How to Eat Low-Carb at McDonald's

Low-Carb Fast Food

McDonald's Restaurant
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Say what you will about McDonald's, it's the largest food chain in the world, and it continues to grow both in the U.S. and internationally. In recent years, the McDonald's chain has been putting effort into including healthier choices on its menu. But what does it have for those of us who restrict our carb intake?

Where to Find Information About Carbs at McDonald's

McDonald's has brochures available in its restaurants which provide information about most of the menu items as they are usually served.

However, regional and seasonal specialties, new additions to the menu, and customized orders (for example, burgers without the bun) do not appear in this brochure.

The good news is that McDonald's provides all of this information on its Web site. For example, selecting a cheeseburger and then clicking on the nutrition information shows the components of the cheeseburger.  You will see that it has 33 grams of carbohydrate.  Then, if you click on the bun it removes it from the equation and 28 of the grams disappear. In this way, you can discover that there is 1 gram of carb in the cheese, 1 in the onions, and 2 in the ketchup. This information makes it easy to order a customized item, and know how much carbohydrate is in the food you order.

Ordering Burgers at McDonald's

Obviously, ordering burgers without the bun is the way to go. You will get the burger in a container, sometimes with two pieces of lettuce.

If you are lucky you will be able to use the lettuce to pick up the burger, but don't count on it. Ask for a knife and fork to go with it. Hamburgers have zero carbs, but some of the condiments have carbohydrate. Processed cheese, tomato slices, and onion have about a gram of carb each. For ketchup or Big Mac sauce, add 2 grams.

Other Sandwiches

Grilled Chicken at McDonald's has additives with about 2 grams of carbohydrate per patty. Crispy chicken fillets have 10 grams of carb, and Filet-o-Fish comes in at 9 grams. Servings of tartar sauce or mayo dressing have one gram of carbohydrate, but you may not get these unless you ask for them. Premium Ranch Sauce has 3 grams of carbohydrate. A Ranch Snack Wrap will rack up 33 grams of carbohydrate, with 22 of them being in the tortilla.

For Nutrition, Choose Salads - But Be Careful

Obviously, the sandwiches aren't going to help with your all-important servings of vegetables. For that, the only place to turn is salads. Happily, McDonald's salads are a cut above salads at many other fast food establishments in that they contain a variety of greens, instead of just the standard iceberg or romaine lettuces. This goes for their side salads as well as their meal salads. They also contain small carrots and grape tomatoes. The side salads have 3 grams of net carbohydrate (not counting dressing).

The meal salads are trickier. The best bets are the Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken or Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken, at 9 grams of net carbs each (skip the croutons). Any other option adds lots of carbs from breading, glazes, tortilla strips, etc. The carb count is as high as 38 for the Southwest Salad with Crispy Chicken.

The dressings are another potential minefield. Assuming you use the whole (in my opinion huge) packet of dressing, you will get anywhere from 4 grams of carbohydrate for the Creamy Ceasar Dressing or Low Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette (the only ones even close to being low in carbs) to a whopping 15 grams for the Low Fat Sesame Ginger Dressing.

Tempted by the Snack Size Fruit and Walnut Salad? Don't be. The sugar in the yogurt and the glaze on the walnuts are the culprits in raising the total grams of net carbs to 29 for this "snack".

McNuggets, Fries, Desserts, and Most Breakfasts

Just put them out of your mind. You could get the scrambled eggs all by their lonesome for breakfast, or, possibly the best option, skip the muffin on the Egg McMuffin. Truly, though it's best to make your own breakfast.


Obviously water, diet sodas, coffee, and unsweetened iced tea are the zero carb options. You might be tempted by the new coffee drinks, but check them out carefully. All of the flavored ones have a lot of sugar except for the sugar-free vanilla, which contains a syrup sweetened with sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium and erythritol. This syrup is listed has having carbohydrate, but it would presumably come mainly from the erythritol which shouldn't raise blood sugar in most people. Also, cappuccinos and lattes have milk which contains lactose.

More About Carbs in Coffee Drinks

So, while no one will pretend that fast food delivers the ultimate in nutrition, with careful choices you can hit the McDonald's drive-through occasionally without wrecking your diet.

More Information About McDonald's Food - Allergies, Etc.

More About Low-Carb Eating in Fast Food Restaurants, including links to the best choices at Burger King, Jack in the Box, Subway, and more.

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