Need to grab a meal on the go? Join the club. In the US, 50% of consumers eat fast food at least twice a week—and the number is increasing thanks to rising grocery costs.
But fast food meals can be a nutrition nightmare, containing an average of 1,193 calories, 2,110 milligrams of sodium, 68 grams of sugar and 14 grams of saturated fat. That’s nearly the recommended daily limit of sodium for adults, and more than the daily limit of saturated fat—just in one meal. Too much saturated fat, sugar, and sodium is linked to heart disease. And eating too many ultra-processed foods, like burgers and fries, may lead to cognitive decline.
“One meal is not going to make or break your overall health; all foods, including indulgent foods, can fit into an overall healthy diet,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, FAND, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes. “When it comes to making healthy choices, pay attention to portion size, protein, fiber, fat, sodium and added sugars.”
The next time you’re on the road, pressed for time, or too tired to cook, choose one of these eight healthy options.
1. Dunkin: Wake-Up Wrap
Courtesy of Dunkin
It might be considered a “breakfast sandwich” but Sheth believes the Wake-Up Wrap is a good option at any time of the day because it’s low in carbohydrates and calories and offers 7 grams of protein. Ordering the veggie version (with no bacon or turkey sausage) helps lower the fat and sodium content.
The wrap might help stave off afternoon hunger pangs but Sheth warns that at just 180 calories, it’s not going to be super filling.
“You may still be hungry so consider enjoying this sandwich with some fruit or side salad,” she adds.
2. Starbucks: Tomato and Mozzarella on Focaccia
The vegetarian sandwich made with mozzarella cheese, roasted tomatoes, basil pesto and spinach is a good source of protein and contains just two grams of sugar and 360 calories.
Although the combination of veggies, carbs and protein will leave you feeling full, according to Joan Salge Blake EdD, RDN, program director and clinical professor of nutrition at Boston University, consider adding an apple to up the fiber content of the meal.
3. Panera Bread: Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken
Courtesy of Panera Bread
The fresh salad is chock full of healthy veggies like romaine, mandarin oranges, strawberries, blueberries and pineapple and topped with grilled chicken.
The entrée size salad is filling enough for lunch or supper and comes in at just 350 calories with 23 grams of protein, eight grams of fiber and 1.5 grams of saturated fat.
“The protein and fiber (in the chicken and poppyseeds) provide satiety that will help you feel full,” Blake says. “It’s a lot of food without a lot of calories.”
4. Subway: 6-inch Veggie Delite Sandwich
Go ahead and pile on the veggies. Spinach, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, green peppers, pickles, olives and other fresh vegetables add minimal calories and a lot of flavor and make the six-inch vegetarian sandwich extra filling.
Request multigrain bread; it’s fewer calories, fat and carbs than options like Italian herb or honey oat breads.
Even with all of the toppings, including cheese, the sandwich is just 210 calories and has three grams of fat and 10 grams of fiber. Vicki Shanta Retelny RDN, a nutritionist and author of The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Foodscalls it “an excellent source of fiber.”
5. Burger King: Impossible Whopper
Courtesy of Burger King
The next time you go through the drive-thru, order an Impossible Whopper. Calorie-wise, there isn’t a big difference between the Impossible Whopper (630 calories) and the traditional Whopper (670 calories) but the plant-based protein patty is lower in overall fat and saturated fat.
With 1,350 milligrams of sodium and 13.5 grams of sugar, the Impossible Whopper is far from a health food but it’s a good option when a burger craving hits.
6. Taco Bell: Soft Taco Supreme
The best thing about the soft taco supreme is the ability to customize the ingredients: Blake suggests skipping the ground beef in favor of grilled chicken to reduce the saturated fat, and add black beans for fiber and guacamole for healthy fat.
“You can also ask them to double the amount of tomatoes and lettuce to make sure you’re getting enough vegetables,” she adds. Onions and jalapeno peppers can be added, too.
Even with the extras, a single taco is just 285 calories and has 3.5 grams of saturated fat. Blake admits that 290 milligrams of sodium is high but “good for fast food.”
7. Chipotle: Lifestyle Bowl
Courtesy of Chipotle
The fast casual chain has vegan and vegetarian bowls and bowls that are suitable for paleo and keto diets; their high protein bowl, made with black beans, double chicken, cheese, rice, salsa and shredded cheese contains a whopping 82 grams of protein.
“The combination of plant-based protein, brown rice, black beans or pinto beans provide an unbelievable amount of fiber,” Blake adds.
You can also request extras like roasted chili-corn salsa, fresh tomato salsa and guacamole to up your veggie intake.
8. Chick-fil-A: Grilled Chicken Sandwich
Of all of the sandwiches on the chicken chain’s menu, Blake gives the grilled chicken sandwich top honors.
The sandwich, made with a multigrain brioche bun, grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato and honey roasted BBQ sauce, has 390 calories, 28 grams of protein and two grams of saturated fat. To cut back on the 44 grams of carbs in the sandwich, Blake advises taking advantage of the menu option to swap the bun for a lettuce wrap.
Compared to the other chicken sandwiches on the Chick-fil-A menu, which have upwards of 1,700 milligrams of sodium—a whopping 73% of the recommended daily sodium intake—there are 770 milligrams of sodium in the grilled chicken sandwich.