We all know how tough it can be to find a healthy meal while out and on the move. This can be all the more challenging when you find yourself surrounded by convenient fast-food temptations, but are trying to lose weight or watch your diet with respect to chronic health conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes, or hypertension. When it comes to sodium, in particular, being stranded in a fast-food swamp can leave you feeling especially hopeless—not to mention, hungry.
"Many Americans are trying to watch their blood pressure and therefore looking to reduce their sodium intake. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium for most adults, and ideally trying to reduce intake to no more than 1,500 mg for those with high blood pressure," Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, the author of the Sports Nutrition Playbook and member of our Medical Expert Board, tells Eat This, Not That! "Typically fast food restaurants cook with lots of sodium that you may not be able to remove. However, [at Taco Bell] you can add fresh vegetables to provide extra flavor and nutrients."
"The great thing about Taco Bell's website is it features a nutrition calculator that you can use to tweak your favorite menu items to see how it impacts the nutritional content of the meal," she continues. According to Goodson, if you were to order a plain crunchy taco or power bowl with chicken or black beans, you can "load up the veggies on top with tomatoes, onions, and lettuce. "If you want to top it with a little cheese, opt for an 'easy' portion to reduce the serving size and cut down on extra saturated fat and sodium."
So in the grand scheme of fast-food restaurants, the versatility and flexibility of Taco Bell's menu lends itself to providing customers with more nutritious choices than many other competing fast-food chains. To help you make well-informed and well-balanced ordering decisions the next time you round the Taco Bell drive thru, we spoke to a few dietitians about the healthiest Taco Bell items on the menu. The Taco Bell menu offerings included in this roundup "provide a balance of carb fat and protein, contributing to a balanced meal," says Melissa Rifkin, MS, RD, CDN, owner of Melissa Rifkin Nutrition."They each provide an amount of calories that could work within a reasonable calorie budget. All are necessary nutrients in our diet and consuming these items in efforts to meet these nutrients needs can contribute to health."
Keep reading to find out which healthy Taco Bell orders are dietitian-approved—and for more advice on how to make smart, health-motivated choices while grabbing breakfast at the Bell, check out Taco Bell's Entire Breakfast Menu—Ranked From Least to Most Healthy.
"This classic taco keeps it simple with only cheese, beef, and lettuce as toppings, which reduces the calories and saturated fat," says Goodson."Each taco has 3 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein, which are important components to stabilize blood sugar and help keep you full for a longer period of time after eating. And at only 170 calories, you have an option that will satisfy your cravings without packing on excess calories."
"Taco Bell's Crunchy Taco can be a nutritionally advantageous option for a few reasons," explains Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements. "One, it contains about 8 grams of protein, which makes it a good source of protein. Two, the fiber from the crunchy corn taco shell is around 2 grams and is useful for preventing blood sugar spikes and digestive health. The minerals provided by this item are not to go unnoticed either," adds Best, "calcium and iron."
"The protein and fiber can help keep you full for longer, which may prevent overeating on other more calorie dense menu items. The fiber is also helpful for keeping blood sugar levels consistent, which can prevent insulin resistance and is also good for feeding good gut bacteria," says Best. "This taco can have more nutrients added by making a few changes. Add tomatoes to increase the taco's folate, potassium, and vitamin C. Replacing the meat with the black beans can keep the item high in protein but lower in saturated fat."
"This taco contains beef, which is a high-quality protein, meaning that it provides all nine essential amino acids that our bodies need," Goodson adds. "Beef also contains essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin B12, selenium, niacin, and vitamin B6. The cheddar cheese on top provides you with additional protein and calcium, which is important for bone health."
Chicken Chipotle Melt
"This wrap is a source of 12 grams of protein, making it a satisfying option for many people," says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, registered dietitian, author of the First Time Mom's Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility, and member of our Medical Expert Board.
"[The Chicken Chipotle Melt is] low enough in calories to be able to pair with other nutrient dense ingredients, like fruits and vegetables to create more well-rounded meal," Rifkin also notes.
"Perhaps skip the creamy sauce to make it even more good for you, as this oil-based sauce provides additional fat and calories," Manaker adds.
Power Menu Bowl
"I would choose the power bowl with chicken as the best meal option on the menu," says Rifkin. "For similar calories to the veggie bowl, you get way more protein. This makes the meal more balanced."
"Taco Bell's Power Menu Bowl is an excellent fast food meal item at just 460 calories per bowl," explains Best. "It is made with nutrient dense ingredients including tomatoes, lettuce, rice, black beans, and grilled breast. This item contains only 6 grams of saturated fat and 27 grams of protein. It also provides 8 grams of dietary fiber, when combined with the protein this meal will keep you full and satisfied for longer without a glucose spike or crash."
"The protein and fiber combination work in harmony to help keep you full and provide you with energy to power through your day," says Goodson. "Additionally, it contains lettuce, fresh tomatoes, and guacamole to provide you with extra nutrients and those better-for-you fatty acids."
"It does contain some nutrients that can be beneficial for the body when consumed in moderation as part of a balanced and varied diet," adds Best. "The [meat] in the bowl provides a source of protein and iron, which are essential nutrients for building and maintaining healthy muscles and red blood cells. The black beans are also a good source of plant-based protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals such as folate, magnesium, and potassium."
The guacamole made from mashed avocado, can provide heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and potassium, while the pico de gallo can contribute some vitamin C and antioxidants."
"The avocados found in the guacamole are an excellent source of monounsaturated fats and fiber, which are important for heart health," says Goodson. "There is research to show that eating at least one avocado per week can lower the risk of developing heart disease, and swapping avocado or guacamole for other saturated fat-containing foods such as butter, mayonnaise, or creamy dressings can be a healthy alternative."
