True story: fast food isn’t healthy. It’s just not. But it is convenient, inexpensive, and tasty, so if you fall into the almost 50% of Americans who eat at fast-food restaurants at least once a week, at least you know you’re in good company.
And given that fast-food consumption is practically woven into the fabric of our society, you don’t need to give up your drive-thru habit completely — or pretend you’ll just order a salad (who are you kidding, really?) — you just need to make healthier choices. And by “healthier,” we mean avoiding those 2,000 calorie fat-bombs like triple-decker cheeseburgers and jumbo-sized fries.
The trick to ordering wisely is to watch your portion sizes, avoid trans fats and excessive saturated fat, and try to come away with some sort of nutritional value in the form of high-quality protein, fiber, or vitamins and minerals. Oh, and to select a meal large enough it’ll actually keep you full and satisfied. To that end, we’ve compiled this list of “healthier” entrees and sides from 22 of the most popular fast-food joints in the country. And believe it or not, there’s not a side of apple slices or a “junior” item in the bunch. You’re welcome.
— Regular hamburger: 250 calories, 8 grams fat, 3 grams saturated, 2 grams fiber, 13 grams protein
— Side salad with Newman’s Own low-fat balsamic vinaigrette: 50 calories, 1.5 grams fat, 1 gram fiber, 1 gram protein
There’s not much to McDonald’s classic hamburger — just a burger patty, bun, and a few condiments, but without all the “extras” (like sugary sauces and saturated fat-laden cheeses), you get by with a pretty low-calorie meal when combining it with a simple side salad. At just 300 calories, it’s almost guaranteed to fit into a calorie-controlled eating plan.
— Power Mediterranean chicken salad, half size: 250 calories, 9 grams fat, 2.5 grams saturated, 5 grams fiber, 5 grams protein
— Small chili: 170 calories, 5 grams fat, 2 grams saturated, 4 grams fiber, 15 grams protein
Wendy’s has a pretty nice assortment of salads, and the half-size of their Power Mediterranean chicken salad makes the perfect mid-day meal when paired with a small cup of chili. If you’ve never tried it, it’s time — it’s surprisingly good. Together you’re looking at just 420 calories with 20 grams of protein and 6.5 grams of fiber.
— Grilled chicken sandwich without mayo: 370 calories, 7 grams fat, 2 grams saturated, 6 grams fiber, 36 grams protein
— Value-sized onion rings: 150 calories, 8 grams fat, 1.5 grams saturated, 1 gram fiber, 1 gram protein
BK’s grilled chicken sandwich may not make your mouth water the way a Whopper does, but by ordering the white-meat sandwich you’re saving 130 calories and 15 grams of fat, while scoring an extra 8 grams of protein — that’s a pretty good deal. Tack on a value-sized order of onion rings to round out the meal, and you’re practically guaranteed to be full until dinner.
— All-natural charbroiled BBQ chicken sandwich: 370 calories, 5 grams fat, 1 gram saturated, 3 grams fiber, 33 grams protein
— Garden side salad with low-fat balsamic vinaigrette dressing: 160 calories, 8 grams fat, 2.5 grams saturated, 2 grams fiber, 6 grams protein
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have a few different chicken sandwiches, but the all-natural charbroiled BBQ version is the only one that comes in under 400 calories and 20-plus grams of fat. And by adding a garden salad on the side, you take advantage of a bump in fiber and protein without overdoing the calories.
— Two fresco soft tacos with steak: 280 calories, 8 grams of fat, 3 grams saturated, 2 grams fiber, 20 grams protein
— Black beans & rice: 190 calories, 3.5 grams fat, 0 grams saturated, 6 grams fiber, 6 grams protein
If you think chicken is always the healthiest option, this time you’re wrong. The steak version of the fresco soft tacos on Taco Bell’s menu have fewer calories, less fat, saturated fat, and more total protein than the chicken variety. And when you pair them with a serving of black beans and rice, you get another 6 grams of protein and a hefty dose of fiber, too. Combined, you end up with a filling meal, all for under 500 calories.
— Kentucky grilled chicken breast: 210 calories, 7 grams fat, 2 grams saturated, 38 grams protein
— Green beans: 25 calories, 0 gram fat, 2 grams fiber, 1 gram protein
A single Kentucky grilled chicken breast offers more protein and less fat than any combination of two other pieces of grilled chicken from KFC. Pair your chicken with a serving of green beans, and your total meal is still less than 250 calories. If you’re still hungry, throw in a side salad with light dressing or a grilled drumstick if you’re craving a little more meat. Either option adds less than 90 calories and 4 grams of fat.
— Three-piece hand-breaded chicken tenders: 260 calories, 9 grams fat, 2.5 grams saturated, 1 gram fiber, 40 grams protein
— Small fries: 201 calories, 8 grams fat, 2 grams saturated, 3 grams fiber, 2 grams protein
It’s slim-pickings for healthy fare on the A&W menu, but at least the hand-breaded chicken tenders clock in at less than 300 calories and 10 grams of fat. Just don’t confuse them with the three-piece chicken strips, which feature almost double the calories, triple the fat, and 12 less grams of protein. Add an order of small fries to your meal to round it out, and you’re still consuming less than 500 calories.
— Three-piece blackened chicken tenders: 170 calories, 2 grams fat, 0 grams saturated, 0 grams fiber, 26 grams protein
— Regular green beans: 55 calories, 2 grams fat, 0 grams saturated, 2 grams fiber, 3 grams protein
If your doctor asked you to steer clear of the saturated fat, you’re in luck! This Popeyes combo of blackened (i.e. grilled) chicken tenders and green beans is completely free of the stuff. And if the total calorie content of about 225 calories just isn’t enough to keep you full, go ahead and splurge on the five-piece blackened chicken tenders — the two extra pieces of chicken increases the total calorie content of your meal to just 333 calories.