How to Eat Low-Carb at McDonald's

McDonald's Restaurant
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It can be hard to make low-carb food choices at fast food chains. McDonald's has been putting effort into including healthier choices on its menu, but healthy food doesn't always mean it's low in carbohydrates. What can you grab on the go if you are limiting your carbohydrates and McDonald's is the most convenient stop?

Quick Picks for Eating Low-Carb at McDonald's

  • Choose the side salad (2 grams net carbs) or bacon ranch grilled chicken salad (6 grams net carbs), with low-fat balsamic vinaigrette dressing (3 grams carbs). These are the easiest items to order as they won't require a special request to convert them into a low-carb choice.
  • Order hamburgers, cheeseburgers, or grilled chicken without the bun or roll.
  • Order scrambled eggs by themselves or breakfast sandwiches without the muffin, roll, or croissant.
  • Stick with unsweetened or zero-calorie beverages.

With these options in mind, here is how to further analyze your best low-carb choices under the golden arches.

Using McDonald's Nutrition Information Sources

McDonald's has brochures available in its restaurants which provide information about most of the menu items as they are usually served. However, information about regional and seasonal specialties, new additions to the menu, and customized orders (for example, burgers without the bun) may not be readily available.

The good news is that McDonald's provides all of this information on its website. A cheeseburger has 33 grams of carbohydrates. Take away the bun and 28 of the grams disappear. In this way, you can discover that there is 1 gram of carb in the cheese, 1 gram in the onions, and 2 grams in the ketchup.

This information makes it easy to order a customized item, and know how many carbohydrates are in the food you order.

What Is a Low-Carb Option?

To use the carb nutrition information from McDonald's, you first have to decide how much carbohydrate is right for you. That can vary widely depending on whether you are following a very strict low-carb diet, such as the induction phase of Atkins which allows only 20 grams per day, or you are trying to stay within the standard nutritional advice of 200 to 300 grams per day, based on a 2000-calorie diet.

Typically, a low-carb diet is one that limits carbohydrate consumption to less than 45 percent of total daily calories. For a weight loss low-carb diet, that would constitute 100 to 200 grams depending on a calorie goal. Many diets use net carbohydrates, in which the grams of fiber are subtracted from the total carb count. Those who are on a ketogenic diet aim for 60 grams of net carbohydrate per day.

Given these variations, you want to look for menu options for a single meal that are only a third of your daily carbohydrate allowance. That can be as low as 7 grams, a moderate 20 grams of net carbs, or even as high as 60 grams.

For Low-Carb Nutrition, Choose Salads

McDonald's salads are a good nutrition choice, containing a variety of greens, small carrots, and grape tomatoes. The side salad has only 2 grams of net carbohydrate (not counting the dressing, which is on the side).

The meal-sized salads are trickier. Choose the bacon ranch grilled chicken salad which has 9 grams of total carbs but only 6 grams of net carbs each (skip the croutons). Any other option, such as crispy chicken or southwest salads, adds 20 grams of carbs or more from breading, glazes, tortilla strips, etc.

Choose the low-fat balsamic dressing for the lowest carbs (3 grams if you use the whole packet).

Check the other choices as they range from 6 grams to 15 grams.

Ordering Burgers at McDonald's the Low-Carb Way

Ordering burgers without the bun dramatically reduces the carbs. The hamburger patty itself has zero carbs. You will get the burger in a container, sometimes with two pieces of lettuce. An alternative is to discard half of the bun, reducing the carbs it includes from 28 to 14, and eat your hamburger open-faced.

Some of the condiments have carbohydrates, so you will need to add those to your total. Cheese, tomato slices, onion, and mayonnaise have about one gram of carbs each. For ketchup or Big Mac sauce, add 2 grams.

Non-Burger Sandwiches at McDonald's

Your lowest-carb option is grilled chicken, without the bun or roll. It has 2 grams of carbohydrate per patty due to additives. You will get more carbs if you have a breaded option such as crispy chicken or the Filet-o-Fish. With only the meat, crispy chicken fillets have 10 grams of carbs, and Filet-o-Fish has 9 grams.

Note that the artisan roll has even more calories than the hamburger bun with 42 grams of carbohydrates. Even if you have only half of the roll, you would still be eating over 20 grams of carbs.

For condiments, servings of tartar sauce or mayo dressing have one gram of carbohydrate. Check the nutrition guide at the restaurant for the information on any condiments as they often change.

McDonald's Breakfasts

As with the burgers and sandwiches, to have a low-carb breakfast at McDonald's you must order items without the muffin or croissant, or order scrambled eggs by themselves.

The Fruit 'N Yogurt Parfait has 30 grams of carbs, which is on the high side for many low-carb diets and it is high in sugars at 22 grams, but it might have better nutrition and lower calories than the breakfast sandwich options.

Beverages

Water, diet sodas, coffee, and unsweetened iced tea are the zero-carb options. You might be tempted by their 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 as having carbohydrates, but it would presumably come mainly from the erythritol which shouldn't raise blood sugar in most people.

High-Carb Items to Avoid at McDonald's

French fries, Chicken McNuggets, pancakes, shakes, and desserts are all high in carbohydrates. It's best to avoid those if you are eating low-carb.

A Word From Verywell

Fast food can be a convenient option or the only option at times. Your choices will be more limited when you are eating a low-carb diet. Remember to ask for a knife and fork when you order a burger or sandwich without the bun or muffin. By keeping in mind the rules of thumb, you can make choices that are lower in carbohydrates.

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