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8 Ways to Order Fast Food Without Destroying Your Diet

By , SparkPeople Blogger
In some areas, "fast" is a good thing. When it comes to improving your running or walking pace, completing a dreaded task or even losing weight (safely, of course)—well, the faster, the better. Fast traffic, fast money, fast meetings: all good.
But when it comes to fast food? Not so much.
We've all been in that situation when, strapped for time or lagging in energy, we give into the tempting convenience, quickness and maybe even the crave-worthy taste of a drive-thru meal. But the short-term rewards are quickly eclipsed by the nagging guilt of consuming food (and we use that term loosely) that, in most cases, provides little to no nutritive benefit and exceeds our allotment of calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar.
Let's face it: There's nothing fun about entering a Big Mac and fries into the Nutrition Tracker.
That said, the occasional window pickup doesn't have to completely derail your progress. Summer Yule, MS, RDN, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics promotes a "total diet approach" to nutrition, where—barring certain medical contraindications—all foods can fit. "What this means is that favorite meals from fast food restaurants do not need to be completely avoided, but they should not make up the bulk of a person's typical dietary pattern, and they should be consumed in moderate portions," Yule says.
And while fast food isn't ideal, on those (hopefully) rare events when it's the only option, some choices are smarter than others.
Just say "no" to super-sized.
It may seem obvious, but sticking to the smallest portion is a surefire way to save a lot of calories, sodium and saturated fat. Most of today's fast food restaurants make it all too easy to bump up your order to gargantuan proportions.
"There's always the ability to supersize anything on the menu—just say the word and you instantly triple your fat and calories," warns Cindy Brehse, owner of Fitness With Cindy. "Avoid the gigantic portions, like triple-decker burgers and gallon-sized sodas, and stick to regular-sized menu options to keep your fat and calorie counts manageable."
And if all else fails, the simplest way to ensure reasonable portions is to tap into your inner child and order from the kid's menu.
Avoid anything fried.
As a general rule, steer clear of anything fried, battered or breaded, such as french fries, crispy chicken sandwiches and chicken nuggets. "These items will be more processed with additives like high-sodium preservatives, sugars and highly processed saturated fats," warns Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD, LDN from Light Track Nutrition.
In most cases, a grilled or non-breaded option is available. For example, Chick-fil-A's grilled chicken nuggets only contain 210 calories, compared to 390 calories for the breaded version. And at Steak 'n Shake, the grilled chicken sandwich has 370 calories, while the spicy breaded chicken sandwich will run you 580 calories.
Check the nutrition info.
Most fast food chains post nutritional information (or at least a calorie count) right on their drive-thru menus, making it easy to compare and choose the most diet-friendly options.
Don't have the time or the eyesight to eyeball the small print from your car window? Yule suggests checking online ahead of time. Not only is it easier to peruse, the online nutrition information will also include things like sodium and saturated fat content, which are generally not on the menu board.
You just might be surprised by what the numbers reveal. For instance, Yule says, according to the McDonald's website, the small fries only contain 160 milligrams of sodium (7 percent daily value). "Many people would probably never guess that the fries are considerably lower in sodium than the grilled chicken sandwich, which has 1120 milligrams of sodium at 47 percent daily value," she says.
