Do you know what the healthiest food at McDonald’s is? Is there a way to eat at Wendy’s without spiking blood glucose and sabotaging your health goals? Even if you eat healthily and typically avoid fast food restaurants, you’ll likely find yourself at one at some point.
Maybe you’re on a road trip and need to get a quick bite to eat—and all you can get for miles is Burger King. Or perhaps you’re in a rush and need a fast food meal for convenience. There’s one thing you’ll recognize wherever you are in the world: a fast food chain.
From Dunkin’ Donuts to Subway and KFC to Wendy’s, there’s a fast food restaurant in every corner of the globe. In the United States, McDonald’s and Burger King are two of the most popular fast food chains, while KFC is a popular choice in China. In India, McDonald’s has tailored its menu to appeal to local tastes, offering dishes such as Chicken Tikka Masala. And in Japan, Starbucks is now a popular destination for coffee lovers.
So whether you’re in Bangkok or Barcelona, you may need to know what to pick at a fast food restaurant. And we’ve got just what you need!
Fast food restaurants are typically seen as the unhealthiest choice for a meal, but there are positives and negatives. On the one hand, they can be affordable, accessible, and convenient meal options for many.
On the other, some research suggests it can contribute to health problems like obesity and heart disease. As the industry grows, it will be essential to monitor its impact on local communities and the global food system.
It’s not as though every ingredient on a fast food menu is awful. There are healthy food items like tortillas, soft tacos, and lean protein; some have fresh vegetables like cucumbers and fruit options like apple slices. But it’s important to remember that the reason fast food meals can be so damaging to your health is how they’re made. Often, trans fats, saturated fats, oils, and cooking techniques are to blame here.
But there are growing movements to make fast food healthier, which we’re all for. After all, who doesn’t want to have their cake and eat it too?! But in the meantime, it’s helpful to know how to choose the healthiest options when you find yourself at one of these restaurants.
To help you out, some of the credentialed dietitians and nutritionists on the NutriSense Nutrition Team pick the healthiest options from ten popular fast food chains. Read on to learn more.
In-N-Out Burger is an American regional chain of fast food restaurants primarily in the American Southwest and Pacific coast. Founded in Baldwin Park, California, in 1948 by Harry Snyder and his wife, Esther, the chain is headquartered in Irvine, California, and has expanded to over 300 locations.
The chain's primary offerings include hamburgers, French fries, shakes, sodas, and burgers.
“When you’re at In-N-Out, ask for a Protein Style Burger. You may not see it on the main menu—it’s from their secret menu items. You’ll get a lettuce wrap instead of a bun, which will help reduce processed carb intake.”
Recommended by: Victoria Eaton, RDN, LDN, IFNCP
Waffle House is a beloved American restaurant chain known for its classic breakfast food staples. Whether you're looking for your morning fix of eggs, bacon, and hash browns or craving an indulgent dinner of chicken and waffles, Waffle House has something to satisfy any appetite.
The appeal is the waffles, but there’s so much more. It can be challenging to pick the best option from the indulgent breakfast options, but it’s not impossible.
“Most of these breakfast spots load up on starchy carbs like hash browns, toast, biscuits, and pancakes, making it hard to order something kind to your glucose. I recommend thinking about which carb source you’d enjoy the most.
For example, if you go for the T-Bone and Egg breakfast, ask them to bring just one slice of toast and skip the potatoes. Then, eat your protein before the toast. When there are not many glucose-friendly options on the menu, make meal sequencing work for you. If you’re there at lunch or dinner, try Bert’s chili plus a side salad or the grilled chicken sandwich and a side salad.”
Recommended by: Liz McKinney MS, CNS, LDN, Nutrition Manager
Bojangles is a chain of fast food restaurants specializing in Southern cuisine, including fried chicken, biscuits, and sweet tea. The first Bojangles restaurant opened in 1977 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The restaurant's signature biscuit is made from buttermilk and self-rising flour and is served warm with butter and honey. They also have a popular sweet tea, brewed fresh daily using a secret recipe.
“Aim for a meal that includes protein, veggies, and fiber, even at a fast food stop! That might look like a grilled chicken salad and the pinto bean or dirty rice side. You could also order a few chicken a la carte pieces and get a side of coleslaw and the garden salad! Don’t be afraid to get creative to make it work for you.”
Recommended by: Liz McKinney MS, CNS, LDN, Nutrition Manager
You’ll see these golden arches all over the globe! McDonald’s is the world’s largest fast food restaurant chain, serving approximately 68 million customers daily in around 40,000 locations worldwide.
