Try as we might, it's simply not always possible to prepare our own meals or stick with a diet plan when we're dining out. Sometimes living a full and busy life means grabbing fast food on the go, and there's just no way around that. Or maybe you just love the taste of a Wendy's burger. Either way, it's easy to overload on fast-food menu items that are high in trans fat, sodium, and additives that can do some serious harm to your health.
The good news is, there are healthy fast food options available virtually everywhere these days. While most nutritionists agree that eating fast food isn't among their top weight loss tips for clients, there are plenty of dishes loaded with nutrients that are low in calories they recommend for when you're in a bind. (If you're curious about whether there may be scary ingredients hiding in your drive-thru orders, check out the nutrition and ingredient information on the restaurant's website to make a more informed choice. )
Read on for dietitian-approved fast-food menu items you can trust. Some of these are sure to surprise you.
Wendy's Baked Potato
Per potato: 233 calories, 5.4 g fat (3.3 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 39 g carbs (4.4 g fiber, 3.4 g sugar), 4.9 g protein
"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."
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Chick-fil-A Yogurt Parfait
Per 1 parfait: 270 calories, 9 g fat (3.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 80 mg sodium, 36 g carbs (1 g fiber, 26 g sugar), 13 g protein
"It can be challenging to find an item at Chick-fil-A that is lower in sodium, but this parfait checks that box along with being a source of calcium, magnesium, and many other nutrients. Ask for the granola instead of the cookie crumbles for a bit of fiber for this dish," says Manaker.
Per 1 Turkey Bowl: 160 calories, 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1020 mg sodium, 8 g carbs (3 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 25 g protein
"Subway has added a healthy selection to their menu [in the form of protein bowls]. These bowls are designed as the most popular subway sandwiches without the bread. They are packed with protein from the various meats available to choose from," says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, at Balance One Supplements. "The carbs found in this protein bowl are not refined, which would have been drastically more if consumed in sandwich form. The traditional turkey breast sandwich is 280 calories and 41 grams of carbs."
McDonald's Egg McMuffin
Per 1 sandwich: 310 calories, 13 g fat (6 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 770 mg sodium, 30 g carbs (2 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 17 g protein
"When you get this without the meat, it is a fairly healthy item. The egg contains quality protein which will keep you full, while the English muffin isn't too big and contains carbs. I'd prefer a whole wheat option, but this is still pretty good," says Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, author ofFinally Full, Finally Slim and member of our Medical Expert Advisory board.
Taco Bell Black Bean Taco
Per 1 taco: 150 calories, 7 g fat (2 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 200 mg sodium, 17 g carbs (5 g fiber, <1 g sugar), 6g protein
"These tacos contain a tortilla with seasoned black beans, shredded lettuce, and shredded cheese," says Young. "And the black beans contribute plant protein and fiber, helping to keep you satisfied for longer."
Chipotle Sofritos Tacos
Per 3 tacos: 505 calories, 21 g fat, 66 g carbs, 20g protein
"This option is lower in saturated fat and high in protein, thanks to the vegetarian 'sofritos,' which are made with soy, and the tacos can be loaded with Chipotle's options of veggie-rich salsas and healthy fats from avocado," says Morgyn Clair, MS, RDN, author at Fit Healthy Momma. "Lastly, I like this option because it's relatively low-calorie for fast food."
Chick-fil-A Grilled Chicken Nuggets
Per 5-count: 80 calories, 2 g fat (0 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 270 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 16 g protein
"Believe it or not, Chick-fil-A has a grilled chicken nugget option," says New York-based dietitian Leah Kaufman, MS, RD, CDN. "This is a great alternative to the traditional fried chicken nuggets, but make sure to pair this with a vegetable to create a complete and well-rounded meal."
Wendy's Junior Hamburger
Per burger: 250 calories, 11 g fat (4 g saturated fat, 0.5 g trans fat), 420 mg sodium, 25 g carbs (1 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 13 g protein
It may come as a surprise to see a burger on the list of healthier fast food options, but this Jr. Hamburger is a great way to control your portions, get a boost of protein, and keep your sodium relatively at bay compared to other fast-food burgers.
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Starbucks Protein Box
Per Egg and Cheddar Box: 470 calories, 25 g fat (8 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 470 mg sodium, 41 g carbs (6 g fiber, 21 g sugar), 23 g protein
If you're wanting to avoid the breakfast sandwich route, Starbucks also has plenty of protein boxes to choose from. We selected the Egg and Cheddar box because it's lower in sugar, fat, and sodium than most of the other options. You'll get a boost of protein from the eggs, cheese, and nut butter, as well as fiber from the grapes and multigrain bread.
Panera's Turkey Chili
Per bowl: 300 calories, 10 g fat (4.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 690 mg sodium, 31 g carbs (14 g fiber, 8 g sugar), 21 g protein
Panera has some amazing soup options for those comforting, lazy days. However, many of their soups, like the famous Broccoli Cheddar, are loaded with unnecessary fat and calories. Instead, opt for a cozy bowl of turkey chili to get a healthy boost of fiber and protein.
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Chipotle Salad Bowl
Per Chicken Salad Bowl without rice: 450 calories, 23 g fat, 28 g carbs, 34 g protein
"I'm a fan of their salad bowls," says Amy Shapiro MS, RD, CDN of Real Nutrition NYC. "I recommend asking for greens instead of rice then adding beans, the fajita veggies, one of their delicious proteins, and salsa. Then I recommend picking one: guacamole, sour cream, OR cheese. These are all high-fat ingredients that can take your meal to the next calorie bracket! I also recommend skipping the chips! I love this meal because it can serve carnivores and vegetarians alike (edit to your dietary preference), it provides lean and flavorful protein, heart-healthy fats, loads of fiber, and veggies."
Starbucks Egg White & Roasted Red Pepper Egg Bites
Per 2 egg bites: 170 calories, 8 g fat (5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 470 mg sodium, 11 g carbs (0 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 12 g protein
"I'm a big fan of Starbucks Sous Vide Eggs!" exclaims Shapiro. "They taste great, are loaded with protein, and are 170 calories but will keep you full for two to three hours! They are gluten-free, making them acceptable for celiacs and anyone watching their carbs, and they contain some veggies (peppers equal vitamin C)."
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Subway Tuna Sub
Per 6" Tuna Sub: 430 calories, 25 g fat (5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 670 mg sodium, 37 g carbs (1 g fiber, 4 g sugar), 19 g protein
If you're in the mood for a sub, Subway may be the way to go. These subs are easy to personalize based on your individual health goals, so grabbing some tuna on a 6" sub and loading it up with veggies will keep your calories somewhat low and your protein high.
Chick-fil-A Grilled Market Salad
Per salad with grilled chicken filet: 540 calories, 31 g fat (6 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1020 mg sodium, 41 g carbs (5 g fiber, 26 g sugar), 28 g protein
This garden salad is a reasonably good option at Chick-fil-A if you're wanting something less fried and more nutrient-dense. You can choose from a grilled or spicy grilled cold filet, a warm filet, regular or spicy chicken strips, or regular or spicy chicken nuggets. But if you're looking for healthy-ish, go with the grilled.
A previous version of this article was originally published in September, 2o17.