Think dietitians don't eat fast food? Well, this one does! While takeout isn't a part of my daily routine, I have been known to hit up my local mall food court, my neighborhood sandwich shop, and the drive thru.
While I'm often busy, I don't make that my reason for heading out for fast food. Sometimes I just really enjoy having someone else cook for me and having the food be prepared quickly—and not spending a lot. While you can order the 900-calorie burger or the gigantic pancake stack with more added sugar than you're supposed to eat in a week, there are plenty of healthy options to choose from.
Is there such a thing as healthy fast food? I'm a dietitian who eats fast food occasionally. When I'm on a road trip with my boyfriend, we'll often stop at Subway for salads or veggie subs.
And when I'm on the go all day, I'll sometimes pick up a Bistro Box from Starbucks. I’ve crafted my my own list of healthier fast-food ideas to share with you. (My list does not include a Triple Whopper or a Footlong sub!)
Yup, I said healthy fast food! Just use this advice from my dietitian colleagues and myself. The only thing we're super sizing is your healthy order know-how. Keep reading if you're ready to make better choices to go along with your fries.
How to Order Healthy at Fast Food Restaurants
During a typical weekend, I’m running errands and stopping for lunch while out and about. One of my go-tos is Panera—I really like the “You Pick Two” option. So I was surprised to see that fast-casual restaurants like Panera can have much higher calorie counts per meal than fast-food places like Taco Bell.
A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that entrees at fast-casual restaurants have significantly more calories—199, on average—versus meals at fast-food restaurants.
Researchers looked at 28 fast-casual restaurants and 34 fast-food restaurants. Here’s a sampling of the findings of average calorie count:
- El Pollo Loco: 562 calories per meal
- Subway: 394 calories per meal
- Taco Bell: 414 calories per meal
- Tropical Smoothie Café: 537 calories per meal
- Baja Fresh: 839 calories per meal
- Moe’s Southwest Grill: 783 calories per meal
- Panera Bread: 583 calories per meal
- Potbelly Sandwich Shop: 625 calories per meal
These results may be in part due to many entrees including side items and sauce, which can add a significant amount of calories to a meal. Consider ordering sauce on the side and swapping a side—say, French fries for apple slices, to save calories.
Need help ordering? Here are reasonable healthy choices at fast-food and fast-casual restaurants:
- El Pollo Loco Chicken Tortilla Soup (large, no tortilla strips): 280 calories
- Panera Bread You Pick Two: Cup Chicken Noodle Soup (120 calories) + ½ Turkey on Whole Grain Sandwich (270 calories)
- Potbelly Sandwich Shop T-K-Y Skinny Sandwich: 300 calories
- Tropical Smoothie Café Baja Chicken Bowl: 470 calories
Want some low-carb fast food options to grab on the go? A low-carb meal might seem like a far reach with buns, fries, and shakes aplenty at most fast-food restaurants.
So you might be surprised by this Prevention.com list that my nutritionist pals and I put together. It features ten pretty delicious offerings that'll help you stick to a low-carb meal plan. Also find our how you can order healthy fast food at Panda Express!
The Healthiest Restaurant Meals
I love trying new restaurants—whether I'm in my own neighborhood or passing through another state or country. Because many restaurant dishes are more caloric than ones I'd make at home, I aim to keep the calories in check by ordering a salad or a side veggie with my entrée.
While at a neighborhood bistro last weekend, for instance, I shared a white pizza with truffle oil (with slices left
to take home) and a watermelon-and-feta salad.
So if you’re choosing restaurant over fast-food food, are you really saving on calories, fat and sodium? Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign set out to answer this question.
Their study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that the extra calories and fat consumed by U.S. fast-food eaters and restaurant diners were about the same: People eating at fast-food restaurants ate an extra 190 calories and 11 grams fat, while restaurant diners took in an additional 187 calories and 10 grams fat.
The amount of extra sodium consumed by the two groups differed the most of any nutrient group studied: Fast-food
eaters ate an extra 297 milligrams, while restaurant diners had an additional 412 milligrams.
Of course, with a little know-how, you can easily order healthier dishes at restaurants. Here are some to consider:
- Panda Express' String Bean Chicken Breast: 190 calories, 9 grams fat
- Ruby Tuesday New Orleans Seafood: 336 calories, 11 grams fat
- Applebee’s Blackened Cajun Salmon: 240 calories, 9 grams fat
- Olive Garden Spaghetti with Marinara Sauce (lunch portion): 310 calories, 7 grams fat
Want even more healthy restaurant food ideas? No time today to whip up a fast and healthy meal at home? It's more than OK to rely on shortcuts, especially if they're healthy ones.
So give these go-to orders from top nutritionists in my ReadersDigest.com article a glance. I promise you I'm talking about more than salad! How does your usual order stack up to these picks?
Amy's Recipe of the Week: Wild Blueberry Lavender Smoothie
A smoothie might seem like a no-brainer pick when it comes to healthy fast food. But some smoothies have heaping amounts of added sugar. If you have a few minutes at home, swap one of those sugary smoothies for this wild blueberry one with no added sugar at all!
Bonus: You can whip this up and pour it into an on-the-go container on a busy morning. A copycat breakfast sandwich is also a tasty commuter-friendly pick.
A version of this content originally appeared on WeightWatchers.com.
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