• Taco Bell Beef Fresco Crunchy Taco: 300 mg
• Taco Bell Egg & Cheese Breakfast Soft Taco: 330 mg
Chick-fil-A was the first fast food chain in the United States to offer a menu completely free of trans fat. Wendy’s uses cooking oils free of trans fat. McDonald’s and Burger King have also significantly reduced the amount of trans fat in their french fries.
When you’re trying to eat healthier, your portion sizes can be reduced, leaving your hungry and cranky. And when you’re hungry and cranky, you might just reach for something unhealthy to satisfy that rumbling in your stomach. Meals high in protein and fiber can help. Fiber makes you feel full right away, and the protein helps you feel full for longer.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is about 56 grams per day for the average man and about 46 grams per day for the average woman. Another guideline suggests that 15% of your daily calorie intake should come from protein. Choose a fast-food meal that gives you at least 20 grams of protein.
• Popeyes Handcrafted Blackened Tenders, 3 pieces: 26 g
• Popeyes Cajun Fish Filet, 3 pieces: 16 g
• KFC Grilled Chicken breast: 38 g
• Arby’s Classic Roast Beef: 23 g
• Burger King Grilled Chicken Sandwich: 40 g
Women should try to get 21 to 25 grams of fiber each day. Men should get 30 to 38. Experts say that most adults get only 15 to 16 grams each day. Boost your fiber intake by choosing a fast food meal that gives you at least 5 to 7 grams.
• Subway Fresh Fit Roast Beef sandwich, 6 inch: 5 g
• Chipotle Burrito Bowl with steak, brown rice, black beans, fajita vegetables, and romaine lettuce: 12 g
• Wendy’s Chili, small: 6 g
• Wendy’s Berry Burst Chicken Salad, half size: 5 g
• El Pollo Loco Original Pollo Bowl: 10 g
Choose Your Carbs Wisely
There are two types of carbohydrates that fuel the body: simple and complex. Simple carbs, or simple sugars, are absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly, causing your blood sugar to spike. This energy burst can be followed by a significant drop in blood sugar, causing you to feel hungry again. Complex carbohydrates are absorbed more slowly, giving you a more sustained energy level.
Foods rich in complex carbohydrates include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, corn, kidney beans, oats, and baked potatoes. When dining on fast food, opt for complex carbohydrates when possible.
• Einstein Bros. Good Grains Bagel
• Dunkin’ Donuts Multigrain Bagel
• Jack in the Box Chicken Fajita Pita
• Starbucks Lentils & Vegetable Protein Bowl with Brown Rice
Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and veggies contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals that are important for a healthy, well-balanced diet. If you’re dining at a fast food restaurant such as Chipotle or Subway, it’s easy to load up on all the veggies you want. Have your food preparer pile on all the lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, peppers, and fresh salsa you want.
Most fast food restaurants have a variety of fruits and vegetables that serve as main courses or side dishes – side salads, apple slices, green beans, corn, and more can be found on the menu board.
It might take a little research (nutrition information for most restaurants can be found online) – and you might have to ask your server some questions – but you can find plenty of healthy choices when dining on fast food.