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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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More times than not I will order grilled chicken with mustard or plain. I will snitch a few of my husband's fries rather than order my own. Report
I love the kids menu, if I have no other choice than to eat fast food. In sit down restaurants, though, where the kids menu has only childish items, I ask them to split my order and box up the second half to go. This way, I am not tempted to keep eating just to "clear my plate," and it's much closer to an actual seving size! Report
I had lapband surgery in July 2007 so I now eat smaller, more frequent portions of food. Wendy's chili is one of the most healthy fast foods out there. It is high protein and fiber and low fat.If you ask, they will add extra onions. If I have to eat fast food and I can actually sit down to eat, I get chili, otherwise it is a jr hamburger, no cheese and a small fry. I eat, maybe, one side of the bun, often times I eat a couple bites of the bun. Report
Thank you, so much, to the person who posted #4 with the link to the video of Super Size Me ... wow - I watched the video and it was extremely eye opening. An hour and 39 minutes, but worth every minute. Rather than sitting down with a fast food meal to watch this, probably super-sized, that I might have done before joining SparkPeople (and being sick for the last 4 days), I was happy that I sat down and had a microwaved baked potato with some garlic powder w/parsley and S&W Vintage Lites Oil Free.Fat Free Raspberry Blush vinegar dressing instead ... actually tasty, satisfying and much less dangerous. Report
I do eat at fast food places occasionally, but I almost always get one of their salads. I'm not trying to advertise for these places, but Wendy's, McDonald's, and Chick-Fil-A are all close by where I live and have good grilled chicken salads with lots of veggies and lots of flavor (at least in my opinion). I don't really like salad dressing, so that always saves me some calories, too. Often times at Chick-Fil-A, I'll also pick up a small chicken soup so that I have more of a meal. I find this convenient to pick up dinner at one of these spots once a week or every other week. I know these places serve a lot of tempting foods, but anything occasionally should be fine, and I really think there are a lot of healthy options now. Report
If I have to eat fast food on the go I'm all for taking off the bun and I don't order cheese of anykind. That will usually get me by until I can get home to eat something better. And, when I go to resturants I do take home what I cannot eat but it usually gets thrown away in the next 2 days because it just doesn't look that good anymore. Report
I try to avoid them at all cost, but if I must, I order small portions. Report
Best tip? Education- Read Fast Food Nation- Eric Schloser. This book changed the way I ate, and the way I see the entire food industry, especially fast food. McDonalds is NOT your friend, they want your money and they don't care about your health..you may just get angry enough to ban them from your vocabulary... Report
I've become accustomed to taking leftovers home from restaurants and splitting meals with family and friends when I dine out. Practically every restaurant has some sort of container to take home food with and it's better than gorging myself in order not to waste food and/or an option to split entrees. Report
This is why I PACK MY LUNCH! :o) I travel each day with my job and I usually eat in the car. Fast food just wears me out and I'm tired before my shift ends. It takes a lot of creativity, and some days I just don't get it done, but it IS one of my Spark People Goals! :o) Report
Whenever I went to McDonalds drive thru I always got the Quarter Pounder with cheese meal. Now I get the fruit and Yogurt Parfait. They are great. Report
When I am craving a certain "fast food delicacy", I've discovered it is easier to keep myself in check if I can split the meal with my dw.. Report
I think it's good that fast food places are making some changes and creating some healthier menu choices.

Sadly, I got food poisoning a couple years ago from Taco Bell, and I am stickler about other people preparing my food. Even at sit down resturants. Report
Because I do Weight Watchers and have to watch my points, I keep a little list in my car of all the places I like to go or might find myself going with a friend. The list keeps me on track because I automatically know what I'm going to order or at least that I have some options. My favorite nowadays though, is Taco Bell's Fresca menu. One Chicken Ranchero Soft Taco Fresca style is 3 points! That means I can have two and still make it a low-point lunch/dinner. Report
I have been eating half a bun for the longest time and now I very rarely eat out so its nice to know there are a few small ways to eat less junky! Report
My daughter and I split a baccon muhsroom melt from "Wendy's" and keep the chilli for a sepeate meal. It is a nice way of sharing.
- Flash Gorden Report
I really enjoy eating out and fast food is no exception. I ALWAYS order a small anything. Often I order a kids meal with no toy, they never look at me funny so others must do it to. I think the kids meals are more to the right proportion then their regular meals anyway. I find I can do this and still stay in my calorie limit. Report
As most of the people here, I rarely eat at a fast food place, but if I do, there are some basically healthy choices. McDonald's Asian Chicken Salad with Grilled Chicken and dressing only has about 400 calories, which is what I try to eat at a meal anyway. Also the regular hamburger (not quarter pounders or whoppers) aren't too bad calorie wise either. So, you can eat fast food and not ruin your diet. But the sodium content is high, so you should be careful, especially if you have problems with cholesterol.

Also, sometimes you should just get what you want to get, even if it isn't healthy. If you can't treat yourself once in a while, it isn't a healthy diet, it's torture. Report
Being a full-time student and part-time employee, I always keep some kind of granola bar or carrot/celery sticks with me. Either in my backpack or in my purse. It helps curb the "I gotta have something, ANYTHING NOW!!" cravings. Also, it helps to keep me satisfied until I can get something healthier than fast food. Special K bars not only taste better but they don't have the hard texture most granola bars have. Go to Big Lots to stock up. About a third of the price as the ones at the grocery store.