"As with many of Taco Bell's menu items, removing the sour cream can cut down on the calories and saturated fat of this item," says Best. Generally speaking, when it comes to toppings, sauces, and spreads at Taco Bell, Goodson also suggests that you "stay away from sauces and try to stick with avocado or guacamole as a 'better-for-you' spread or topping."
Though this healthy Taco Bell order does extend a wholesome nutritional balance, no dish is perfect—especially those on fast food menus. If you're trying to keep an eye on your blood pressure, this may not be the meal for you. "This bowl is on the higher side for sodium, clocking in at 1,250mg," Goodson advises. "If you're looking to reduce sodium intake, try only opting for either the cheese or the guacamole to reduce overall sodium content, or forgo the avocado ranch sauce on top."
Veggie Power Menu Bowl
The primary difference between the aforementioned Power Menu Bowl and the Veggie Power Menu Bowl is that the latter is vegetarian friendly. But losing the chicken as a protein topper does not detract from this bowl's nutritional balance.
"The Power Bowl is the most balanced meal that provides more produce than the others," says Rifkin.
"Veggie-based dishes help people meet their veggie needs in a snap," explains Manaker. "This plant-based meal contains 13 grams of protein and 10 grams of protein."
Black Bean Chalupa Supreme
Goodson explains that this healthy Taco Bell treat is a "vegetarian-friendly menu option that is packed with 10 grams of protein, 6 grams of fiber, and antioxidants from the black beans. It also contains cheese to provide additional protein and calcium. Coming in at only 340 calories, this can be a satiating option that provides a lot of flavor without overspending the calorie bank."
"[The Black Bean Chalupa Supreme] is just 340 calories, which is an excellent calorie content for a meal," says Best. "The lettuce, black beans, and tomatoes on this item bring up the nutrient quality greatly. The fact that it provides a plant source of protein, rather than a saturated fat containing animal protein, can benefit those who are looking to be more heart-healthy or plant-forward."
Though this Chalupa does offer a few nutritional benefits, Goodson encourages you to keep in mind that it "still packs on about 4 grams of saturated fat and 460 milligrams of sodium, which is around 20% of the daily value for both."
"The issue with many Taco Bell items is when they are consumed in multiples," advises Best. "While one of these makes a great meal calorie-wise, when two or three are eaten at the same time this can bring their calorie content up to a quarter or half of a day's calorie intake."
"Taco Bell has the 'Make It Fresco' option that can cut down the calories and fat of a menu item through removing a couple of ingredients," Best suggests, with regard to eliminating some nutritional deterrents from this otherwise relatively healthy Taco Bell order. "For this item, making it Fresco would remove 45 calories and cut down on the saturated fat."
Goodson extends another helpful ingredient swap suggestion that still hits the same flavor notes while mitigating some of the saturated fat and sodium found in this Chalupa."Try swapping the Chalupa shell for a plain crunchy taco shell to reduce the sodium and saturated fat content of this meal," says Goodson.
Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme
"The Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme makes a great alternative to the Black Bean Chalupa," says Best. She further explains that black beans "provide a source of plant-based protein and fiber, which can help you feel full and satisfied. [They] also contain some essential vitamins and minerals, such as iron, magnesium, and folate."
"Black beans belong to the legume family and are a source of plant-based protein," adds Goodson. "[They] are also chock full of fiber and antioxidants, as well as providing other essential nutrients such as iron, copper, and many B vitamins."
Given black beans' high-fiber content, Goodson also emphasizes the importance of overall fiber content in any food, explaining that "many Americans don't meet the recommendations for fiber intake, which is at least 21–25 grams for women and 30–38 grams for men. Fiber is important for a myriad of health benefits, and research shows it can help reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and even some gastrointestinal conditions."
The Black Bean Crunchwraps Supreme also contains a hefty portion of lettuce, which Best says "provides some vitamins and minerals such as vitamin K, vitamin A, and folate."
Cheesy Bean & Rice Burrito
Although one might assume that the Cheesy Bean and Rice Burrito wouldn't make the cut as one of the healthiest Taco Bell menu items, the nutritional benefits this satiating burrito should not be underestimated. Rifkin notes that "the Cheesy Bean and Rice Burrito also provides a good amount of fiber."
Additionally, Manaker says that "eating plant-based meals is something that many of us are trying to do—and for good reason."
"Eating more beans and other plant-based items is linked to a slew of positive health outcomes," she elaborates. "Beans are a source of antioxidants, fiber, and protein. The cheese gives a boost of calcium and even more protein, and the rice is a source of energizing carbohydrates."
Soft Taco With Chicken
This low calorie soft taco is a menu staple and classic healthy Taco Bell menu choice.
"Chicken is a source of lean protein," says Manaker. "This dish provides 12 grams of protein." She adds that "while the sodium content is over 500 mg per serving, it can be a satisfying dish to enjoy in a pinch."
Side of Black Bean & Rice
For a healthy Taco Bell side item, your best bet is to go for a hearty helping of Taco Bell's vegan-friendly Black Beans and Rice.
"Research shows that the fiber and antioxidants that are present in black beans may help reduce cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels," says Goodson. "Antioxidants are important because they neutralize what's known as free radicals (aka bad guys that cause damage to cells), which are shown to possibly lead to inflammation and the development of chronic disease."
Along with being a great side dish pick, Rifkin also mentions that when there's an option to substitute refried beans for black in other Taco Bell menu items, "swapping refried beans for black beans may reduce the amount of fat in the meal."