Founded in 1948 by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald, the company has since expanded its menu to include various items such as burgers, chicken, salads, breakfast items, and desserts.
“When it comes to lunch, don’t be swayed into thinking that a chicken sandwich is the healthier option than a burger. These meals can pack just as many calories and carbohydrates (if not more) than a simple hamburger.
One hack I like to utilize is having an “open-faced” burger. Ditch half the bun for fewer carbs and calories. McDonald’s has also stepped up their game in the salad department. Opt for half of the dressing, or order a side salad in place of fries. And, re-think that drink. Skip the sugary beverages. Choose sparkling water or unsweetened iced tea.”
Recommended by: Stephanie Etherington, RD, CD, CDCES
With its iconic red squares and friendly mascot, Wendy's is one of the world's most popular fast food chains, with over 6,900 locations. Founded in 1969 in Columbus, Ohio, Wendy's is best known for its square hamburgers and Frosty desserts.
Today, Wendy's is the third-largest hamburger chain globally, behind only McDonald's and Burger King.
“Instead of reaching for that Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, consider another juicy option—the chili! It is by far my favorite item at Wendy’s.
Choose a baked potato instead of fries if you need a few carbs to fuel a post-lunch workout. It's a more nutrient-dense option than the typical burger and fries fast food fare.
The Apple Pecan Salad is another excellent choice. It has a whopping 35 grams of protein and only 350 calories—it serves up more protein than most of their burgers.”
Recommended by: Stephanie Etherington, RD, CD, CDCES
Zaxby's is one of the fastest-growing fast food chains in the country. With its focus on fresh, quality ingredients and a wide range of classic American comfort food offerings, Zaxby's has quickly gained a loyal following among customers, young and old.
In addition to the classic menu items like fried chicken, Zaxby's also offers specialty subs and wraps and generous sides like French fries, onion rings, and fried pickles that will please even the most discerning fast food connoisseur.
“This southern comfort food is one of my all-time favorites; it reminds me of home! Finding some glucose-friendly options is possible if you know what to look for! Besides breaded chicken strips, Zaxby’s offers wings much lower in carbohydrates which can lessen a glycemic response.
Sticking with a less sweet sauce is ideal, too (the buffalo garlic blaze is excellent). You can also find some salad options and even choose grilled versus fried chicken! All in all, though, what Zaxby’s is known for is that mouth-watering, delicious sauce! Sometimes, I’ll opt for a kid’s size meal (smaller in portion size) to dip those tasty strips and fries into and opt for a walk afterward to help dispose of some glucose from my meal.”
Recommended by: Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD
Chipotle is one of the most popular Mexican food chains in the world.
In addition to its wide variety of Mexican dishes, Chipotle also caters to customers with dietary restrictions by offering a range of vegan and vegetarian options.
“Consider ordering from the list of Lifestyle Bowls. Lifestyle bowls include Whole30, keto, high protein, and paleo options. Each bowl is lower in carbs and higher in fiber and protein.”
Recommended by: Victoria Eaton, RDN, LDN, IFNCP
Founded in 1962, Taco Bell is a fast food restaurant chain specializing in Mexican-inspired cuisine. From its humble beginnings as a single restaurant in Southern California, Taco Bell has now grown to over 7,000 locations worldwide.
While the menu has evolved to include new items such as the Crunchwrap Supreme and Nacho Fries, Taco Bell remains best known for its classic tacos and burritos.
“Taco Bell might be synonymous with late-night eating of greasy tacos, but there are ways to healthify things a bit. You can order your favorite burrito, “fresco style,” which swaps out some higher fat sauces for pico de Gallo.
The Power Bowls are a new favorite of mine, and you can get the veggie one to keep it plant-based and high in fiber, or add some chicken or steak if you are looking for that extra protein.”
Recommended by: Kasey Brixius, MS, RDN, CSSD, IFNCP
KFC, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, is one of the world's most popular fast food restaurants. Founded in 1930 by Colonel Harland Sanders, KFC has become a household name thanks to its famous fried chicken, crunchy coleslaw, and indulgent sides.
“Who doesn’t love a good down-home meal of fried chicken!? While “healthy” may never be the word we use to describe KFC, there’s something comforting about a fried chicken meal (and that’s worth something). And it doesn’t mean you can’t make healthier choices when you’re there.
