Low-Carb Fast Food Choices

Carb Counts and Menu Choices at Popular Restaurants

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hamburger wrapped in lettuce
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The fact that you're eating fast food doesn't mean that you have to eat poorly 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 make a smarter choice the next time you pull up for a quick meal at the drive-thru.

Fast Food Alternatives

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 may easily account for the high rates of obesity in the U.S.—where anywhere from 21 percent to 35 percent of adults are obese. Some states, such as Colorado have self-reported obesity rates of about 21 percent. But states such as Delaware have an obesity rate of 31 percent and the rate in that state (and others including Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Wyoming) continue to rise.

Among children and teens, the rate hovers around 20 percent, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you follow a low-carb eating plan for wellness or to manage a medical condition, the healthiest choice is to avoid fast food. If possible, plan snacks and meals in advance so that you always have a have nutritious food available.

Alternatively, consider checking out the grocery store when you need a quick meal. Many markets have a salad bar or a deli where you can make smart choices that will help you stick to your eating plan.

Lastly, consider ordering in. If you are stuck at work or at home and need a quick meal, check out your local meal delivery services. In many cities, you can get a quick meal delivered to your door that aligns with your eating style.

Low Carb Fast Food Menu Choices

If you find yourself in line at your favorite fast food restaurant, you don't need to ditch your healthy intentions. Thankfully, finding low-carb fast food has gotten easier as the popularity of low-carb living has increased and there are some smart choices at popular restaurants.

Keep in mind that most of the low-carb choices listed are lower in carbohydrate because they are lower in calories (and provide smaller portion sizes) overall. But choosing items that are lower in calories will also help you to devote more of your overall calorie budget to healthier low-carb foods at home.

Burgers: McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's

If you're craving a burger from a fast food chain, consider these options at popular burger joints. Note that the carb counts listed are with the bun. If you remove the bun, you'll significantly reduce the carbs in your meal.

Burger King

  • Whopper Junior: 27g carb
  • Bacon King Junior: 27g carb
  • Bacon Cheeseburger: 27g carb
  • Bacon Double Cheeseburger: 27g carb

McDonalds

  • Hamburger: 32g carb
  • Cheeseburger: 33g carb
  • Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger: 32g carb
  • Daily Double Burger: 34g carb

Wendy's

  • Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger: 25g carb
  • Jr. Hamburger: 25g carb
  • Jr. Cheeseburger: 26g carb

Sandwiches: Jimmy Johns, Subway, Arby's

Again, your best course of action when going low-carb at a sandwich shop is to skip the bread, bun, or wrap. The bread at a sandwich shop is likely to be thicker and provide more carbs than a hamburger bun or tortilla.

In fact, according to Subway nutrition facts, the 6-inch white bun alone provides 34 grams of carbohydrate. So ditching the bun puts many of their sandwiches in the single digit carb count. Carb counts for bread at other locations is similar.

Almost all sandwich shops offer bread-free choices as a standard menu option, and they provide easy-to-eat alternatives such as salads and bowls. At Jimmy John's you have the option to order any sandwich as an "Unwich" and each provides less than 10g of carbohydrate. If you add the bread, you'll increase the carb count by 53 grams.

However, if you're craving a traditional sandwich, this is how popular options compare (with the bread):

Arbys

  • Roast Beef ‘n Cheese Slider: 21g carbs
  • Turkey ‘n Cheese Slider: 21g carbs
  • Jalapeño Roast Beef ‘n Cheese Slider: 21g carbs
  • Half Pound French Dip & Swiss/Au Jus: 37g carbs

Subway

  • 6-inch Pastrami: 36g carbs
  • 6-inch Turkey and Bacon: 39g carbs
  • 6-inch Tuna: 38g carbs
  • 6-inch Steak and Cheese: 39g carbs

Tex-Mex: Taco Bell, Del Taco, Chipotle

Ditching bread is easier than ditching a taco shell or a tortilla that holds your burrito together. So you might imagine that your best bet at most Tex-Mex restaurants is to get a salad. However, some Mexican fast food salads provide as many as 55 or more grams of carbohydrate.

Chipotle is a smart choice for low-carb diners because you build your meal yourself. However, you might get carried away while you're in the line and add more high-carb ingredients as you go.

As a rule of thumb, choose the bowls rather than tacos or burritos at Chipotle. A single flour tortilla for a burrito provides 44 grams of carbohydrate. A taco shell provides between 9 and 13 grams of carbs. Also, avoid beans which can add another 22 to 23 grams of carbohydrate.

Here are a few lower carb options at other fast food Tex-Mex locations:

Taco Bell

  • Chipotle Chicken Loaded Griller Burrito: 36g carbs
  • Beefy Mini Quesadilla: 17g carbs
  • Spicy Tostada: 22g carbs

Del Taco

  • Crunchy Del Taco: 14g carbs
  • Soft Del Taco: 17g carbs
  • Turkey Del Taco: 15g carbs

Chicken: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Chick-fil-A

The smartest low-carb tip when going to a chicken restaurant is to avoid chicken that has been breaded or fried. Most locations provide a grilled chicken option and that will always be your lowest carb choice.

At Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, all of the grilled chicken choices provide zero grams of carbohydrate. If you are craving fried chicken, your best bet is to choose a small piece such as an Original Recipe wing or drumstick for just 3 to 4 grams of carbohydrate. It won't fill you up, but you can satisfy your craving for just a few carbs, then fill up on a grilled selection.

At Chick-fil-A you don't order pieces of chicken but rather sandwiches and other items. If you order the Chargrilled Chicken Club Sandwich you'll consume 37 grams of carbohydrate, but most of that is bread. So if you eliminate the bread, your carb count will be comparable to the counts at KFC. Each of the salads at Chick-fil-A contains 17 to 24 grams of carbohydrate without dressing.

Basic Tips

Go Online First

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 others 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, but they also 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.

Plan your fast food meal in advance using an online calculator. Many restaurants provide nutritional tools on their websites that let you see how many calories, carbohydrates, and grams of fat or protein you'll consume with various meal combinations.

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.

Use Savvy Salad Rules

To make sure your salad is low in carbohydrate, 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.

Order the Burger Without the Bun

Thanks to the 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 option, 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.

Skip the Sweet 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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