If you ask many people for their opinions on fast food, they’ll tell you that part of the appeal of these dishes come from their indulgence. They’re perfect examples of junk food, both flavorful and familiar. “Is this healthy?” can seem like a beside-the-point question where these drive-thru treats are concerned …
… however, the health argument is hard to make when you consider the convenience factor and the budget-friendly nature of fast food restaurants, which make them regular stops for a great number of Americans. If fast food plays a major role in your diet, then it’s in your best interest to seek out options that offer nutritional value without compromising on flavor. With that in mind, we asked nutritionists, dieticians, and health experts for their favorite healthy fast food items, and this list of 10 dishes represents the best buys out there, both in terms of nutrition and of taste.
When Chipotle first entered the market over a decade ago, it relied heavily on a health-based approach, claiming that its fresh ingredients and “build your own” model yielded nutritionally sound meals to eat on the go. Of course, making careful choices at Chipotle is easier said than done, considering that forearm-sized burritos wrapped in enormous flour tortillas are the brand’s flagship dish. But certified nutritionist and personal trainer Jamie Hickey of Truism Fitness does have a healthy Chipotle-order suggestion for you: “Chipotle can be a healthy option just as long as you nix the sour cream and cheese. A dollop of guacamole is fine, since it’s packed with healthy fats. A burrito bowl with brown rice, chicken, and pinto beans is a deconstructed version of their burritos that only has 500 calories, 42 grams of protein, 11 grams of fat, 57 grams of carbs, and 705 milligrams of sodium.”
Starbucks has taken major steps in recent years to evolve its food menu and to provide a wide range of healthy options, and many of our sources mentioned Starbucks as an especially good place to find quick and nourishing meals. Registered dietician Jordan Lynn Higgins of Turning Tables Nashville gave a particular shout-out to Starbucks’ Spinach, Feta, and Egg White Wrap, saying that “at less than 300 calories, this warm whole-grain wrap provides a whopping 20 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber. Compare it to their Southwest Veggie Wrap at 590 calories, and you’ll see why it makes a good, healthy choice for breakfast.”
There’s no shortage of high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar choices on Starbucks’ beverage list, but it’s also easy to find drinks that hit the spot without derailing health goals. One prime example? The Skinny Vanilla Latte, which contains espresso, steamed nonfat milk, and sugar-free vanilla syrup. It’s a favorite of certified nutritionist and QuickQuotes life insurance consultant Melissa Morris, who tells us that “the Skinny Vanilla Latte has sugar-free syrup, skim milk, and coffee. If you like a plain latte without any syrup, that’s even better. The skim milk provides minimal calories with a little protein, calcium, and vitamin D.”
Sure, Subway does offer salads, which might be a viable option for those who want to eschew bread products altogether. But let’s be real: Most people aren’t coming to Subway for anything but a sandwich. With that truth in mind, registered dietician Megan Wong of AlgaeCal recommends the following: “Chicken is a healthier option than deli meats, which have been linked to increased risk of certain types of cancer. Choose 9-Grain Wheat or Honey Oat for a higher-fiber, lower-sodium bread. And fill up on as many veggies as you can when choosing toppings, but keep in mind that banana peppers, olives, and pickles will add a lot of sodium. Go easy on the sauces, which can pack on a lot of sodium, sugar, and fat.”
From time to time, Mickey D’s will make an effort to introduce “virtuous” items to its burgers-and-fries menu, and they’re not usually welcomed with open arms (any ‘90s kids out there remember the McSalad Shaker?). But one of the most reliably healthy McDonald’s dishes is a longstanding classic. Registered dietician Kristen Carli of Camelback Nutrition and Wellness in Scottsdale, Arizona touts the health benefits of the Egg & Cheese McMuffin, explaining that “[if you remove] the Canadian bacon, you remove a lot of the sodium and saturated fat, which can be harmful to heart health. They use real eggs [for the McMuffins], which are healthy sources of protein.”
With their “Power Menu” Bowls, Taco Bell sought to replicate Chipotle’s successful formula by letting guests customize their orders. According to registered dietician Kasey Hageman of LiveinspiRD, these bowls are a smart move for anyone seeking a healthy meal at Taco Bell. “A healthy option from Taco Bell is their Power Menu Bowl (Veggie or Chicken) minus the avocado sauce with light cheese. You can order any item on Taco Bell’s menu “fresco” style, and they will replace the cheese, creamy sauces, sour cream, and/or guacamole with pico de gallo.
It’s very possible to include pizza in a healthy eating plan, and many fast food delivery spots offer options like gluten-free crusts and vegetable toppings to make those choices easier. For instance, when ordering from Domino’s, health specialist and CEO Vinay Amin of Eu Natural advises a thin crust and veggie add-ons, which allow you to “get your pizza fix in a healthy way. You can make it even healthier by asking for less cheese or no cheese at all for a pure vegan option. The thin crust also reduces the calories and carbs.”
Panda Express may be most famous for its deep-fried Orange Chicken, but the menu includes several healthier options with grilled meats and steamed vegetables. Amin especially likes the Broccoli Chicken dish, telling us that “this healthy and vitamin-rich dish of steamed rice with broccoli and lean chicken” proves both satisfying and energizing.
Nutrition experts often cast a wary eye on salads served at fast food joints, claiming that these supposedly “healthier” dishes often pack more fat and calories than burgers and fries (thanks to rich, high-sugar dressings and toppings). However, registered dietician Shannon Leininger of LiveWell Nutrition in Las Vegas points out one fast food salad that’s worth ordering from a health perspective: “I like to recommend the Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad from Wendy’s.You can choose a half- or full-size [portion], depending on how hungry you are. This [salad] has all the makings of a balanced meal: vegetables, heart-healthy fats, and protein. The fat and protein will help keep you full, and at only 300 calories for the half-size (including the dressing!), it’s good for those concerned about weight management as well.”
Like Chipotle, Panera Bread falls into that nebulous space between “fast food” and “fast casual,” so the company has a vested interest in including healthy items on its menu. Certified nutrition coach Elliot Reimers of Rave Reviews views Panera’s “You Pick Two” combo deal — which allows guests to pick two choices from a selection of half-sandwiches, half-salads, and half-soups, along with a side of chips, baguette, or an apple — as an opportunity to create a balanced and well-rounded meal. “Choosing a high-protein and high-fiber soup like the savory black bean soup and a seasonal greens salad with reduced-fat balsamic vinaigrette will load you up with nutrition-dense ingredients and keep the calories low. Not only that, but this meal also will not leave you in a drowsy food coma,” Reimers says.
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