Following both vegan and plant-based lifestyles are gaining traction across the nation, and with many chain restaurants wanting in on the action, it may no longer be as hard to find vegan fast-food options in the drive-thru. As of 2022, there were approximately 198,000 "quick-service" restaurants across the US—4,000 more than the year prior. This exponential growth has not slowed, either, so it makes sense that these restaurants want to cater to all appetites and dietary restrictions.
It can be hard to tell what's really vegan and what's not, especially as there are many hidden ingredients that may not be well displayed or easily viewable. To save you time and grief, we've gone ahead and rounded up 15 of the healthiest vegan options across many of America's favorite fast-food chains. From Taco Bell to Carl's Jr., you'll know exactly what to pick without having to skip a beet (get it?).
What is considered vegan?
Unlike vegetarianism, veganism is a fully plant-based diet that doesn't include dairy, poultry, or certain honey products. This diet focuses on plant proteins such as beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds while also generating additional nutrients from wholesome foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains. Although it's tough to estimate how many US citizens practice a vegan lifestyle, one ReportBuyer report quoted that nearly 6% of the US population followed a vegan diet.
People practice this lifestyle for a variety of reasons, be it out of concern for animal welfare or to support one's health. It's no secret that over-consumption of red meat may heighten the risk of cardiovascular disease while the WHO has officially labeled processed meats as carcinogens. Therefore, with proper nutritional guidance, it may be right for certain populations to follow a more plant-based diet.
Tips for eating out when following a vegan diet
Following a vegan diet that is rich in a wide variety of minimally processed foods is linked to positive health outcomes. But, leaning on ultra-processed options that are technically vegan-friendly can be high in added sugars, added fats, and sodium — factors that don't necessarily support positive health outcomes. Some meat substitutes can be packed with less healthy ingredients, and hidden added sugars can be found in any food, vegan or not. It's important to keep these tips in mind when choosing what to eat:
- Just ask! Don't be afraid to ask for modifications, substitutions, or even hidden menu options. The worst they can say is no, but it's better safe than sorry when it comes to a restrictive dietary choice. This goes for cross-contamination, as well, as many oils may be used for both vegan and non-vegan products.
- Substitute the fries, if possible. Although most fries are vegan (it's always good to double-check, though), they're probably not the healthiest option. Many chains offer fruit, baked potatoes, or even steamed veggies which are all healthier options.
- Watch out for fried meat substitutes. Just because there's no red meat in your burger doesn't mean it's healthier. If your burger or chicken substitute is fried, you're still ingesting those unnecessary fats and calories that can lead to a slew of health issues like heart disease or stroke.
- The kids' menu is good, too! The kids' menu may have some good vegan options, and the portion sizes are much more manageable which, vegan or not, can aid in proper weight management. Don't worry, they won't ask if it's for you or not.
Don't want to go through all of these steps? We asked dietitians to share their favorite vegan-friendly fast food options, and we rounded up their responses so you can navigate these quick-service establishments with ease.
The 15 Healthiest Vegan Fast-Food Orders
Wendy's Apple Pecan Salad
Here's where modifications come in handy, and most fast-food joints are happy to meet your requests. Wendy's Apple Pecan salad is a good option for vegans as you can easily remove the chicken and bleu cheese crumbles. We do want to note that the roasted pecans—strangely—contain lactose, which is a dairy byproduct. Therefore, vegans will also need to remove this. However, you're still getting an ample amount of Romaine lettuce, apples, spring mix, and dried cranberries, and the pomegranate vinaigrette dressing is accidentally vegan! You can ask for avocado, too, for some added Omega-3 fatty acids.
Burger King Impossible Burger
Here's the thing—vegans are tired of eating salads. Burger King has heard vegans' outcry and introduced an impossible burger that's a direct copycat of their whopper. Of course, we know this isn't the healthiest thing you could eat. With 1,350m grams of sodium, you're going to need a tall glass of water after indulging. That being said, though, this impossible burger does have a whopping 28.5 grams of protein, over half of your daily protein needs. With added lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles, you are getting some veggies in there, too. Remember to ask for no mayo, as the burger automatically comes with it.
Chick-fil-A Kale Crunch Salad
Since only 1 in 10 Americans consume enough fruits and veggies, this is an easy choice to include important nutrients such as vitamin K and fiber. Including ingredients like kale, cabbage, and almonds, this vegan-friendly veggie-packed option is a delish choice for those who follow a vegan lifestyle and otherwise. Unlike many other dressings, the one used on this salad is vegan-friendly too!
Panera Bread Baja Bowl
Panera Bread's Baja Bowl is a great option for vegans as it's easily customizable and is still a substantial meal without the added dairy products. Removing both the Feta cheese and Greek yogurt still leaves you with wholesome ingredients. "This bowl has dietary fiber to support your gut health and is packed with a variety of micronutrients from their tasty cilantro quinoa and brown rice, black beans, salsa verde, and tomatoes which have antioxidants to support your immune health," says Nicole Ibarra, RD, LD, registered dietitian. As a note, the listed nutritional information includes both feta and Greek yogurt, as their menu does not calculate customized nutritionals.
Taco Bell Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme
"The Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme is a Taco Bell vegetarian option that can be made vegan by ordering it fresco style, which removes dairy-based ingredients and substitutes pico de gallo," says Wan Na Chun, MPH, RD, CPT, and owner of One Pot Wellness based in Indianapolis, IN. She continues to point out that "it's a very filling option that is high in plant-based protein & fiber thanks to those black beans. I like upgrading and adding a side of guacamole to add additional healthy fats which makes this a more balanced meal."
