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4 Tips for Eating Healthy at Fast Food Restaurants

March 18, 2024

It happens to the best of us. You’re trying to eat healthy, when suddenly Wendy’s starts advertising $1 cheeseburgers and Dairy Queen offers free ice cream cones.

If you can’t resist the cravings anymore – or if you just don’t have time to put together a balanced meal – this one’s for you.

Here are an expert’s top four tips on how to navigate your favorite fast food restaurants, guilt-free.

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1. It starts with the right portion size.

Bad news, Burger King fans. Ideally, a meal shouldn’t contain more than 500 calories – less than half the calories in a Whopper meal.

“A great way to keep portions or calories in check is to order from the kids’ menu,” says BreAnn Erickson, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Digestive Health Institute in Shelton and Bridgeport. “Another option is to stick to just the entrée, rather than getting a combo meal.”

It might come as a surprise, but many of your favorite fast food sandwiches (like the Quarter Pounder, Filet-O-Fish, and McChicken) all fall under the 500-calorie mark. The culprit, more often than not, comes from the rest of the meal. A medium order of fries and a coke, for example, easily clear 500 calories on their own.

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2. Watch the add-ons.

Whether it’s on a sandwich or in a salad, the calories tend to hide in the add-ons.

“An easy way to reduce fat and calories is to simply hold the dressings and sauces, or ask for low fat alternatives. If you’re a condiment lover, try swapping out mayonnaise or ranch in favor of mustard, vinegars, hot sauce or salsa,” says Erickson.

If you opt for a salad, she suggests including a lean protein and asking for a low-fat dressing. But it isn’t just sauces that add calories.

“Other add-ons like bacon, cheese, tortilla strips and croutons can also make your meal more calorie dense,” Erickson notes. “Don’t be afraid to skip those – I like to call that ‘undressing your food.’”

3. Avoid anything deep fried.

At a fast food restaurant, this might feel impossible. But often, you can find a grilled or baked protein option on the menu.

“It’s no secret that grilled or baked is always a better choice than fried when it comes to nutritional value,” says Erickson.

And that advice doesn’t stop with the proteins.

“You can avoid the deep fryer when it comes to sides, too – French fries aren’t the only option. Instead, look for a baked potato, side salads, apple slices, fruit cups or yogurt. And if you do want something like chips or fries, choose the smallest size,” Erickson suggests.

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4. Choose your drink wisely.

It isn’t just the food that can hide calories in fast food restaurants – drinks can be just as bad.

“You probably know that soda isn’t a healthy beverage, but some of the alternatives aren’t much better,” says Erickson. “Try to limit any drink that is sweetened or has added sugars. That includes juice, lemonade, flavored milk, milkshakes and flavored or sweetened coffees.”

That even applies to the drinks marketed as healthy alternatives.

“Whether it’s diet drinks with artificial sweeteners or drinks labeled calorie free, they may not be healthy. Instead, choose water, seltzers or unsweetened iced teas,” she suggests.

And if none of those are for you?

“If you want some flavor without all of the sugar, take a small amount of a sweetened beverage and add water,” Erickson suggests. “This will give you some flavor or fizz, but limit it to a small size.”

Don’t be afraid to indulge once in a while.

At the end of the day, there’s no shame in treating yourself from time to time.

“The most important thing is to focus on creating healthy habits. Taking care of yourself doesn’t just mean eating healthy, it means feeling healthy, too. Life is busy – but quick and convenient food options can be a part of a healthy diet without the guilt.”