Be smart about salads.
It may seem like a veggie-based salad is a can't-miss choice, but when it's loaded with dressing, cheese and croutons, it can easily rival a loaded cheeseburger in terms of fat and calories.
"If the fresh veggies aren't prominent, then you could be eating more calories and fat than you thought," warn Kim and Kalee Sorey from Sorey Fitness. "For example, the Zaxby's Zensation Zalad has 1,165 calories—almost a day's worth of food depending on your height and weight."
Always ask to have the dressing on the side so you can control your intake, and opt for vinegar/oil-based dressings instead of the creamier, higher-fat options. Gulbin also suggests avoiding breaded meats and loading up with non-starchy vegetables, like tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers. Opt out of croutons, instead sprinkling on some fiber-rich slivered almonds, peanuts or chia seeds from home.
Look for healthier fare.
If you have a favorite fast food restaurant, Yule suggests choosing some of the better-for-you options as go-to items that you can fall back on when you don't have time to plan meals. "For example, in the summer, Panera offers the Strawberry Poppyseed Chicken Salad," she notes. "It is under 400 calories for a whole-sized salad, the sodium and fat content are reasonable, and it comes with a light poppyseed dressing."
Brehse has a few healthier fast food favorites, like Wendy's chili and apple pecan chicken salad, and Chick-fil-A's grilled sandwiches and salads. "A healthy diet leaves room to splurge every now and then," she says. "It's about portion control and not gorging yourself on a gigantic bucket of fries just because they're part of some meal deal."
And when you get the inevitable question, "Do you want fries with that?", ask what nutritious alternatives are on offer. Most chain restaurants now offer at least a few healthier sides. At Wendy's, you can choose a plain baked potato, apple slices or a small salad. Chick-fil-A offers mixed fruit cups, Greek yogurt and a "superfood" side that blends broccolini, kale, sour cherries and roasted nuts. And at Steak 'n Shake, you can bypass fries in favor of vegetable soup, cottage cheese or baked beans.
Skip the sugar-sweetened soda.
A large Coca-Cola from Wendy's might only set you back a couple of bucks, but it will also cost you a whopping 400 calories—nearly a quarter of the average recommended calorie intake for the entire day. On top of that, Gulbin warns that fast food restaurants often serve many beverages with high-fructose corn syrup and added sweeteners or dyes that can be harmful to your health, especially when consumed in excess.
Although diet soda eliminates the calories, it also contains artificial sweeteners, which some studies suggest could cause an increased craving for more sweet foods. Your best bet is to skip the soda altogether and choose water or unsweetened iced tea.
Choose the right kind of bread.
When ordering something that contains bread, always choose the whole-grain option when available. Or better yet, as Gulbin points out, some fast food restaurants offer the option of getting burgers and sandwiches in lettuce wraps instead of buns, which can save on calories and refined carbohydrates. And if they don't, nutritionist Donna P. Hetrick suggests removing the bun and requesting extra lettuce leaves to create your own wrap.
Scale back on the sauces.
While you can still enjoy your favorite condiments and dressings, be careful not to overdo it. Request them on the side and add them in small amounts. And when ordering a burger, Hetrick recommends selecting mustard or salsa over ketchup and mayonnaise to reduce sugar and calorie intake. Even better, choose leaf lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles as toppings instead of the more calorie-heavy cheese, mayonnaise and bacon.
What's your favorite tip for making it through the fast-food drive-thru with your diet plan unscathed?

