The Healthiest Dish to Order at 20 Fast Food Chains
Here's a number you should keep in mind: 36.6. That's the percentage of calories you consume each year from fast food joints, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
So if you're trying to maintain or lose weight, you'd better plan to be extra-vigilant yourself and choose the healthiest fast food meal you can find—which we all know isn't always easy at a restaurant. Researchers blame this on something called the "special-occasion mentality," and it sets in whenever we eat out at the local McDonald's or Arby's. If we were only dining at fast-food joints once in a while, a splurge would have only minimal consequences, but that's not the world we live in. The majority of Americans eat at restaurants every day or two. In fact, in our recent poll, one out of every three respondents said they'd eaten from a restaurant within the last 24 hours. That makes dining out about as "special" as taking a shower.
To help you stay trim, we sifted through the nutrition information at all of your favorite fast-food joints. To ensure our suggestions were truly the best-of-the-best for your waistline and total health, we looked beyond calorie and fat counts and examined each menu item holistically. Ready to eat your burger (and taco and pizza) and have it, too? Read on to discover how to do just that, and for more healthy eating tips, be sure to check out our list of 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.
Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad with ½ Packet Dijon Honey Mustard Dressing
Get your hit of poultry plus 23 grams of muscle-building protein—minus the trans fats and starchy bread that comes along with most of the other menu items. This is the healthiest fast food order at Arby's, and one of the most delicious. And bonus, it has bacon! It doesn't get much better than that!
Here are The Best & Worst Menu Items at Arby's.
It may be hard to believe, but one of the best orders from Burger King comes served between two fluffy buns. Thanks to its low calorie, fat, and sodium count, the King's classic hamburger is a safe and satisfying bet for anyone trying to maintain their flat belly. In fact, the sandwich is so healthy compared to the competition that it's one of these diet expert-approved orders from Burger King.
Carl's Jr Trim It Famous Star
Carl's Jr. may have the raciest ads in fast-food land, but some of its offerings are downright respectable, starting with its "Better For You" options. To create a classic Carl's Jr. meal with a low-calorie nutritional profile, you can stick with the classic Famous Star as long as you say "Trim It," which means they hold the calorie-heavy mayo. (It also comes slathered in their Special Sauce, so you won't even miss it!) Whatever you wind up ordering, be sure to steer clear of the chain's menu item that makes our list of the worst "healthy" fast food in America.
Grilled Chicken Sandwich
Choosing this protein-packed, low-cal sandwich over the chain's Chicken Salad variety saves you over 100 calories and 10 grams of fat—leaving plenty of room for a healthy dessert if you're still hungry. We recommend grabbing a 50-calorie fruit cup to fill your belly and add immunity-boosting vitamin C to your meal. For more healthy menu options from the fast-food chain, check out these best Chick-Fil-A menu items.
Chicken, Pinto Bean, Fresh Tomato Salsa, and Veggie Salad
"When I eat salad, I use it as an opportunity to get some of my carbohydrates from beans. [At Chipotle] I ask for double the veggies so I'm fully satisfied and getting the most nutrients I can," says registered dietitian and personal trainer Jim White, RD, ACSM. To recreate White's go-to order, ask for a romaine lettuce base with one scoop of chicken, two scoops of fajita vegetables, one scoop of pinto beans, and tomato salsa.
2 Slices Grilled Chicken and Jalapeno Pepper Pizza on Large 14" Brooklyn-Style Crust
Indulging in a slice or two of pizza doesn't have to come with a side of guilt. In fact, we give you permission to dig into not one, but two, slices of this create-your-own pie. The grilled chicken is the leanest meat on the menu and toppings like jalapenos add a kick of metabolism-boosting fiery flavor without provolone-sized calories. And to discover the health factor of all of your favorite dishes, check out our exclusive ranking of every menu item at Domino's!
Jack In The Box
Chicken Fajita Pita
This Fajita Pita is one of the best entrees in the entire fast-food universe. Low in calories, packed with protein and fiber, this is one meal that would be hard to top—even in your own kitchen.
Kentucky Grilled Chicken Breast with Sweet Kernel Corn and Green Beans
A Kentucky Grilled Chicken Breast is a solid option to turn to any time you find yourself at KFC. Enjoy a side of green beans and corn alongside the poultry for a light, low-calorie meal that'll keep you full and satiated for hours without derailing your weight loss efforts.
Trim It 1/4 lb. Low Carb Little Thickburger
When it comes to fast-food burgers, it doesn't get much healthier—or lighter in carbs—than this. To whip up this mouthwatering creation, Hardee's takes a Black Angus beef patty and wraps it inside iceberg lettuce leaves, along with pickles, onion, tomato, ketchup, and mustard. If you don't see this offering on the menu board at your local restaurant, fear not. Just ask your server for the "1/4 lb. Low-Carb Little Thickburger" from the "Trim It menu," and he'll be able to hook you up. To discover more low-cal on-the-go meals, check out our guide to fast food burgers under 300 calories.
