It’s going to happen to you sooner or later.
You’ll end up at a fast food restaurant for lunch or dinner.
Maybe you and your coworkers want to grab a quick lunch and you don’t have the time or budget for a regular restaurant.
Or you’re out shopping with your kids and everything is taking longer than you expected. You know it would be better to go home for lunch. But the kids are hungry now!
When you’re going to eat at one of the major chains, what are your best fast food choices? With a little planning you can make better fast food choices.
The other day I got an email from a friend. Even though he’s in good shape, he still wants to lose 7 pounds.
He told me about going out to eat with his father and sister. He decided to order the burrito which he figured it was about 1000 calories. Eating a 1000 calorie meal wouldn’t be a real problem.
After he got home he did some research. What he thought was a 1000 calorie burrito was actually 1840 calories!
And, to top it off, he’d eaten sour cream topping, bread, and the chips and salsa.
He figured the total meal was well over 3000 calories!
Let’s start with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans published in 2010 by the US government.
A new guide should be published later in 2015, but until then, the 2010 Guide is the latest one.
Even though people have raised objections against the Dietary Guidelines, it still gives us a good place to start.
The Dietary Guidelines recommends that you limit
- Sodium to less than 2300mg
- Saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories
- Dietary cholesterol to less than 300mg
- Trans fats eat as little as possible
- Refined grains eat as little as possible
- Added sugars eat as little as possible
In this article I’ll only consider items that you are likely to have as the main course for lunch or dinner. We’ll save breakfast for another article.
Also, in general, I’ll only list the number of calories in each item. Though it’s not perfect, as a good rule of thumb, the lower the calories, the lower the amount of sodium, cholesterol, fats, and added sugars.
This article looks at the 7 largest fast food chains in the U.S. based on number of locations.
The nutrition information in this article was found on the websites for each of the fast food chains and is accurate as of the time I wrote this. Of course, things will change over time.
Subway was started in 1965 by Fred Deluca and Dr. Peter Buck. Since then the chain has grown to become the largest fast food chain in the United States.
There are now 26,972 Subway stores in the U.S.
Let’s assume when you go to Subway it’s for a sandwich.
Probably your best bet is one of their 6 Grams of Fat offerings. In this category they offer 3 sandwiches that have less than 200 calories:
- Veggie Delite Mini Sub 150 calories
- Black Forest Ham Mini Sub 180 calories
- Turkey Breast Mini Sub 180 calories
Of course, the potential problem with these sandwiches is that they could be so small that they won’t keep you full for long.
If you have a larger appetite, then you could step up to the 6″ sandwiches.
Here your best bets are the following 6″ sandwiches:
- Cold Cut Combo at 360 calories (but really better to stay away from cold cuts)
- Monterey Chicken Melt 360 calories
- Subway Melt (includes cheese) 370 calories
Subway also gives you the option to build your own sandwich. But, remember, each item you put on your sandwich adds to the calories. Be especially careful when adding cheese, meat, and mayo. Just one tablespoon of mayonnaise adds 110 calories to your lunch sandwich.
I think it’s safe to say that when fast food is mentioned the brand that first comes to mind is McDonald’s.
I grew up with the “golden arches” as a favorite destination. I’ll bet many of you did, too.
The first McDonald’s was a restaurant in San Bernardino, CA owned by Dick and Mac McDonald. It was Ray Kroc who saw nationwide potential in their operation.
In 1955 Kroc created the framework for the chain and eventually bought exclusive rights to the McDonald’s name. He proceeded to build the McDonald’s chain with the philosophy that every store should prepare burgers, fries, and shakes in exactly the same way.
McDonald’s now has 14,157 stores in the U.S. Though McDonald’s started with a simple menu of burgers and fries, it now offers a bewildering array of items.
Since we’re focusing on main courses, we can think of the McDonald’s menu as being divided into 3 categories:
- Hamburgers (240 – 720 calories)
- Chicken (350 – 750 calories)
- Wraps (280 – 670 calories)
As you can see, the calorie range in each category is substantial. In other words, don’t just assume because you ordered a wrap or the chicken that you’re getting a low calorie meal.
Here’s the list of the lowest calorie sandwich in each category:
- Hamburgers – regular hamburger, 240 calories
- Chicken – Premium Grilled Chicken Classic Sandwich, 350 calories
- Wraps – Ranch Snack Wrap (Grilled) 280 calories
If the regular hamburger is too small for you, then the next lowest offering is the Quarter Pounder with cheese at 520 calories.
One message from the McDonald’s offerings is this: when you have a choice between Grilled and Crispy, always ask for the grilled offering. The grilled option is always lower in calories.
For example, the Premium McWrap Southwest Chicken (Crispy) has 670 calories, but the same sandwich grilled is only 510 calories.
While that may be true in general, it’s still very easy to overboard with pizza.
When you’re interested in pizza, you’re likely to think first of Pizza Hut since there’s always one of their 7,756 U.S. locations just around the corner.
When you visit the Pizza Hut website, one of the first things you’ll notice is their focus on ordering a pizza for home delivery.
Whether you’re having your pizza delivered or you’re enjoying eating in the restaurant, which pizza should you order?
Your best choices are in the 6″ Personal Pan Pizzas.
