The truth is that it’s extremely difficult to follow a healthy diet when you’re eating regularly at fast food restaurants. Fast food is typically high in trans fat, saturated fat, sodium, and calories. And it also tends to be low in nutrients and almost totally lacking in fruits, vegetables, and fiber.
That doesn’t mean you have to avoid fast food entirely. It’s OK to indulge a craving every once in awhile, but to stay healthy you can’t make it a regular habit. The key is moderation—both in how often you frequent fast food chains and what you order once you’re there. There are always choices you can make that are healthier than others. The following tips and menu recommendations can help you stay on track. Just remember that even the healthiest fast food options often have other nutritional drawbacks such as high sodium. So try to keep fast food to the occasional treat.
- Try to keep your entire meal to 500 calories or less. The average adult eats 836 calories per fast food meal—and underestimates what they ate by 175 calories. So don’t guess! Most chains post nutritional info both on their websites and at the franchise location. Take advantage of this information.
- Opt for foods that are lower in fat and higher in protein and fiber. Look for items with more good stuff, like fiber, whole grains, and high-quality protein. Also aim for options that are relatively low in saturated fats. And steer clear of all items that contain trans fats.
- Bring your own add-on items if you really want a health boost. Even when you order wisely, it can be pretty tough to get enough fiber and other important vitamins and nutrients from a fast food menu. If you plan ahead, you can bring healthy sides and toppings like dried fruit, nuts and seeds, carrot sticks, apple or pear slices, and cottage cheese or yogurt.
Watch your sodium intake
High sodium intake is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends that adults stay under 1500 mg of sodium per day, and never take in more than 2,300 mg a day. Unfortunately, that’s tough to do when eating fasting food, even when you’re eating lower calorie meals. Your best bet: plan ahead if possible and eat low sodium in the meals leading up to and following your fast food meal. However, you can minimize some of the damage by requesting that your burger or meat be cooked without added salt.
Tips for making healthier fast food choices
Making healthier fast food choices is easier if you plan ahead by checking the nutritional guides that most chains post on their websites. But if you don’t have the chance to prepare, you can still make smarter choices by following a few common sense guidelines.
Healthier fast food ordering guidelines
- Keep your eye on portion size. Many fast food meals deliver enough food for several meals in the guise of a single serving. Avoid supersized and value-sized items, and go for the smallest size when it comes to sandwiches, burgers, and sides. You can also find more reasonable portions on the children’s menu.
- Focus on grilled or roasted lean meats. Avoid fried and breaded items, such as crispy chicken sandwiches and breaded fish fillets. Choose turkey, chicken breast, lean ham, or lean roast beef instead. Grilled skinless chicken is usually your best bet.
- Pay attention to the descriptions on the menu . Dishes labeled deep-fried, pan-fried, basted, batter-dipped, breaded, creamy, crispy, scalloped, or au gratin are usually high in calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium. Same with items in Alfredo or cream sauce.
- Don’t be afraid to special order. Many menu items can be made healthier with a few tweaks and substitutions. For example, you can ask to hold the sauce or dressing or serve it on the side. Or you can request a wheat bun for your hamburger or whole-grain bread for your sandwich.
- Don’t assume that healthy-sounding dishes are always your best option. For example, many fast food salads are a diet minefield, smothered in high-fat dressing and fried toppings. This is where reading the nutrition facts before you order can make a huge difference.
Tips for keeping fast food calories under control
- Be careful when it comes to condiments and dressings. When choosing items, be aware of calorie- and fat-packed salad dressings, spreads, sauces, and sides such as sour cream. Mayonnaise- and oil-based sauces in particular add a lot of calories. Try holding the mayo and asking for a packet of ketchup or mustard you can add yourself—controlling how much you put on your sandwich.
- Stick to zero-calorie beverages. Soda is a huge source of hidden calories. The average large soda packs around 300 calories, which can quickly gulp up a big portion of your daily calorie intake. Shakes are even worse, with up to 800 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat. And don’t be fooled by lemonade and fruit drinks, which add calories and sugar without much in the way of nutrients. Order water, diet soda, or unsweetened tea instead.
- Be wise about sides. Watch menu items that come with one or more side dishes. Sides that can quickly send calories soaring include fries, chips, rice, noodles, onion rings, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, biscuits, and mashed potatoes with gravy. Better bets are side salads with light dressing, baked potato (easy on the toppings), fresh fruit cups, corn on the cob, or apple slices.
- Pass on the French fries. Do you really need those fries? A sandwich or burger should be plenty filling on its own. Or if your meal doesn’t sound complete without fries, choose the smallest size (which can be 400 calories less than a large serving).
- Skip the bacon. It’s always tempting to add bacon to sandwiches and salads for extra flavor, but bacon has very few nutrients and is high in fat and calories. Instead, try ordering extra pickles, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, or mustard to add flavor without the fat.
Make sure your fast food salad isn’t a stealth diet saboteur
- Choose low-fat and fat-free dressing and ask for it on the side, so you can control how much you use.
- Skip high-fat toppings such as bacon bits, cheese, croutons, and crispy noodles. They can add hundreds of calories!
- Avoid taco salads. The deep-fried shells, tortilla chips, cheese, and sour cream make them high-fat, high-calorie diet busters.
- Choose salads with grilled chicken, shrimp, or vegetables. Avoid salads with breaded chicken or other fried toppings.
Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: October 2014.