Broccoli Beef with Mixed Veggies
Panda Express actually has several options with reasonable calorie counts. As with any Chinese food meal, the key is to skip the greasy mound of fried rice and an oily tangle of noodles. Pair a low-calorie entrée such as the Broccoli Beef with a side of veggies, and you wind up with a fairly nutritious meal that has plenty of protein to keep you full.
Thanks to the chain's new all-day breakfast initiative you can now get your hands on this low-calorie, protein filled dish around the clock off the McDonald's breakfast menu. Though you might assume the egg-white version is the better bet, the whole egg sandwich contains carotenoids, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals making it the smarter pick, explains dietitian Christine M. Palumbo, MBA, RDN, FAND. The yellow center also contains choline, a nutrient that helps boost metabolism. For more ways to boost your calorie burn, check out these best ways to boost your metabolism.
Asian Sesame Chicken Salad
This simple-yet-delicious salad has a near-perfect ratio of calorie, fat, carbs, and protein, making it the healthiest fast food pick at Panera.
"This powerhouse salad is hands-down the best without needing any modification recommendation," says New York City-based Telehealth Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Jonathan Valdez, RDN, CDN. "You can even use all of the dressing because it amounts to only 410 calories in all." If you want a little more substance besides a salad, heed the advice of Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD: "Sometimes, if I'm on the hungrier side, I pair it with an apple or a whole-grain roll, which you can ask for instead of chips."
Garden Fresh Slice on Thin Crust
We're typically apprehensive about using "garden" and "pizza" in the same sentence, but this slice—packed with onions, green peppers, portobello, and olives—turns a nutrient desert into the top choice at Papa John's. If you're prone to overindulging, invite a friend to go halfsies with you to keep the meal under 500 calories even if you go for that second (or third) slice.
Loaded Chicken Wrap
This wrap is the best of both worlds: fried chicken and the chain's signature Red Beans & Rice all rolled into one. In fact, it's hard to believe that it contains a mere 310 calories while packing in 14 grams of protein and 3 grams of satiating fiber. Thinking of adding a diet soda to your order? Read up on these top diet sodas—ranked!
Classic Grilled Chicken Sandwich
A soft ciabatta bun and breaded chicken join together with a host of veggies and light mayo to create this flavorful diet-friendly order. If you're looking for a little less when it comes to the salt department, don't miss these low-sodium fast food orders.
Reduced-Fat Turkey Bacon Breakfast Sandwich
Lean protein from the bacon and egg whites meets its perfect accompaniment in the relatively low-carb English muffin. That's a powerful nutritional punch for a mere 210 calories. This is another all-day breakfast item we're proud to get behind.
Steak 'N Shake
Single Steakburger, no fries
In the restaurant world, "specialty" means excess calories and fat, and that rule certainly holds true at Steak 'n Shake. Steer clear of the chain's Specialty Steakburgers—the souped-up options with extra fixings—and order the Single Steakburger instead. It's the only burger on the menu that isn't laced with trans fat. Word of warning: Make sure your server holds the cheese. That's where the trans fat appears to be hiding out.
6" Turkey Breast on 9-Grain Bread With Lettuce, Tomatoes, Onions, Green Peppers
The health halo surrounding Subway is a boon for the sandwich chain, but for everyone else, it's quite problematic. The numbers Subway advertises are only for a 6-inch sub and don't account for cheese, mayo, olive oil, or any extras most people get on their sub. Order a 12-inch sandwich with a couple of extras, and your "healthy" sub suddenly becomes an 800-calorie, diet-sinking torpedo. To be fair, though, there are many nutritious sandwich combinations at Subway, and this is one of them. Just make sure to go with 6 inches (not 12), mustard (not mayo), and take advantage of Subway's best option: unlimited veggies.
Chipotle Chicken Loaded Griller
Meet the Best Burrito at Taco Bell, containing the lowest calorie, carbohydrate and salt count, plus 14 grams of protein.
Grilled Chicken Sandwich
Going to the Wendy's drive-thru doesn't mean tossing your nutrition plan out the car window—just stick with the Grilled Chicken Sandwich and steer clear of the ever-tempting Frosties and fries. The healthiest fast food sandwich at Wendy's comes with a grilled chicken breast, tomato, lettuce, and a drizzle of honey mustard, a combination that's heavy on flavor and protein but light in the fat department. And better news? Wendy's has cut back on the amount of sugar in its honey mustard dressing, taking it down from 11 grams to just 8 grams.
RELATED: No-sugar-added recipes you'll actually look forward to eating.
This article was originally published October 17, 2015, and has since been updated to reflect current nutritional information.