As you would expect, not all pizzas are created equal. Your 6″ Personal Pan Pizzas range from 550 calories up to a whopping 850 calories.
The two pizzas with the fewest calories are
Veggie Lovers – 550 calories
Hot and Twisted – 580 calories
The Hot and Twisted does contain 2400 mg of sodium. Because of that, you may be better off with the Garden Party at 600 calories.
You might be tempted to order one of the 12″ or 14″ pies. I’m sure you’ll do it with the best of intentions. You’ll think, “I’ll order a large pizza and only eat one slice.”
We all know where those good intentions will lead us …
Burger King is now the second largest hamburger chain in the world.
It was founded in 1954 and has grown to about 12,000 locations worldwide of which 7200 are in the U.S.
Though Burger King’s menu is not as extensive as McDonald’s, it still offers so many choices that it would be easy to get confused and end up eating a lot more than you intended.
If you want one of their traditional Whopper’s they range in calories from 300 (Junior Whopper) up to a massive 1160 calories for the Triple Whopper.
You can do well with their Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich which has only 410 calories. Ask for it without the mayo and this drops down to merely 320 calories.
Perhaps your best bet at Burger King is to opt for the Morningstar Veggie Burger at 390 calories (only 320 calories when you order it without mayo).
The Wendy’s hamburger chain is not well-known outside of the U.S. Though they have over 6500 locations worldwide, 6,186 of them are in the States.
Wendy’s was founded by Dave Thomas in Ohio in 1969. The chain is named after Dave’s daughter Melinda Lou “Wendy” Thomas.
Besides hamburgers, Wendy’s is famous for its 1984 TV commercial with actress Clara Peller asking, “Where’s the beef?”If Wendy’s is in your dining plans, which of their menu offerings should you order?
Wendy’s offers several sandwiches that have fewer than 600 calories:
- Grilled Chicken Wrap 260 calories
- Spicy Chicken Wrap 340 calories
- Crispy Chicken Sandwich 350 calories
- Crispy Chicken Ceasar Wrap 410 calories
- Spicy Chicken Sandwich 510 calories
- Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy 1/4 lb. Single 580 calories
Like all of the fast food restaurants in this article, Wendy’s has nutritional information on their website.
However, when I looked at their site, it was only possible to view one menu item at a time. This “feature” makes it very difficult to quickly compare choices to find those that are lowest in calories, sodium, and fat.
Taco Bell serves Mexican style food at their 5,695 U.S. locations.
They offer extensive nutrition information on their website. The downside is the nutrition data is shown as white characters on a black and purple background. These color choices don’t make it easy to ferret out the info you need to make good, healthy choices at Taco Bell.
Because of the nature of Mexican food, there are numerous menu items at Taco Bell that you might order for lunch or dinner.
Here are the major categories and your best choices in each of them:
The Fresco Chicken Soft Taco has only 140 calories
On the high end there’s the Double Decker Taco Supreme at 350 calories
Be careful with the small tacos. You’ll probably need to eat 2 or 3 to feel full.
Taco Bell’s burritos range from 370 – 870 calories. One of your best picks in this category is the Black Bean Burrito at 390 calories.
All of the Cheesy Gorditas have 490 calories and 1g of trans fat.
Don’t fool yourself and think just because it’s a salad that it’s low in calories.
The Fiesta Taco Salads are between 740-780 calories and have either 55 or 70 mg of cholesterol.
All 3 of the Chalupas are fairly low calorie. The chicken and steak Chalupas have only 350 calories and the beef is 370 calories.
Though they are all fairly high in cholesterol, they don’t contain much sodium.
The question you should consider is whether one of the Chalupas will be enough to leave you feeling full.
The first KFC opened in 1952, though Colonel Harland Sanders had been serving travelers meals since 1930.
There are now over 18,000 KFC locations around the world, with 4,618 of them in the U.S.
Let’s assume that since you’re planing to eat at KFC, you’re going to eat some chicken. Which of their 4 styles should you order?
Here’s the numbers for 1 piece of breast meat:
Clearly, your best bet is to go for the Kentucky Grilled since it’s lowest in calories, cholesterol, and sodium.
Your Fast Food Success Strategy
We could modify that slightly for our fast food restaurants and say “there’s no such thing as truly healthy fast food.”
When you’re going out to a fast food chain for a meal, you have a couple choices.
You could decide that you’re going to enjoy yourself and not worry at all about making healthy choices. There’s certainly nothing wrong with doing that every once in a while. You can always get back on track the next day.
You could also decide that you’re going to enjoy your meal AND choose the healthiest options on the fast food menu.
How do you do that?
Here’s the simple steps you need to follow:
1. Plan Ahead
All of the fast food restaurants mentioned in this article have websites. Many of them also feature mobile apps.
Use these tools to plan in advance what you’ll order and how much you’ll order.
You’ll make better decisions at home or in your office than you will inside the store.
2. Don’t Order Sugary Drinks
Stay far away from beverages sold in the fast food chains.
There’s mounting evidence that even the low-sugar and zero calorie drinks are bad for your health and your weight.
3. Don’t Make it a Habit
Don’t trick yourself by thinking your eating out at a fast food joint because you need a treat.
Remember, a treat is something you do rarely.
Once or twice a week is not a treat. That’s already a habit.