Craving a fast food salad? Probably not. But you can find healthy foods even at places notorious for unhealthy options. And it doesn’t have to be salad. We went on a search for what healthy eaters, such as dieticians, order in the drive-thru. Turns out, the healthiest fast food items are actually delicious, too. Offering healthier options that actually taste good is something that fast food restaurants are doing on purpose. Especially after getting a bad rap in documentaries like Supersize Me.
But despite making efforts to offer healthy alternatives, a study from Boston University found fast food menus in the U.S. are more unhealthy than they were 30 years ago. Researchers analyzed entrées, sides and desserts in 1986, 1991 and again in 2016, finding that total calories and sodium increased significantly. But that’s not outlandish, as portion sizes have also grown since the 1980s.
Just one meal at a fast food chain with an entrée and side (think: a burger and fries) provides an average of 767 calories. That’s 40 percent of a 2,000 calories per day diet! And if you add a soda … well, you’re upping that percentage between 45 and 50 of your recommended daily calorie intake. But why would you choose a high-calorie option like this over grabbing hummus with baby carrots in the supermarket’s deli section?
Researchers in the Netherlands say the human brain may actually be wired to hunt down high-calorie foods. And a recent poll of 2,004 U.S. residents revealed the average person overindulges in unhealthy food three nights a week. But regardless of whether or not we actually would rather have unhealthy food, many of us are looking for the healthiest fast food options. So, when you’re out on the road or short on time, here are five of the better-for-you menu items to order, according to 12 dieticians and healthy eating experts.
The List: Top 5 Healthiest Fast Food Menu Items, According To Pros
1. Taco Bell: Fresco Crunchy Taco
According to TODAY, “[Fresco-style] eliminates the cheeses and sour cream and substitutes tomatoes.”
That’s why it lands in the top spot for Taste of Home: “Coming in at 150 calories, 8 grams of fat and 370 milligrams of sodium, this is one of the healthiest fast-food items available. While most tacos fall to the 170-300 calorie range, stay mindful of the sodium content and limit any extra sauces. For a flavor boost, opt for a fresh salsa instead of sour cream and cheese.”
And Women’s Health writes, “Dietitian Rosanne Rust, RDN, author of DASH Diet For Dummies, orders the Beef Fresco Crunchy Taco at Taco Bell. ‘It may surprise you that the crunchy tacos have fewer calories and less sodium than soft tacos,’ says Rust.”
You can also check out our article about the five best menu items at Taco Bell here. Warning: Not all are healthy and your mouth will probably water.
2. Panda Express Bowl or Plate
Panda Express may not be the first fast food option that comes to mind, but it’s a solid option for healthier foods.
CNBC says to order: “Black pepper Angus steak, super greens, half order of brown rice, side of chili sauce. You can get a nice serving of protein with the Angus steak. And the steamed broccoli, kale and cabbage is also nutritious and satisfying without packing on calories. The entire meal adds up to only 465 calories. If you’re a ‘volume eater’ — or someone who needs to consume a lot of food to feel full — I recommend doubling up on the greens.”
And Real Simple talks about what to keep in mind when you place your order: “Though menus may differ by location, steamed vegetables, or anything not deep-fried or drenched in sauce (such as Black Pepper Chicken or Grilled Teriyaki Chicken) is generally a good option. To pick a healthy order, Bruno opts for bowls, which include a side (you can do half-and-half to combine dishes) and an entrée. If you’re hungrier, go for a plate.”
The Daily Meal suggests, “If you are heading there for dinner, you can always opt-out of the orange chicken and steer yourself toward some healthier options … Black pepper Angus steak, super greens, and brown rice. These side dishes especially might be a surprise to those who have been ordering chow mein as an accompaniment for years. Panda Express has indeed upped its healthy quotient through items like the aforementioned super greens — typically a stir fry of kale, cabbage, and steamed broccoli.”
3. Wendy’s Sour Cream and Chive Baked Potato
A baked potato is definitely a healthier choice over deep-fried french fries, and Wendy’s delivers on this option.
“‘A Wendy’s baked potato with sour cream and chives, as long as you are only adding a dab of sour cream, can be satisfying and healthy,’ says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, author of The First Time Mom’s Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility. ‘Baked potatoes are a natural source of vitamin C, fiber, and potassium, and the chives add some serious flavor with very few calories,’” Eat This, Not That! reports.
And Food Network says, “Whether you’re stopping for a snack or small meal, Wendy’s baked potatoes are always a good option. The sour cream and chive is a classic combo and a nice comfort food when on the road.”
4. McDonald’s Fruit and Maple Oatmeal
For breakfast, you can go beyond a sausage biscuit at McDonald’s.
SFGATE recommends the Fruit and Maple Oatmeal: “Whole-grain oatmeal for breakfast is a healthy choice to start your day. This oatmeal from McDonald’s contains diced apples, dried cranberries and raisins and comes with or without brown sugar.”
Parade consulted with a dietician and she picked the oatmeal, too: “‘At 320 calories, you get 4 grams of fiber, 6 grams of protein and you can save 30 calories if you skip the sugar. Incredibly delicious and nutritious fast pick,’ says Sylvia Klinger, DBA, MS, RD, registered dietitian and owner of Hispanic Food Communications.”
5. Subway “No Bready Bowl”
Finally, the last spot on the list goes to Subway. This chain has marketed themselves as a fresh, healthy option for fast food, so it’s no surprise it made the list. However, it’s the closest option to a “salad” the experts recommend.
“Originally launched in January 2021 as the ‘protein bowl’ and renamed in late 2021, this is essentially a sub sandwich served inside a bowl instead of inside a loaf of bread. This would be an excellent fast food healthy lunch or dinner option for those who are on the go. ‘There are lots of combos for the low-carb No Bready Bowl. I usually go with the rotisserie chicken and customize my veggie pile, adding optional avocado for extra flavor and healthy fat,’” The Wellnest says.
Healthline recommends going without the bread, too: “You can also skip the bread altogether and get a salad with chicken breast and plenty of fresh vegetables.”
There are definitely even more healthy options out there! And so many fast food restaurants are happy to customize your order. Leave us a comment to let us know your favorite go-to healthy pick when you’re on the go.
- Taste of Home
- Women’s Health
- Real Simple
- The Daily Meal
- Eat This, Not That!
- Food Network
- The Wellnest
Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. Study Finds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.