The #1 Healthiest Fast-Food Burger Order, According to Nutritionists
Burgers get a bad rap because we've moved them past their simple essence—meat between bread—and loaded them up with all kinds of gluttonous toppings like slices of processed cheese, bacon, creamy aiolis or mayo, and even eggs, which in itself aren't bad for you, but can unnecessarily kick up the calorie count of your burger.
These days, we often have the added option of the plant-based burger, which allows vegans and vegetarians to enjoy something that's very similar to meat in taste and texture. And since it's plant-based, many think it's automatically better for you than a beef burger, too. But for those with flexible diets—do the benefits of getting a plant-based patty instead of the beef one really outweigh the sacrifice of eating something that isn't quite the real deal? Impossible burgers, for example, are light on the cholesterol that usually comes with real meat, and they do offer a few grams of fiber.
"But they are still rich in fat and saturated fat, which is what most people are looking to reduce when ordering a 'healthier' burger," says dietitian and nutritionist Kelly Jones. "Since there is a lot of fat and saturated fat in the Impossible Burger, it's really not much healthier than a regular, simply dressed beef burger."
So regardless of whether you're eating meat or not, you're going to want to look for a fast-food burger that's rich in nutrients and light on all the additional fatty, sugary, and salty toppings. Sometimes the nutrient part is easier to achieve with a plant-based option, sure, since you're literally getting more plants and fiber in your diet. But don't let the plant-based burgers fool you into thinking they're always going to be better for you than the real deal.
To untangle the mystery of what kinds of burgers you should be striving to eat if you want to lighten your order, we asked our nutritionists to weigh in on the healthiest plant-based and meat options. Even if you don't normally frequent these chains, you can use our breakdown as a guide at any fast-food burger joint.
The healthiest plant-based burger: The Streamliner at Johnny Rockets
Johnny Rockets is a chain that's maintained its offering of soy-based Boca Burger patties instead of jumping ship for other kinds of meat alternatives that prioritize mimicking the meat texture and flavor in order to appeal to the average customer. Their Streamliner burger is the chain's take on a veggie burger and is Jones' pick for the healthiest plant-based burger option.
"This burger is free of cholesterol as well as lower in fat than other faux meats, like Beyond or Impossible," she says.
"The patty also has more fiber, but the burger additionally comes on a wheat bun versus a brioche—which ups the fiber content even further. Add to that the caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and pickles, which already come with the burger, or customize with additional grilled mushrooms and peppers and it's a nutrient-dense affair" Jones says, explaining that the fiber content—10 grams of it with hardly any saturated fat—is this burger's strength. That means you're improving your immune system and keeping digestion regular and smooth when opting for this veggie burger.
"You'll also get vitamin A and calcium, as well as vitamin C if you add the grilled peppers," says Jones. "Compare that to an Impossible Whopper that contains 34 total grams of fat and 11 grams of saturated fat," she adds. You can see the difference!
The healthiest beef burger: The Junior Burger at Wendy's
But if you do love a classic beef burger above all else, Wendy's is one fast-food chain that serves up a simple and light option that won't put you over the limit with fat and calories. Dietitian Trista Best's healthiest fast-food beef burger pick goes to the chain's Junior Burger.
This popular fast-food hamburger is among the healthiest available, especially for those who refuse to eat plant-based or veggie burgers and give up that meaty flavor. "The Junior Burger at Wendy's can curb your burger craving without a ton of saturated fat and calories from unnecessary toppings," says Best.
The Junior isn't loaded with greasy, high-fat toppings and it's clean in preparation and design. "The simplicity of this burger and the fact that it comes without cheese make it an acceptable burger for a relatively healthy meal," says Best.
The key to keeping this burger healthy or making it healthier is to avoid adding cheese, which would make it a Junior Cheeseburger. The cheese adds calories and saturated fat. "There are a few other hacks like opting for no ketchup which would reduce the sugar content and calorie count," says Best. "You can bump up the nutrient-rich ingredients by adding lettuce, tomato, and onion, as the more low-calorie, high-nutrient toppings are less calorically dense," explains Best.
To make it a full meal, go with a low or zero-calorie beverage and a low-calorie side item. "Wendy's no longer offers half or side salads, but a plain baked potato, apple bites, and a surprising menu item, strawberries, would make great light sides," says Best. And don't forget to sign up for our newsletter to get the latest restaurant news delivered straight to your inbox.