Are there any healthy fast-food options? Actually, there are quite a few. From veggie-stacked sandwiches to bowls bursting with flavor, these healthy fast-food options prove you can score convenient, inexpensive eats while still scoring plenty of nutrients.
The key is to pick menu items that are nutritionally balanced, according to Blanca Garcia, R.D.N., a registered dietitian at Health Canal. In general, this means choosing a meal with a satisfying combo of carbs, protein, and fat — and, when possible, plenty of fiber-rich veggies. It may also entail ordering eats that are relatively low in things such as sodium and saturated fat — which tend to be rather abundant in fast food — as excess intake may lead to conditions such as high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, respectively
Here are 10 healthy fast-food items to order when on the move:
Subway Veggie Delite Sandwich
Veggie lovers, this healthy fast-food order is for you. Thanks to its crunchy combo of lettuce, cucumbers, green peppers, and tomatoes, the Veggie Delite sandwich is Garcia’s top choice at Subway. Unlike the majority of Subway sandwiches, it’s free of deli meat, which is often high in sodium.
Plus, it’s served on multigrain bread, a type of complex carb that’s generally higher in fiber and digested more slowly than its simple carb counterparts (see: white bread).
Taco-Bell-Black Bean Soft Taco
If you find yourself at a Taco Bell, consider ordering two of these tacos for a meal that’s not only packed with protein and fiber but also lower in sodium than other menu items, says Katherine Basbaum, R.D., a registered dietitian at the Heart and Vascular Center at the University of Virginia. Case in point: Two black bean soft tacos contain 740 milligrams of sodium, almost half the amount in the restaurant’s chicken quesadilla, which has 1,240 milligrams.
Those 740 milligrams of sodium fit well into the recommended daily intake of 2,300 milligrams per day — which, BTW, is “not an easy feat when you’re eating out,” notes Basbaum. (Remember, eating too much sodium over time can increase the risk of high blood pressure.) And if you’d like to add veggies for extra crunch and fiber, don’t hesitate to pile on the tomatoes, onions, and extra lettuce.
Starbucks Chicken and Hummus Protein Box
Offering 7 grams of fiber and 22 grams of protein, “this is the perfect on-the-go snack or mini-meal when you’re in a rush,” says Meshulam. The veggies (e.g. baby carrots and snap peas) provide fiber while the grilled chicken breast offers lean protein. This type of protein is ideal because it’s low in saturated fat but still offers satiating calories.
And then, of course, there’s the hummus which also contains protein and healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, due to its base of chickpeas. In a way, this healthy fast-food item is like a Lunchables for grownups.
Shake Shack ‘Shroom Burger
For a vegetarian option, consider the mushroom burger at Shake Shack, as suggested by Paula Doebrich, M.P.H., R.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Happea Nutrition. It features a crispy Portobello mushroom that’s filled (yes, filled) with cheddar and muenster cheeses, along with lettuce, tomato, and the restaurant’s “secret” ShackSauce. Specifically, the sandwich might be the way to go if you’re looking to limit your sodium intake, as it contains less sodium (670 milligrams, to be exact) than other options on the menu, notes Doebrich.
Likewise, should you be looking for a heart-conscious item, this healthy fast-food item is lower in saturated fat than other burgers at Shake Shack, she adds. A high intake of saturated fat can lead to high blood cholesterol, a major risk factor of heart disease. On that note, if you’d like to bring in some heart-healthy unsaturated fats — looking at you, omega-3s — add avocado to this burger.
Wendy’s Avocado Chicken Salad
When it comes to eating at Wendy’s, opt for the avocado chicken salad, suggests Isa Kujawski, M.P.H., R.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Mea Nutrition. The healthy fast-food option consists of grilled chicken breast (hello, lean protein!), avocado, romaine lettuce, and tomatoes. It also comes with cheese and dairy-based dressing, which can add calories to the meal, should you want the extra bit of fuel.
However, if you’d prefer something on the lighter side (or if you’re lactose-intolerant), you can skip the dressing or ask for the restaurant’s pomegranate vinaigrette instead. Pro tip: Order it with a plain baked potato on the side for a well-balanced meal of veggies, carbs, fat, and protein, says Kujawski.
Panera Green Goddess Cobb Salad
If you’re at Panera, consider ordering the cobb salad with chicken and vinaigrette dressing — a healthy fast-food lunch (or dinner!) that gets two thumbs up from Karen Raden, M.S., R.D., C.C.N., registered dietitian and certified clinical nutritionist at Raden Wellness. Full of fresh, crunchy veggies such as arugula, baby kale, romaine, grape tomatoes, and pickled red onions, “there is a lot of fiber in this salad,” says Raden.
Not only is fiber a key nutrient for supporting satiety but it also keeps your system running smoothly, which can be especially important when you’re on the road. The menu item also has heart-healthy avocado, along with grilled chicken and hard-boiled egg, aka sources of satisfying lean protein.
Chipotle Whole30 Salad Bowl with Chicken
Chipotle offers myriad nutrient-dense meal choices, such as the Whole30 Salad Bowl, says Meshulam. This healthy order offers lean protein in the form of grilled chicken, essential fats from guac, and fiber from veggies (think: lettuce and bell peppers).
For an even more filling bowl, you can also add beans and brown rice, says Meshulam. Both ingredients are high in fiber, which will be digested slowly and over time, thus keeping you satiated for longer.
McDonald’s Garden Salad with Crispy Chicken
Of all the sandwiches and salads at McDonald’s, the chain’s Garden Salad with Crispy Chicken gets the green light from Garcia. That’s because it offers carbs, fat, and protein from the chicken, along with a variety of colorful vegetables (romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn).
The restaurant also has two other salad options, but unfortunately, neither includes protein, making them less satiating and thus, not necessarily the “healthiest” or practical choice. While a grilled chicken dish would contain less saturated fat than that which includes the crispy kind, the restaurant doesn’t seem to offer any grilled chicken items. So, all things considered, this menu option may be the way to go if you’re looking for the most nutrient-dense meal at McDonald’s.
Panera Mediterranean Bowl
The mix of protein and fiber in this bowl makes for a balanced, healthy option, according to Kujawski. For starters, it contains hummus, grilled chicken, and Greek yogurt, all of which offer satiating lean protein. It also has cilantro lime brown rice (yum!), quinoa, and veggies such as arugula and grape tomatoes.
These ingredients are teeming with fiber, which is crucial for kicking hunger to the curb. Moreover, the fiber will balance your blood sugar levels, adds Kujawski, helping you stave off those dreaded energy crashes throughout the day.
Chick-Fil-A Grilled Chicken Sandwich
For a filling meal, try the grilled chicken breast sammie at Chick-Fil-A, suggests Raden. Featuring chicken seasoned with a lemon-herb marinated, multigrain bread, lettuce, and tomato, “this sandwich is much lower in calories and saturated fat than Chick-Fil-A’s signature fried options,” making it an ideal choice should you want to limit either component, says Raden.
“It’s [also] high in protein, which helps keep you full and supports lean muscle mass.” If you’d like, “round out your meal with a Kale Crunch Side salad for a dose of vitamin A, folate, and vitamin K,” she adds.
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