What is the healthiest fast food? Be on the lookout for this type of menu.
The definition of "fast food" has blurred over the years. What used to mean burgers and fries at a minimal cost has morphed as chains move into the "fast casual" space or beef up their menus with healthier options. Plant-based options are increasing, and it's becoming easier to order a salad or wrap in just a few minutes.
But sometimes you're just craving that burger and fries. If you're looking to eat fast food in more healthy moderation, here are some expert tips and swaps to make.
What is the healthiest fast food?
The healthiest fast food isn’t a place, it’s a mindset, said Luanne Hughes, a professor and nutrition educator at Rutgers University’s Cooperative Extension. Rather than sifting through different fast food chains across your city, focus on the choice you’re making when you stand in front of the cashier.
If you really want to nail down a restaurant, Hughes said the healthiest fast food locations are those that offer “more of a hybrid between a traditional fast food with a drive-thru and a restaurant where you would go in and sit down.”
“You also want to look for menu items that have vegetables on there,” Hughes said. “Those sandwiches that either come with the tomatoes, lettuce or spinach, any kind of vegetables on there or allow you to add those options.”
Healthy fast food swaps
Headed to the drive-thru but want to choose a healthier option? Here are Hughes' biggest tips for increasing the nutritional value of your fast food meal:
How is your fast food prepared?
Chick-fil-A is often heralded as healthier than other fast foods because chicken contains less saturated fat than red meats. But fried chicken, and fried food consumption in general, is unhealthy in excess.
“Just because it’s chicken, it doesn’t mean it’s healthier than a burger, you have to get a real sense of how it’s prepared,” Hughes said, recommending the grilled option rather than fried.
Making it meatless or plant-based is another healthy swap. Nutrient-dense plant-based diets have proven health benefits, including decreasing the risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and some forms of cancer.
Still, plant-based doesn't automatically mean healthier. For example, Burger King’s Whopper has 679 calories and 1,174 milligrams of sodium. The Impossible Whopper clocks in at a comparable 639 calories and 1,354 milligrams of sodium.
“If they’re frying it or cooking it in a lot of oil, or if they’re loading sauces on there, that vegetarian option isn’t necessarily lower in calories or fat or sodium,” Hughes said.
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Customize the sauce and dressing
Sauce can add extra sodium or added sugar to your meal. And while opting for no sauce is certainly a healthy choice, but sometimes a good sauce makes a sandwich. If it isn’t a deal breaker for you, try asking for light sauce or sauce on the side. The same goes for salad dressing.
Look outside of the main menu
“Don’t always jump right to the entrees, look at what sides you can get,” Hughes said. “Can you get a baked potato or a salad and a yogurt parfait and is that something that would appeal to you instead of just a traditional burger?”
Since she lives in a rural area with limited fast food options, Hughes said her go to’s at McDonald's are often sides or items from the dollar menu.
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Be mindful of portion size
It’s been nearly two decades since McDonald’s did away with their “Supersize” option, but fast food portion sizes are still much larger now than they were 30 years ago, according to a 2019 study. Portion sizes are also consistently larger in the U.S. than in the U.K., Food Wars hosts found.
What's in your drink?
“The more items you put in your beverage, the more calories and sugar you’re adding to your diet,” Hughes said, suggesting passing on the whipped cream or added cream. “Some of those fancy coffees that you can order have hundreds and hundreds of extra calories.”
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Healthy fast food options for families
If you’re familiar with a full car and packed afterschool schedule as a parent, stopping to grab fast food for dinner may seem like the most convenient option.
To combat this, Hughes recommends preparing in advance with these three tips:
Pack snacks to replace, or supplement fast food meals: Hughes might stop to grab chicken tenders (her daughter’s favorite) but would pair them with yogurt, fruit or vegetable snacks instead of fries or another fast food side.
Keep a water bottle on hand: A reusable bottle can save money and a trip to a fast food chain that might have you buying soda instead.
Take a look at the menu online: Researching the available options saves the frantic scramble to find an option when pulling up to the drive-thru or register. You can scan through a fast food menu online once and find options you didn’t know existed or browse nutritional information.
“We all live crazy, busy, hectic lives,” Hughes said. “So it just requires a little bit of planning, whether that’s looking at the menus before you head out or coming up with a game plan for what snacks you’re bringing.”
Discover more health tips for your daily diet:
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Healthiest vegetable: Check out these great nutrient-dense options
Healthiest nut: Add these two daily for cognitive benefits and more
Healthiest bread: One is best, but your options for a healthy diet are aplenty
Healthiest rice: Settling the white rice vs. brown rice debate
Healthiest oil: Most have some benefits but these two might be best
Healthiest beer: Consider these factors before you crack open a cold one
Healthiest cereal: Inside the nutritional info on the back of the box
Healthiest salad dressing: Best options, plus recipes to make your own
Healthiest breakfast: Follow this 3-step guide in the mornings
Healthiest butter: Look for this kind at the grocery store
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What's the healthiest fast food? Healthy fast food for families?