How to Enjoy Fast Food While Sticking to Your Low-Carb Diet

hamburger wrapped in lettuce
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Who among us has not been tempted to pick up a meal at a fast food restaurant when on the run? According to the National Center for Health Statistics, no less than 50 million Americans make that choice every day.

Moreover, 44 percent of Americans indulge in fast foods at least once weekly, while 34 percent of American kids pay a visit to a favorite fast food chain every day.

Fast food habits inarguably account for the high rates of obesity in the U.S. in which anywhere from 21 percent to 35 percent of adults will be obese (depending on which state you live in). Among children and teens, the rate hovers around 20 percent, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tips for Eating Low-Carb at Fast Food Restaurants

The fact that you're eating fast food doesn't mean that you have to eat unhealthily or abandon the rules of your low-carb diet. Today, an increasing number of chains have begun to embrace healthier menus to address the changing dietary habits of many Americans.

Sure, most of the food will still be unsuitable for a low-carb diet, but, by following a few simple rules, you can do yourself proud the next time you pull up for a quick meal at the drive-thru counter.

Rule 1: Check the Nutritional Information in Advance

Before heading to your favorite fast food joint, check the nutritional information of their menus items and see how they compared to others in your area. Some chains will offer healthier options to lure in dieters, while other will not even pretend to make an effort.

Even with fast food restaurants like Hardee's and Carl's Jr., both of which are owned by the same company and have nearly identical menus, the difference can often be enormous. A quick scan of their menus will reveal that many of low-carb options at Hardee's are nowhere be found on the Carl's Jr.'s menu.

Many fast food chains will not only offer nutritional information on their websites they allow you to break down the ingredients to know where the carbs are hidden. In this way, you can decide which part of a meal to keep and which to discard.

Others offer online nutritional calculators that allow you to pick and choose menu items and see how many carbohydrates, calories, fat, protein, and fiber you'd be indulging in.

Rule 2: Order Salads With Grilled Chicken

While chicken is a mainstay of fast food salads, some chains are today offering grilled steak or shrimp, as well. Any of these would be a good choice for a low-carb meal as long as you can exclude any individual ingredient that may be high in carbs.

With that being said, don't assume that all grilled meats are some the same. Some fast food restaurants will inject their birds with gluten-containing flavor enhancers or prep their beef with sugar-based marinades, both of which will invariably add carbs. As with all other food items, check the nutritional information before ordering.

To ensure your salad is suitable for a low-carb diet:

  • Skip the croutons, tortilla strips, and any crunchy add-ons.
  • Pick a low-sugar salad dressing, like oil and vinegar. Be wary of certain "low-fat" dressings that often contain astronomical amounts of sugar or corn syrup. If needed, ask the server for some lemon to squeeze on your salad if no other dressing options are available.
  • If having chicken or shrimp, make sure that it is neither breaded nor fried. It should be plainly grilled and should not have been rolled in seasoned flour which can add carbs.

Rule 3: Order the Burger Without the Bun

Thanks to an increasing popularity of low-carb diets, many fast food chains today are happy to sell you a burger without the bun. Some chains, like Hardee's, will even wrap them in lettuce leaves for you.

For this, it would be better to choose a chain that allows you to build your own meal as opposed to those that have food waiting on a heating rack. Restaurants like Burger King will allow you to order your burger as you like, while others are following the Chipotle model and offering customizable meals.

You can even improvise your own dinner salad by ordering a sandwich without the bun and incorporating the ingredients into a side salad.

Rule 4: Skip the Drinks

Even if your meal comes with a free soda, do yourself a favor and skip it. You may be surprised to find that many fountain sodas have more carbs in them than the meal itself.

If the restaurant won't allow you to swap the soda for a sparkling water or unsweetened iced tea, you can opt for a diet soda if you have to. While diet sodas are perfectly fine for a low-carb diet, artificial sweeteners promote a sweet tooth that can lead to cravings.

If you are hankering for a coffee-based drink, opt for either black coffee or a beverage made with skim or low-fat milk.

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