I’m going to go out on a limb and say that part of deciding to eat at fast food restaurants is making peace with the fact that you’re not going to be eating your healthiest meal. And that’s fine occasionally – so long as it doesn’t become too much of a habit. Everything in moderation is often the best policy when it comes to leading a healthy lifestyle.
But if you’re counting calories, fast food healthy choices do exist, believe it or not. Although the healthiest fast food options are not always as obvious as you might think.
Whether you’re having fast food because of what’s in your wallet, how much time you have, your kids or (admit it) a craving, it doesn’t always mean having to commit to the subsequent heavy, greasy guilt trip that inevitably comes with it.
Yes, you can still go to your favorite fast-food or fast-casual restaurants and eat well. We’ve outlined a few of the healthiest fast food options at 10 popular chains to prove it.
First things first, let’s understand some basics about calories. All of the following fast food healthy choices are based on calories, so what exactly is a calorie and why do we count them?
A calorie is a unit of energy that your body obtains from eating or drinking something. Ideally, you want to strike a balance where you are putting in as much energy as you lose in a day because if you consume more than you burn, the excess could be stored as fat. Check out the video below to learn more:
It makes sense why calorie counting is the focus of so many diet plans, but it’s important to note that is not the only thing you should consider if you want to lose weight healthily.
Per the most recently published Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020), women should consume an average of around 2,000 calories per day, while men should have about 2,500.
These are estimates based on average weight, physical activity and muscle mass, they are not absolutes. Depending on factors such as your age and activity level, you may require more or less calorie intake in a day. Take this Dr. Oz quiz to help you to determine the perfect calorie range for your metabolism.
Based on key recommendations highlighted in the guidelines, a healthy eating pattern also limits saturated fats, trans fats, added sugar and sodium.
Within your calorie limit, it is suggested that you should consume:
- Less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars
- Less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats
- Less than 2,300 milligrams per day of sodium
Salad does not always mean healthy
One point to keep in mind once you’ve been lured into the glow of the golden arches – or bell, or smiling colonel – or whatever glow it may be, is not to be fooled by the common misconception that salads are usually the healthiest fast food options on the menu.
After you’ve factored in the amount of sugar and fat in some heavy salad dressings – not to mention all the fried bits that may be tossed into it – salads can easily have just as much, if not more, calories than a basic hamburger.
Take, for example, the pecan crusted chicken salad at TGI Fridays. With mixed greens, kale, dried cranberries, mandarin orange, pecans, celery, blue cheese, pecan-crusted chicken breast and balsamic vinaigrette, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Well, one full serving contains 1,080 calories. That’s basically half of all the calories you should consume in an entire day in a salad. The Jack Daniel’s flat iron steak (without sides), on the other hand, only has 589 calories. So if it’s any consolation, sometimes you’re better off just going with the steak (you know you want to, anyway).
The healthiest fast food options
Now let’s get to the good stuff. As of the publishing of this post, here are some of the top fast food healthy choices on the menus of 10 popular restaurants based on calories. All nutritional information has been obtained from each restaurant’s menu.
Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait: 150 calories / 2 g fat / 70 mg sodium
Egg White Delight McMuffin: 260 calories / 8 g fat / 750 mg sodium
Egg McMuffin: 300 calories / 12 g fat / 750 mg sodium
Premium Southwest Salad (without chicken and dressing): 140 calories / 4.5 g fat / 150 mg sodium
Chicken McNuggets 4-piece: 190 calories / 12 g fat/ 360 mg sodium
Hamburger: 240 calories / 8 g fat / 480 mg sodium
Croissan’wich Egg & Cheese: 300 calories / 15 g fat / 580 mg sodium
Chicken Nuggets 4-piece: 170 calories / 11 g fat / 310 mg sodium
Hamburger: 220 calories / 8 g fat / 380 mg sodium
Whopper Jr.: 300 calories / 16 g fat / 460 mg sodium
Grilled Chicken Salad with Tendergrill Chicken (no dressing): 320 calories / 14 g fat / 650 mg sodium
Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich (w/o mayo): 320 calories / 18 g fat / 610 mg sodium
Sausage & Egg Burrito: 280 calories / 20 g fat / 70 mg sodium
Oatmeal Bar: 290 calories / 10 g fat / 230 mg sodium
Steel Cut Oatmeal 330 calories / 12 g fat / 250 mg sodium
Jr. Hamburger: 240 calories / 10 g fat / 510 mg sodium
Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad (half size): 240 calories / 8 g fat / 550 mg sodium
Grilled Chicken Go Wrap: 270 calories / 10 g fat / 640 mg sodium
Breakfast Soft Taco – Egg & Cheese: 170 calories / 9 g fat / 330 mg sodium
Fresco Soft Taco – Shredded Chicken: 140 calories / 2.5 g fat / 470 mg sodium
Crunch Taco: 170 calories / 9 g fat / 310 g sodium
Shredded Chicken Mini Quesadilla: 180 calories / 8 g fat / 530 mg sodium
House Side Salad (no dressing): 15 calories / 0 g fat / 10 mf sodium
Kentucky Grilled Chicken Drumstick: 80 calories / 3 g fat / 230 mg sodium
Original Recipe Chicken Breast: 390 calories / 19 g fat / 1330 mg sodium
Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat: 240 calories / 15 g fat / 310 mg sodium
Wild Blueberry Mini Scone: 160 calories / 7 g fat / 300 mg sodium
1 cup Low-Fat Vegetarian Black Bean Soup: 90 calories / 1 g fat / 74 mg sodium
Half Seasonal Greens Salad (no dressing): 90 calories / 6 g fat / 75 mg sodium
Superfruit Power Smoothie with Greek Yogurt: 120 calories / 0 g fat / 0 mg sodium
Half Caesar Salad (no dressing): 160 calories / 13 g fat / 310 mg sodium
Half Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich on Tomato Basil: 230 calories / 6 g fat / 590 mg sodium
Side House Salad with Breadstick (no dressing): 210 calories / 7 g fat / 290 mg sodium
Turkey Burger: 250 calories / 11 g fat / 1250 mg sodium
Cobb Salad with Grilled Chicken (lunch portion): 300 calories / 19 g fat / 530 mg sodium
Bruschetta Chicken Pasta (half portion): 430 calories / 18 g fat / 440 mg sodium
Southwest Black Bean Soup (lunch): 180 calories / 6 g fat / 1230 mg sodium
6 oz. USDA Top Sirloin Grill Masterpiece: 230 calories / 4 g fat / 1450 mg sodium
Cedar Grilled Salmon Grill Masterpiece: 340 calories / 4.5 g fa t/ 1110 mg sodium
Thai Shrimp Salad: 370 calories / 19 g fat/ 1720 mg sodium
Tilapia (lunch portion): 210 calories / 6 g fat / 90 mg sodium
Farm-Raised Catfish, Blackened (lunch portion): 220 calories / 8 g fat / 350 mg sodium
Garlic Shrimp Scampi: 260 calories / 20 g fat / 440 mg sodium
Salmon (lunch portion): 310 calories / 19 g fat / 90 mg sodium
Grilled Shrimp Salad & Manhattan Clam Chowder Lunch Special: 330 calories / 9 g fat / 1280 mg sodium
Lighthouse Maple-Glazed Chicken: 370 calories / 5 g fat / 870 mg sodium
Grilled Maine Lobster Tail: 390 calories / 37 g fat / 650 mg sodium
1 cup Southwest Chicken Soup: 110 calories / 5 g fat / 660 mg sodium
Fresco Salad: 140 calories / 10 g fat / 260 mg sodium
Grilled Chicken Dippers: 290 calories / 21 g fat / 800 mg sodium
6 oz. Sirloin with Grilled Avocado: 410 calories / 20 g fat / 1610 mg sodium
Spicy Chile Chicken: 420 calories / 11 g fat / 1750 mg sodium
So now you know. You can have your fast food and be healthy, too. But try not to overthink it too much. If you’re routinely exercising and otherwise making smart food and lifestyle choices every day, an occasional cheat or treat is well-deserved.
Were you surprised to find out about some of these healthiest fast food options? Are you curious about the items at any other fast food restaurants? Tell us in the comments.