Restaurants and Fast Food Nutrition Facts

If you are a typical healthy eater, you cook most of your meals at home, eat reasonable portions and take good care to fill up on nutritious foods to fuel your body. But what if you get a craving for fast food? Or what if your day gets busy and you have no choice but to visit the local drive-thru lane? Is it possible to make healthy fast food choices? Thankfully, it is. You just have arm yourself with good information before you go.

Can Fast Food Be Healthy?

Fast food won't necessarily ruin your diet. Believe it or not, there are healthy choices at fast food restaurants. But the menu items that are most likely to keep your good diet on track are often buried on the menu board beneath other items that are full of fat, calories, sodium and sugar. You know, the foods we often crave.

So how do you visit your favorite joint without unraveling your smart eating plan?

Most healthy eaters will only visit a fast food vendor once a month or less. And when they go, they have a plan in place before they step inside. They use smartphone apps or online nutrition guides to decide what they will eat in advance. If you know what you're going to eat before you get in line to order, you're less likely to fall victim to menu boards that entice you with low cost, high calorie meal deals.

Can You Eat Fast Food and Lose Weight?

If you are trying to reach a weight loss goal, navigating a fast food menu board can be tricky. But it's not impossible. There are plenty of fast food meals under 500 calories.

And some complete meals have calorie counts even lower than that.

The lowest calorie fast food for dieters will depend on the restaurant that you visit (see the list of guides below) but these general tips will help you to reduce the fat and calorie count and keep your weight loss plan on track.

  • Choose a calorie-free drink.  Most fast food drinks are loaded with calories. In fact, many of the most popular fast food shakes and malts provide more calories than an entire meal. Water is the healthiest fast food drink. If you don't like plain water, add a slice of lemon for added flavor (often found near the condiments). Diet soda won't increase your calorie count, but some studies have shown that drinking diet soda may increase your cravings for junk food.
  • Order the smallest portion size. If you are craving a food that you know is high in fat and calories, order the smallest size available. Sometimes, the child's size or kids meal is the best choice. You'll be able to satisfy your craving with the fewest number of calories.
  • Skip sauces, dips and toppings. You can save hundreds of calories and countless grams of fat by eating food without sauces and toppings. Even fast food condiments like ketchup or barbecue sauce can add extra calories and often added sugar. You can also order your salad without dressing. Again, lemon is a great way to add flavor without calories.
  • Go bun-free.  If you order your favorite meal in the form of a salad you may be able to cut the calorie count of your meal. Some restaurants, like Subway, allow you to order your favorite meat and veggie combo as a salad or sandwich. Choosing a salad helps to reduce calories because you eliminate bread. Just be sure to skip high calorie salad ingredients like cheese and croutons. If you can't get your meal in the form of a salad, have an open-faced sandwich instead, by removing the top layer of bread.

Tips for Making Fast Food Healthier

Even if you aren't trying to slim down, you can still make smart choices at fast food restaurants to promote good health and well being.

Use these tips to build your meal.

  • Fruits and veggies are often available but not always easy to find. Ask about apple slices or fresh fruit if you don't see it displayed on the menu.
  • Say no to super sized meal deals. Many combo meals provide thousands of calories and too many unnecessary grams of fat and sugar. Order a la carte to keep the calories in control.
  • Create your own custom meal. Choose a few small items and ask for them to be prepared without extra sauce, toppings or cheese to save calories. By asking for the special preparation, you may also get a fresher meal.
  • Get sodium-savvy by skipping side dishes. Most fast food meals provide more sodium than you need. The biggest contributors are often the sides. Many side dishes, like fries or onion rings, are are loaded with excess salt and provide little nutritional value. Either skip the sides altogether or order the smallest size and split it with a friend.
  • Avoid fried foods and go for grilled items instead. Menu items that are labeled "crunchy" "crispy," "battered," or "breaded" are usually fried. These items can increase your intake of unhealthy fats, like saturated fat or trans fat. Instead, choose foods that are grilled or roasted. If you're not sure about the way a certain food is prepared, ask.
  • Go heavy on protein. Starchy sides and snacks are not likely to keep you feeling satisfied or full for very long. So try to fill up on protein when you order a meal. Add grilled chicken breast to your salad or order skim milk instead of a shake to avoid getting hunger pangs shortly after you eat.
  • Skip dessert. If you indulge your cravings and choose to visit a fast food restaurant save the sweets for another day.

Fast Food Nutrition

What's your favorite fast food restaurant? Scan this list to find your top spot and see what you can order to keep your diet on track.

A Word From Verywell

Trying to keep your eating plan on track can be challenging when you have a hectic schedule. Sometimes, fast food is your only option. At Verywell, we understand. In fact, sometimes we might even be there with you in the drive-thru lane. A single visit to a fast food joint probably isn't going to ruin your good health. But with smart tips and careful planning you can make your fast food meal healthier, and promote improved energy and well being throughout your busy day.

More from Verywell in Restaurants and Fast Food

Learn more about Calorie Counts and Nutrition Facts