Your Guide to Healthy Eating at Fast-Food Restaurants

If you make the right choices, an occasional to-go meal is OK

When you think about healthy eating, fast food doesn’t typically come to mind. And with good reason.

Decked-out burgers, French fries, milkshakes and other offerings can quickly add up to a day’s worth of calories and saturated fat in a single meal. But new, healthier options and a greater awareness of food preparation and ingredients make it easy to stay within your calorie budget.

Leigh Tracy, dietitian at the Center for Endocrinology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., suggests using mobile apps to review nutrition information ahead of time. Good ones include CalorieKing and GoMeals.

Check out these other tips from top nutrition experts the next time you need to get your order to-go:

Burger Joints

Some burger eateries like In-N-Out allow you to order burgers “protein style,” says Allison Hagendorf, certified health and lifestyle coach and TV and radio host. “You’ll get a burger in a lettuce wrap instead of a bun. And skip the cheese,” she says.

And there’s no secret about the ‘secret sauce,’ says Rene Ficek, lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating, a home-delivery meal plan program.

“Nine times out of 10 it is a mayonnaise-based sauce, maybe with a little ketchup and some spices thrown in,” he says. “Just like mayonnaise and butter, about 100 calories per tablespoon. Stick with ketchup and mustard.” Ask the restaurant not to butter the bun and save another 100 calories.

Beef and broccoli, kung pao chicken and sweet and sour pork can [each] be upwards of 900 calories and 28 to 45 grams of fat.

— Monique Richard, registered dietitian

When available, request a different cheese topping, Ficek says. “Mozzarella, provolone or feta typically have fewer calories than Swiss or American cheese.”

As a side, avoid the fries and swap them out for a salad or apple slices. “Potatoes act like a fat sponge,” Ficek says. If you’re set on a potato, choose baked rather than fried, mashed or au gratin.

For dessert, opt for yogurt parfaits. “They are a great way to satisfy a sweet tooth while providing fiber and a protein boost,” he says.

Lastly, skip the milkshakes and soda and choose either water, a no-sugar-added beverage such as unsweetened iced tea or low-fat/nonfat milk, Tracy says.

Take-Out Chinese

Chinese food can be a nutritional nightmare if you don’t pay attention to the ingredients and preparation methods, says Monique Richard, registered dietitian and adjunct faculty in nutrition at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.

“Orange peel chicken, beef and broccoli, kung pao chicken and sweet and sour pork can [each] be upwards of 900 calories and 28 to 45 grams of fat. That’s more fat in one meal than some people need in an entire day,” notes Richard.

Opt instead for steamed vegetables, sauces on the side,and grilled or lightly sautéed chicken, shrimp or beef.

Mexican on the Go

Refried beans, deep-fried tortilla chips and vegetables sautéed heavily in oil can be a sodium and calorie overload, Richard says.  Instead, she advises, “ask your server if they have black beans as a side with the rice, can bake some tortilla shells as the chips or can go light on the sautéing oil.”

At only 230 calories apiece, fish tacos at a place like Baja Fresh are another good choice.

In addition, enjoy salsa with a small amount of guacamole and request extra shredded lettuce in your fajitas to up your vegetable intake.

Pizza Places

Everyone loves a slice of pizza. But it’s tough to modify this classic, Hagendorf says. So, “order your absolute favorite and limit yourself to two slices,” she suggests. Also, “drink a lot of water and don’t be tempted to drink it with soda,” advises Hagendorf. Thin crust can also save calories as long as you don’t make up for it by eating extra slices.

Chicken Eateries

Always go for grilled, not fried, chicken and use dipping sauces in moderation, Hagendorf says. A grilled chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-A, for example, is only 320 calories and 5 grams of fat. “Ketchup, barbecue sauce, sweet-and-sour and honey sauces are all delicious but packed with sugar, so use them sparingly,” Hagendorf adds.


In general, Subway’s chopped salads range from 200 to 300 calories and have between only 1 to 4 grams of fat, making them a healthy option at this outlet. That’s generally without the dressing, however.

“Your best choice is the oven-roasted chicken salad with low-fat balsamic vinaigrette (280 calories) with sliced apples on the side,” Tracy says. Or go for the turkey breast sandwich on nine-grain wheat bread. And be sure to order dressing on the side; dip your fork in the dressing and use it to spear your salad leaves instead of pouring the dressing over the top.


A simple burger here is only 240 calories and 8 grams of fat, but avoid the fried offerings and double- and triple-decker sandwiches, which quickly rack up calories, sodium and fat.

The grilled chicken sandwich without mayo and with extra lettuce and tomato makes another good choice, starting at around 350 calories.

For beverages, go with a small sugar-free French Vanilla Iced Latte with skim milk at less than 100 calories or a small McCafe Iced Caramel Mocha (no whipped cream, non fat milk and skip the chocolate caramel syrup) at only 80 calories, Tracy suggests.

Salads such as the Premium Asian Salad with or without added chicken and others clock in at less than 300 calories and under 10 grams of fat.


Coffee itself is virtually calorie-free, but add flavored syrups, whipped cream and other accoutrements, and a healthy beverage quickly becomes a fat bomb.

For something a little more flavorful than your basic brew, Tracy recommends you select one of the following: Tall Caramel Frappuccino Light (100 calories), Tall Nonfat Iced Vanilla Latte (120 calories), Tall Skinny Vanilla Latte (100 calories), Grande unsweetened Shaken Black Tea Lemonade (45 calories), Café Americano (10 calories) or Nonfat Cappuccino (60 calories).

The Bottom Line

Moderate portions, choosing grilled over fried and going easy on high-sugar menu items make the occasional fast-food meal easily fit into a healthy lifestyle.



By Linda Melone, CSCS
Next Avenue contributor Linda Melone is a California-based freelance writer and certified personal trainer specializing in health, fitness and wellness for women over 50.

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