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Safe bet: Just order whatever has the least flavor on the menu. That will be what has the least calories. Report
[soapbox on] My biggest pet peeve about fast food restaurants? When you ask for a plain iced tea and you get a sweet iced tea. Invariably, it seems like this happens in the drive-thru. Seems to me like plain tea should be the default. Only give folks sweet tea if they ask for sweet tea. [soapbox off]

Okay. I'm done complaining now. :) Report
Love these ideas! Report
I almost never eat fast food. I think of the calories I eat as how many burpees it will take to burn off. That makes giving up fast food easy for me! I HATE burpees! Report
Subway. Go for one of their "fresh fit" line, leave off the cheese, no mayo (brown mustard), got for the harvest oat (extra fiber), load on the vegetables (be careful with the pickles, olives, jalapenos, and banana peppers if you're watching salt). Side of apples and either milk or the unsweetened iced tea.

Jack in the box? The pita. Leave off the cheese, ask for extra salsa and a side salad.

Taco Bell? They have that "power" burrito. About 450 calories. Drops to about 350 if you tell them to leave off the sour cream and guac. Might want to keep the guac, but go light on it. Report
Love this article. I'm trying to avoid the 'all or nothing' mentality. Eating fast food on occasion shouldn't mean abandoning all my efforts because something isn't perfect. It's a whole lifestyle change which means accepting things can be less than ideal but going on with life. Report
Thank you Report
great tips Report
Thanks for the tips. Report
Nice Report
Making healthy choices when eating out is often difficult but important to do. Report
If I get into a situation that I need to do fast food, I order a sandwich and a salad. Then I toss the bread. A whopper with no bun is only 430 calories and is well within the keto macro count. Report
My trick is to just not eat fast food. Report
Great ideas! Thanks for the article! Report
Good ideas Report
I rarely eat out so when I do, I order what I want. No guilt either because it's just food. I would however choose more wisely of course if I ate out more often. It's what we do day to day that matters.. Report
Thanks for the great suggestions! Report
If I need to do fast food, I always do breakfast time. Gives me the whole day to burn it off. Report
Great info! Thanks for sharing! Report
I've never much cared for fast food Arby's curly fries being one notable exception.) But I find that the more weight I lose and the fitter I get, the less I even WANT that junk!

If only it were that easy to overcome my ice cream addiction...! Report
These are great ideas Report
Thanks for sharing! Report
Thanks for sharing! Report
Great tips! Thanks! Report
I rarely go to a fast food place anymore. It isn't worth the worry. Report
thanks for the info Report
Good info; thanks for sharing!!! Report
Great information. Report
Thanks. Report
Thank you for the information. Report
enjoyed reading Report
Great tips for those who like fast food Report
thanks Report
I have been ordering apple slices with my regular burger & a bottled water. Very satisfying if eaten slowly. Report
Great tips. This is useful. Report
When my husband and I eat fast food, sometimes one of us will order a combo meal, the other will order just a sandwich and a drink (or complientary water) and we split the fries. I wish more fast food places would offer a selection of sides like Wendy's does that instead of fries for a side you could get a garden salad or a small soup. Report
If I know what restaurant I'm going to beforehand, I always look up their menu and nutrition facts before I go. I can't believe how many calories are in so many salads at these chain restaurants! Sometimes it does almost seem better to just go with a burger! Report
My husband and i was gonna order a pizza, and after logging on and finding out the calorie and fat count. we cooked chicken and veggtables for dinner.
just do it before you eat it. Report
WOW! I never realized the impact. I try not to eat fast food if I can help it. Cheaper to eat at home. I also go th the grocery store and pick up a roasted chicken if I don't have time to cook, or I am home alone for dinner. I am going to go to my favorite fast food website and check out the nutritional facts and make some new choices.

Thanks for the great information! Report
great info!
In NYC they have a law or something like that that the calories are shown on menus now Report
I don't eat fast food. Great info. Thanks Report
Due to budget and time constraints, food on the go is part of my life. I agree with the folks that have stated you can make decent choices with respect to calories anyway - you just have to know ahead of time what your options are - and thankfully the fast food web sites are very helpful in this regard. Report
Most of these places also serve up a side salad that is a mix of lettuce greens, carrot strips, radish slices, and tomatoes plain. The dressing and croutons are always on the side. Also, they will serve any of their sandwiches "bun-less" so you can get a plain burger and cut it up on your salad and have a low-cost meal for a lot less "cost" nutritionally speaking. Report
Thanks for the ideas. I do fast food for lunch sometimes. It's good to know these options. Report
I love the apple and walnut snacker at McDonald's. I don't eat most of the walnuts and only half of the yogurt. It's probably not that economical - and I hate all of the packaging because of the environmental impact - but at this point, I am glad to find something halfway healthy that I can grab in a pinch. Before I found this snack, I used to eat the onion petals at Arby's, so I guess this is a step in the right direction! Report
thanks alot. i will keep all these tips in mind next time im at Mc.Donalds. i dont really eat any other fast food anyways. Report
These are very good ideas Report
Wendy's nutrition site is pretty good. You can customize the sandwich based on what you ate. You are not stuck with boiler plate nutritional info. For example, a grilled chicken sandwich with onion, mustard and tomato is 260 calories if I figured it right.

Not to bad if you are on the run from one appointment to the next. Report
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