McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Arby’s, KFC: by now, it isn’t exactly news that fast food isn’t good for you. So the term “healthy fast food” might seem like an oxymoron. But even if you’re health conscious, it can be hard to avoid fast food entirely. Whether it’s because you’re on a long road trip, have kids who won’t stop begging for a Happy Meal, are busy - or even if it’s because you woke up craving something salty and greasy you knew wasn’t good for you, fast food happens.
If you’re one of those people, you may find yourself wondering if there’s a way to do healthy fast food. Or you may be on the other side of the coin: maybe you know that you indulge in your fast food cravings a little too often, and you want to start cutting down on your fast food intake (or at least start making better choices when you order off of the drive-thru menu).
Even if “healthy fast food” continues to sound strange, there are some ways to make healthier fast food choices. Below are some tips for choosing the healthy options at various fast food chains, as well as some other tips and tricks.
Why is Fast Food Bad?Before helping you make healthy fast food choices, it might be good to review just why so many consider fast food to be “bad.” Fast food falls into the category of “junk food.” Junk food, according to a Washington Post dietitian, can be defined as “ any food that is highly processed, high in calories and low in nutrients. Junk food is also usually high in added sugars, salt, and saturated or trans fats.”
Fast food is food that can be prepared and eaten quickly, and often on the go. While not every item on a fast food menu necessarily has to be junk food, the majority of the time, it is (as junk food is frequently cheaper and quicker to prepare than healthier options).
The reason this is a problem is that foods that are defined as junk foods can have devastating effects on your health.
A review of studies found that eating fast food consumption was a “main risk factor for lower diet quality, higher calorie and fat intake and lower micronutrients density of the diet.” Eating fast food more than once a week was connected to a higher risk of obesity; eating fast food more than twice a week was “associated with a higher risk for metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and death from coronary heart disease.”
Best Choices at Some Popular Fast Food Chains
Chick-fil-AAt the home of the (fried) chicken sandwich, try a greener option. Chick-fil-A’s Spicy Southwest Salad is rich in protein and vegetables (featuring chicken, along with lettuce, assorted greens, red cabbage, carrots, and more).
Chick-fil-A also offers grilled nuggets in place of its fried nuggets. The grilled option is always healthier.
Taco BellTry ordering a chicken taco instead of beef - a single soft chicken taco at Taco Bell has 160 calories and quite a bit of protein. Taco Bell also offers the option to make your order “fresco,” subbing in pico de gallo for cheese and sour cream.
Taco Bell also has choices for vegetarians, including the Power Menu Veggie Bowl (which has black beans, rice, guacamole, and a variety of veggies).
McDonald’sTry the Egg McMuffin - it’s 300 calories, and you have the option to skip the cheese. McDonald’s (like many chains) also gives you the option to sub in healthier sides, like apple slices.
Burger KingMore good news for vegetarians - you can get a MorningStar Veggie Burger at Burger King. Burger King also offers a grilled chicken sandwich; as always, if you see the word “grilled” on a fast food menu, chances are, you’re looking at a healthier choice.
As always, the less fast food you eat, the better. One study found that for twelve healthy men, eating fast food for just five days reduced their ability to turn glucose into energy; a single fast food meal can narrow your arteries.
But when you do eat fast food, there are ways to make healthier choices. Pay attention to the menu, make substitutions and deletions where you can, and if you need some fries every once in a while, go for it - make sure to take care of your body in between cravings.