You’re ravenous, on the road, and there’s not a health-food spot in sight. Whether you’re traveling for business or a babymoon, navigating the menu at fast food restaurants can be challenging—even when you’re not pregnant. (Plus, that Big Mac is calling your name.) So what do you do? Here are the fast foods that are okay to order—and best to avoid.
What to skip
These four ast food menu items that aren’t as healthy as you think.
Grilled chicken: While chicken is a low-fat protein, some chicken sandwiches or salads can weigh in with more than 1,000 mg of sodium—almost half of the daily recommendation—and have more calories than a single hamburger patty, explains Jennifer McDaniels, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Salads: Don’t be deceived: That huge pile of salad greens can hold an even larger pile of toppings that add calories you don’t want. Large amounts of seemingly harmless (and even healthy) add-ons—like nuts and dried fruits, or even lean proteins like egg or chicken—can turn your 80-calorie salad into an 800-calorie entrée. (Yikes.) But that’s not all. That dressing you love can easily add another 200 calories to your light lunch. Stick with a low-fat, low-cal version—or better yet, get the dressing on the side.
Smoothies: Smoothies may seem like a big win—after all, they help you meet your daily fruit and veggie requirements, right? But “many smoothies are made with fruit juice and have a lot of added sugars,” says McDaniels. “Plus, when we drink 500 calories, we don’t get as full as when we eat 500 calories.”
Soups: Healthy-sounding soups, like black bean or minestrone, might be low in fat and high in fiber. But they could also have a ton of sodium. According to McDaniels, an average serving of black bean soup from a fast food chain contains 1,260 mg of sodium. That’s more than half the sodium recommendation for one day.
What to pick
These four menu items that aren’t as bad as you think.
Hamburger: Surprise! That single-patty hamburger is one of the lighter sandwich options in fast-food land—as long as you go easy on the sauce. Skip the barbeque sauce or mayo and opt for ketchup or mustard instead. And pile on the veggies for added low-cal nutrition. But we don’t mean French fries! If you’re ordering a side, aim for fruit or veggies instead.
Baked potato: “White foods often get a bad rap, but the baked potato has blood-pressure-lowering potassium and is a rich source of vitamin C and fiber,” says McDaniels, who recommends going easy on toppings like cheese and sour cream. Plus, baked potatoes are filling, leaving you more satisfied with your meal and less likely to indulge in other high-fat, high-calorie fast food choices. (Yup, like that Frosty. Sorry!)
Beef tacos: Must have Mexican? McDaniels says to skip the cheesy burritos and quesadillas, and order the beef tacos instead. One regular-sized beef taco clocks in at a reasonable 250 calories and is a good source of iron. But don’t go overboard: Stick to one or two tacos to keep your calorie count in check.
Regular-sized roast beef sandwich: It seems like the ultimate guilty pleasure, but if you aim for plain—meaning hold the cheese and the mayo—a hot, regular-sized roast beef sandwich will cost you less than 500 calories.
How to find healthy fast food
1. There’s an app for that. McDaniel loves Healthy Dining finder. Created by registered dietitians, it helps you quickly identify the healthiest menu options at nearby chain restaurants by city or zip code.
2. Order off the kids’ menu. Here’s a secret: The smaller sizes are often actually the perfect portion size for an adult. Plus, at some chains, you get fresh apple slices.
3. Order an alternative side. Many fast food restaurants are offering a wider selection of healthy sides—think carrot sticks with dips, plain baked potatoes, those sliced apples and fresh fruit cups. Skip the fries and balance out that burger with fruit or vegetables.
4. Aim for plain. Skip the sauce and save some calories. One tablespoon of mayo can have 100 calories, and some BBQ sauces and mustards (especially honey mustard) are loaded with sugar, says McDaniel. Aim for ketchup or plain mustard, but if you’re totally craving the sauce, use a knife to scrape some of it off before you indulge.
5. Don’t be afraid to special-order. For example, if the grilled chicken salad comes with a 300-calorie ranch dressing, ask if you can get the light balsamic instead. Use it sparingly or dip your fork in it instead of pouring it all over to get the flavor without overloading.
6. Know your numbers. While some restaurants post calories and fat grams on their menus, most don’t—yet. In the meantime, apps like CalorieKing provide the nutritional information for many fast food restaurants, making it easy to size up your options. You might find you can have that hamburger at a lower fat and calorie cost than that salad! Perfect if you’re craving red meat.
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