Restaurants and Fast Food Nutrition Facts

Couple looking at a restaurant menu

Getty Images / Cavan Images

If you consider yourself a healthy eater, you probably cook most of your meals at home, stick to reasonable portion sizes, and fill up on nutritious foods to fuel your body. But what can you do when you find yourself craving fast food?

Whether tempting fast food advertisements are calling your name, or you just don't have time for anything but the drive-thru, it is still possible to make healthy choices. All you need to do is arm yourself with the proper information before you order.

Can Fast Food Be Healthy?

Fast food doesn't need to "ruin" your healthy diet. Fast food can be an occasional part of an overall healthy diet that you can feel good about. Believe it or not, there are nutritious options at fast food restaurants. But often, these items are buried beneath less healthy options on the menu board. Most fast food options offer a larger portion of saturated fat than healthier counterparts and may also include added trans fat. They also often carry more calories, sodium, and sugar with little nutritional value to balance the scales. Sometimes, these are the foods we crave the most.

So, how can you enjoy your favorite fast food joint while maintaining an overall healthy diet? The first step is limiting how often you go. Rather than making fast food a daily habit, make it only an occasional stop. The next step is having a plan in place before stepping inside. The sights, sounds, and smells of fried food can be hard to ignore. To inform your fast food order, consider using smartphone apps or online nutrition guides to decide what they will eat in advance. If you know what you're going to order before you get in line, you're less likely to be influenced by enticing low-cost and high-calorie meal deals.

Can You Eat Fast Food and Still Lose Weight?

If you are working on a weight loss goal, navigating a fast food restaurant can be tricky. But, it's not impossible. There are plenty of fast food meals under 500 calories. Some menu items are more nutrient dense and satisfying than others. It turns out that making healthy choices is possible, even at the drive-thru.

Following general healthy eating guidelines will help you reduce the amount of fat, sugar, and the overall calorie count of your meal. Get optimal nutrition from your fast food meal with these tips:

  • Choose a healthy drink.  Many fast food drinks are loaded with empty calories. In fact, several of the most popular fast food shakes and malts provide more calories than an entire meal. Water is the ideal fast food drink. If plain water doesn't do it for you, try adding a slice of lemon for flavor (look for this near the condiments or ask the cashier). While diet soda won't directly increase your calorie count, some studies have shown it may increase your cravings for processed, less nutrient-dense foods and sugar. Because sweeteners can be up to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, they may result in higher sweet taste preferences.
  • Order the smallest portion size. If you are craving food that you know is high in fat and calories, opt for the smallest size available. A child's size or kid's meal is often the best choice. By keeping portions small, you'll be able to satisfy your craving while leaving room in your diet for healthier choices.
  • Skip sauces, dips, and toppings. Save on calories, fat, and sugar by choosing food without the extra sauces and toppings. Popular fast food condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise, and barbecue sauce add extra calories to your meal. Order your salad without dressing, or get it on the side and limit the amount you use. Lemon or vinegar are great ways to boost flavor without calories.
  • Go bun-free. If you order your favorite meal in the form of a salad, you can reduce the overall calorie count of your meal and boost your vitamin and fiber intake. Some restaurants, like Subway, let you order your favorite combo as a salad instead of a sandwich. Choosing a salad improves the nutritional profile of your meal by eliminating the bread and adding more veggies. Keep in mind, however, that even salads can contain high-calorie ingredients like cheese and croutons. Going for an open-faced sandwich is another way to cut down on the bread by removing the top layer.

Tips for Making Fast Food Healthier

Making healthier choices at fast food restaurants is a valuable way to promote your health and well-being. Next time you're eating out, use these tips to build a better meal.

  • Fruits and veggies are often available but not always easy to find. Apple slices or fresh fruit are a great substitute for chips and fries. If you don't see them displayed on the menu, just ask!
  • Say no to super-sized meal deals. Many combo meals have excess sodium, preservatives, sugar, and trans fats. Order your meal a la carte and skip the soda, fries, chips, or dessert if possible.
  • Create your own custom meal. Select a few items and request them to be prepared without extra sauce, toppings, or cheese. This will not only save you calories but potentially get you a fresher meal as well.
  • Get sodium-savvy by skipping the side dishes. Many fast food meals provide more sodium in one item than is recommended for the entire day. The biggest contributors are often the sides. Side dishes, like fries or onion rings, contain lots of added salt and minimal nutritional value. Skip the sides, or order the smallest size to share with a friend.
  • Avoid fried foods and go for grilled items instead. Don't be fooled by the descriptions. Menu items labeled as "crunchy," "crispy," "battered," or "breaded" are usually fried. These items can increase your intake of unhealthy fats, like saturated fat or trans fat. Instead, choose foods that are grilled, roasted, or fresh. If you're not sure how a certain dish is prepared, don't be afraid to ask.
  • Focus on protein. Starchy sides and snacks are not as likely to keep you feeling satisfied for long. Instead, fill up on protein when you order a meal. Add grilled chicken breast to your salad or order milk instead of a shake. A balanced meal helps prevent a sugar rush and crash.
  • Skip dessert. If you choose to visit a fast food restaurant, consider saving the sweets for another day. Sweets and desserts, while often high in calories, fat, and sugar, are low in vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients.

Fast Food Nutrition

What's your favorite fast food restaurant? Scan this list for your top spot to find out what you can order to keep your diet on track.

A Word From Verywell

Maintaining a healthy diet can be especially challenging when you have a hectic schedule. Sometimes, fast food may be your only option. It's important to remember that the occasional fast food meal isn't going to ruin your health or completely derail your weight loss goals. It's the daily habits that we develop that have the greatest impact on our overall health. Using smart tips and careful planning can help make your fast food meal healthier, promoting energy and supporting your well-being and your busy lifestyle.

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