Unfortunately, when it comes to fried meals, the combination of breading (carbohydrates) plus deep frying (oil/fat) can lead to low energy levels and difficulty with weight management. The best option would be to keep it simple: stick with what you came there for (fried chicken) and limit the sides to mitigate this effect.
Try to pair your chicken with a side of coleslaw for some fiber, and skip the carbohydrate-rich sides you can live without (think fries, biscuits, etc.). Stick to what you love and limit what you’re not crazy about so that you satisfy your cravings fully.
Pair your meal with a calorie-free beverage like water or unsweetened tea, and eat earlier in the day when your digestive hormones are more equipped to process food more effectively. Bonus points if you can add a walk after the meal.”
Recommended by: Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD
Pizza Hut is one of the most popular and well-known brands in the pizza industry. With its wide range of unique, delicious pizzas and other savory menu items and its convenient delivery and takeout options, it has become one of the go-to choices for hungry people worldwide.
“Pizza can be a disaster for our low-carb diners. The processed carbohydrate and high-fat toppings can lead to double and triple glucose spikes throughout the night.
Stick with one or two Thin N’ Crispy slices. Leverage meal sequencing to improve your glucose response by starting with a salad. It can also bump up the nutrient density of this meal!”
Recommended by: Stephanie Etherington, RD, CD, CDCES
Founded in 1956, Jersey Mike's has a long history of making delicious subs using only the freshest ingredients. The company's signature sub is the Original Italian, which features ham, salami, and provolone cheese on a toasted sub roll.
But Jersey Mike's also offers various other flavors, including the popular Turkey Breast and Club Subs. And for those who are looking for something a little different, the menu also includes wraps and salads.
“One cool option with JM’s is the various sub-sizes. If you’re looking to minimize your glycemic response, pick the “mini." They even offer whole wheat rolls, which are higher in fiber, so pick either with a meat option and load it up with veggies.
What makes JM’s unique and their sandwiches so delectable is the combo of the vinegar (which can help mitigate glucose responses), oil, and oregano they drench it on top with when you order it prepared “Mike’s Way.”
Alternatively to the typical cold sub, they offer some hot subs; my favorite is the Chipotle Chicken Cheesesteak with extra peppers and onions for a nutrient boost.
Side note: many may not know this, but JM’s offers “bowl” options that exclude the bread for those following a lower-carb lifestyle.”
Recommended by: Amanda Donahue MS, RD, CD
Panda Express is one of the most popular Chinese food franchises in the United States. There is something for everyone at this fast food restaurant with a wide range of classic dishes like sweet and sour chicken, Kung Pao shrimp, and vegetable fried rice, plus new options like lemon chicken breast and Mongolian beef.
“Chinese food is traditionally high in both protein and non-starchy veggies, which are both nutrient-dense and can be great for keeping glucose stable.
However, the other stuff—the sauces, the breading, the rice—can throw off the meal's nutrition (and mean significant blood sugar responses). My first recommendation is to start with your foundation; opt for super greens instead of rice, or if you love rice, do half and half.
By subbing some of the dense carbohydrate sources with greens, you’re promoting a better blood sugar response and supporting better energy levels all day long.
Top your base with a protein that’s not breaded or fried, like the Wok-Fired Shrimp, Black Pepper Chicken, or String Bean Chicken. This way, you’re getting less of the extra stuff, more filling and satisfying nutrients, and all the same Asian flavors.”
Recommended by: Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD
Wawa is one of the most popular convenience stores in the United States. Apart from a wide selection of groceries and household essentials, it also offers fresh foods, including hot soups, delicious sandwiches, pastries, and unique coffee blends.
Additionally, Wawa features touchscreen ordering kiosks that allow customers to select the items they need without waiting in line.
“There are so many healthy fast food options when eating at Wawa, and they don’t have to be high carb either—going for breakfast? Look at their balanced menu for Egg White Omelet Burrito Bowl or Chicken Steak and Egg White Omelet Bowl.
Need coffee? Skip the sugary additions and add some milk, half and half, or almond milk. Need a quick lunch? Check out the “Power Menu” and load up on protein and veggies for a light and low carb meal or try one of their bowls such as Lettuce and Oven Roasted Turkey Bowl, Spinach, and Roasted Chicken Bowl or try a salad.
You can even skip the chips and add a piece of fruit or pack of nuts for some healthy fat—quick does not have to be unhealthy!”
Recommended by: Randi Yow RDN, LDN
Did we miss your favorite fast food restaurant? Stay tuned for more installments in this series to see how to pick the healthiest options when you're eating out.
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