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The #1 Unhealthiest Lunch Order at Panera, According to a Dietitian

Even though Panera is known for having healthy choices, this lunch item is one to steer clear of.
FACT CHECKED BY Olivia Tarantino

Panera Bread is known for being one of the healthiest fast-food restaurants around. Instead of typical fare like burgers, fries, and fried chicken sandwiches, Panera offers an array of colorful salads, soups, sandwiches, and warm bowls for those looking for lighter lunch options.

And fans of Panera will be thrilled to learn that this "healthier" chain restaurant is rolling out "its biggest menu transformation" in the 40 years that the restaurant has been around, with brand new salads, sandwiches, and mac and cheeses coming to restaurants on April 4th, 2024. But even though this restaurant is known for its healthy options and will be getting even more menu options this week, some Panera orders are less than desirable when it comes to their nutritional value. In fact, one of the unhealthiest orders at this chain is a brand-new menu item!

To get to the bottom of the Panera menu items that are considered "the most unhealthy," we talked with dietitian Mary Sabat MS, RDN, LD about what she believes is the unhealthiest lunch order. Read on to learn what she chose, then check out the 15 Healthiest Menu Items at Panera.

The unhealthiest lunch order at Panera is…the new Bacon Mac and Cheese Bread Bowl

bowl of Panera Bacon Mac and Cheese
PR Newswire

At Panera, you can order any of the soups or mac and cheese in a bread bowl, which is a bowl made entirely of Panera's Artisinal Sourdough Bread. The regular Mac and Cheese Bread Bowl has always been a popular choice among customers, because who wouldn't want to indulge in the two most comforting foods on the planet—bread and cheese? But now with Panera's brand new menu items, customers can enjoy the Bacon Mac and Cheese in a Bread Bowl (note that Panera has not released a photo of the Bacon Mac and Cheese in a Bread Bowl yet, but it will be available to order from their menu).

Unfortunately, this lunch order lacks nutritional value and has even more calories, saturated fat, and sodium than the regular Mac and Cheese.

The Bacon Mac and Cheese Bread Bowl is packed with:

Nutrition (Per order):
Calories: 1,180
Fat: 39 g (Saturated Fat: 19 g, Trans Fat: 1 g)
Sodium: 2,640 mg
Carbs: 164 g (Fiber: 4 g, Sugar: 10 g)
Protein: 45 g

"With a staggering 1,180 calories, 39 grams of fat, and 164 grams of carbohydrates, it delivers a hefty caloric punch laden with unhealthy fats and carbohydrates," says Sabat. "And notably, it contains only 4 grams of fiber, failing to provide the necessary dietary fiber crucial for digestive health." Also, when you have such little fiber in a high-carbohydrate meal like this one, your blood sugar is more likely to spike.

"Additionally, the sodium content is 2,640 milligrams, a number above the recommended daily limit, which can lead to hypertension and other cardiovascular issues," notes Sabat.

"The main culprit lies within its ingredients, including a sourdough bread bowl, enriched macaroni, and a cheese sauce laden with cream, oils, and additives," she adds, "and the addition of non-organic bacon only exacerbates its health concerns, introducing potentially harmful chemicals and preservatives."

Beyond low fiber and high sodium levels, this dish also contains 19 grams of saturated fat, which is more than the recommended 13-gram limit set by the American Heart Association.

At the end of the day, eating a meal like the Bacon Mac and Cheese Bread Bowl on rare occasions shouldn't put your health at too much risk, but when we consistently consume meals like this one, it may potentially add up to some undesirable results.

"Overall," says Sabat, "with minimal nutritional value and a surplus of unhealthy components, this dish exemplifies the antithesis of a balanced, nourishing meal, making it a clear contender for the worst choice at Panera Bread in terms of health."

 Every Panera Sandwich—Ranked by Nutrition

A better way to enjoy the Mac and Cheese is to order the 'You Pick Two'

Panera salad and mac and cheese
Photos: Panera, Design: Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (Per 1/2 order of Green Goddess Cobb Salad):
Calories: 240
Fat: 13 g (Saturated Fat: 3 g)
Sodium: 510 mg
Carbs: 12 g (Fiber: 3 g, Sugar: 6 g)
Protein: 18 g
Nutrition (Per cup of Mac and Cheese):
Calories: 480
Fat: 32 g (Saturated Fat: 17 g, Trans Fat: 1 g)
Sodium: 1,150 mg
Carbs: 34 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 7 g)
Protein: 16 g

If you're craving some mac and cheese, ditch the bacon and at least opt for the regular one. There's no way around it—the Mac and Cheese at Panera isn't really the healthiest choice, but we also understand that sometimes when the cravings ring, it's okay to answer. That's why we suggest that if you want the Panera Mac and Cheese, go for the regular instead of bacon, and opt for the You Pick Two selections instead of the Bread Bowl.

 20 Best & Worst Panera Breakfast Orders

"You Pick Two" gives you the chance to mix and match with a 1/2 order of any salad or sandwich, and a cup of soup or mac. To indulge in the mac and cheese, try ordering the small cup size with a 1/2 order of the Green Goddess Cobb Salad.

Even though the small cup of mac still carries 17 grams of saturated fat and over 1,000 milligrams of sodium, the best you can do is to pair it with a nutrient-rich salad like the Green Goddess Cobb. A 1/2 order of this menu item provides fiber, protein, and nutrient-rich veggies, all while staying at only 240 calories.

Sometimes, the healthiest choices we can make when eating out are the ones that help keep us within our nutrient goals, while still allowing us to treat ourselves to what our bodies are craving.

Samantha Boesch
Samantha was born and raised in Orlando, Florida and now works as a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Read more about Samantha
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