Subway Veggie Delite
Subway's Veggie Delite sandwich is a staple for vegans and vegetarians alike. Even if you don't follow a meatless lifestyle, this is a great option as it's a smorgasbord of fresh veggies including lettuce, baby spinach, tomatoes, cucumber, green peppers, and red onion on multigrain bread. Each of these veggies provides key nutrients, and we want to highlight that baby spinach, specifically, provides 15% of your daily iron needs per 100g serving! Iron is essential for red blood cell creation and function, and it's important to ensure adequate iron consumption especially if you're vegan since you won't be receiving these nutrients through foods like red meat.
Starbucks Rolled and Steel-Cut Oatmeal
Ah, hearty oatmeal! As long as your oatmeal isn't made with milk, you really can't go wrong. Luckily, Starbucks' oatmeal isn't made with any dairy or added sugars, and with 5 grams of protein, this is a heart-healthy option for vegans and non-vegans alike. Oatmeal has been associated with staving grams off heart disease by lowering cholesterol, and oatmeal is packed with fiber to help ensure a regular and productive gut. Starbucks also offers toppings such as blueberries, almonds, and raisins if you want a little extra something in your breakfast.
Sonic Soft Pretzel Twist
We wish we could help the vegan population a bit more here, but vegan options are limited at Sonic. While the fries and onion rings are vegan—unlike many other chain restaurants—they're not the best options nutritionally. The Sonic Soft Pretzel Twist is the best snack available for vegans (just ask for no cheese packet), as it has less fat and sugars than fried options. Nixing the cheese will have an impact on the protein value of the pretzel, but this pretzel still has 2 grams of fiber and a relatively low saturated fat count as compared to other sides. Just remember to drink a tall glass of water with all that sodium.
KFC Sweet Kernel Corn
Hooray! Finally, a side that isn't fries or fruit that vegans can enjoy! KFC, although they literally have "chicken" in their name, KFC does offer sweet corn, a side that's served without any animal products. According to their website, this corn isn't cooked in butter, either, but it's always good to double-check before ordering. Corn is a wonder food as it may help lower cholesterol in certain populations, and it's also chock full of insoluble fiber which improves bowel health and helps your body process waste more productively.
Carl's Jr. Beyond Famous Star Burger
While we know this isn't what we'd traditionally constitute as "healthy," this Carl's Jr. Beyond burger is 100% vegan if you ask to hold both the cheese and mayonnaise. Holding both of these add-ons will decrease your fat, calorie, and sodium counts, so do keep that in mind when viewing the above nutritionals, as they do not have a customizable nutritional calculator. That being said, this Beyond burger does come with a whopping 30 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber, both of which are necessary to help keep you satiated and energized throughout the day. (As an extra note, we want to mention that the fried zucchini does contain milk products, so avoid them if you are vegan).
Panda Express Veggie Spring Roll
"The veggie spring rolls at Panda Express are a great side or snack when you are on the go!" says Alyssa Smolen, MS, RDN, CDN, and NJ-based nutrition content creator @arugalyssa on IG. "This is because they provide 3 grams of protein per serving and only 1.5 grams of saturated fat. They also contain tons of veggies like celery, carrots, and cabbage." We want to note that Panda Express does have a disclaimer that states they have no vegetarian options due to the fact that there may be cross-contamination in the fryers. Therefore, proceed with caution, and ask the staff if they use a separate fryer for vegan options.
Jack in the Box Side Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Jack in the Box's side salad is a healthy option for a quick vegan bite. It comes with their signature ranch dressing, so make sure to swap it for balsamic vinaigrette. We know this is a bit of a small meal, so although fries aren't the most nutrient-dense option, it may be a good idea to get a small order just to add a bit more bulk to your meal. On the bright side, this side salad no longer automatically comes with croutons which are made with non-vegan-friendly ingredients.
Popeyes Unsweetened Tea
Dear vegans: we're sorry about this one. It looks like nothing except certain beverages are vegan on the Popeyes menu, and many of their options that allowed substitutions like corn or even grits are no longer available. That being said, we want to take this moment to hype up the benefits of tea. Black tea is rich in antioxidants and lesser-known polyphenols, which may lower your risk of developing diabetes and obesity and may even aid in bringing down elevated cholesterol levels. So, as you sip on your tea, at least know you're doing something good for your body.
Dunkin' Donuts English Muffin
Dunkin's wide donut selection may not be vegan, but that doesn't mean you still can't enjoy a wholesome baked good! Their English muffin is completely vegan, just ask that they don't put any butter or cream cheese on top. Unfortunately, Dunkin' scrapped their avocado, so we suggest keeping quick and easy toppings like to-go peanut butter on hand for situations like this. Also, this English muffin does supply you with 6 grams of protein which will help keep you satisfied until your next meal. Plus, you gotta eat something alongside their delicious coffee!
McDonald's Apple Slices
We're going to be real here—McDonald's is seriously lacking when it comes to their vegan options. As their fries contain "natural beef flavoring" made with milk proteins and the McPlant burger was discontinued in 2022, the only other vegan option is the fruit maple oatmeal bowl (without cream) which, unfortunately, contains a whopping 18 grams of added sugar—or 36% of your daily value. Therefore, apple slices are an all-natural and healthy option that, although perhaps not filling on their own, provide ample amounts of potassium and vitamin C.
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