Plus, ALWAYS keep a bottle of water with you. Saves you from breaking down and getting soda and sometimes hunger is mistaken for thirst (Sounds crazy but it's true!).

If you need flavor you can't get from water, add a lemon or lime squeeze to it or try sparkling water like Perrier or something similar (Arrowhead makes sparkling water now too and is only 99 cents a liter). Plus, some are made with lemon or lime flavors and with out sugars, carbs, or calories! Must say, they are delicious :-) Report
I just stay away from fast food completely. If I really wanted a hamburger, I just make it at home...that way I control every ingredient and proportion. Makes it a ton easier! If I need a meal on the go, I grab some fruit or a muffin. Just plan ahead and you'll be good to go. Report
I am not gonna lie, when I go to a fast food place, i usually do get a combo meal but I never upsize and I usually try to get the chicken combo so that my meal is not so fattening and when I am on a tight budget than I get something light off the $1 menu. People forget that you can eat at fast food joints, but you just have to limit urself. Report
On the rare occasions when I do go thru a fast food drive in, I treat myself & order a small side of french fries (love them!!!) - - BUT I ask for NO SALT on the fries, and then when I get them, I blot them out a little on some napkins. That way I enjoy the taste without the high blood pressure & extra calories. Works for me. :)
I've joked that I'm on the fast food diet. I just love a hamburger and fries from mcdonals, but I get a regular hamburger and small fries. Its really comforting. I've lost 37 pounds while eating fast food 3-4 times a week, but I always get small portions and consider it in my total calorie count. Report
my problem is snacking... i guess i'm not eating unuff for breakfast or lunch what is the deal i have tried chewing gum or drinking water not working Report
I am a fast-food addict of sorts, but i carry around a nutrition fact book, and try to look for things under 200 calories. A good trick i use is to just eat half of what i get, and give the other half to my dog when i get home. Salads are also a great calorie saver (side salads, not entrees) and i just use a small portion of the light dressing packet. Report
I really enjoy reading the comments a lot of things I learn was very interesting and informative I will be reading some of the books that were mention for myself I am a fast food junkie I love McDonald's and so do my children unfortunately I have not work on their poor eating habits since I have lost weight I will order $1 Mchicken sandwich and a $1small fry I always carry water what I usually do is take 1 piece of the bread off of the mcchicken bun slice the chicken in half usually I am full after I eat this combo in the past was Double Quater pound meal I feel great that I have achieve this I would like to eventually stop going to fast food but with a 2 year old and a 16 year old this would be next to impossible Report
Just the other day I took my daughter over to McDonald's. I was also hungry and was going to wait til we got home to eat something more healthy, but I couldn't wait. So instead of getting a burger like I really wanted, I got their fruit & yogart parfay with the granola and a grilled chiptole bbq snack wrap. It was very fulfilling and I didn't feel like I messed up.
Few days before my daughter & I went to Burger King and I really wanted a burger. I got a small burger and gave the fries to my daughter. I don't make a habit of going to fast food places, but if it hapens I try to make better choices. Normally it's about once a month IF that we'll go get fast food. Report
I know that this is a men's magazine but I find this info fantastic for fast food places... Eat this...not that!!
/ Report
I have turned the grocery store into my favorite fast food drive through. A trip through the fruit and vegetable section is all I need and want. My kids have adjusted along with me. My youngest thinks a big-ol carrot is great treat. Report
My favorite "Gotta Have It" meal is Wendy's Southwest Taco Salad. I order it without their salad dressing and sour cream. Then I eat about half of the salad using the chili as "dressing" for lunch (very satisfying). I save the other half, take it home, add some additional veggies, the taco strips, and my own low cal dressing, and have a second meal that feels totally different from lunch. I can divide the posted cal. count in half for each meal, then add the extras for veggies etc. It works out great.
Now, honestly, sometimes I NEEEED a hamburger! so I get one - kid's meal or dollar menu size. It's the taste I need, not the belly buldgeing bulk of of a triple decker. Report
Im not big on fast foods either. I rather know whats really in my foods I eat. BESIDES what caveman had fast foods??? Ya want to keep healthy you dont eat junk foods or processed foods.. The salt alone will kill you . Let alone the bad fats.. Report
i work in a fast food restuarant so sometimes i can either get a salad or a diet soda...yeah diet soda is not good fer ya but it helps maybe to shed some weight off. Report
My favorite fast foot burger was always the Whopper Jr. I always felt better about getting the Jr. because it was smaller and I like the flame-broiled taste. A vegetarian friend of mine suggested ordering a whopper without meat! The weird thing is, I tried it and didn't even miss the meat!!! Don't laugh until you try it. If that is just a little too strange for you, try ordering the Whopper veggie burger (a veggie patty instead of beef). It's not bad and you still get to smell the flame-broiled beef when you go in or use the drive thru. Report
am not a fast food fan,but even if i had to,i always go on salad and gril fish,sometimes cook patato,
which at the end my calories will clock to 320 -400.is okay by me,for a special treat.good luck for your individua Report
I've been picking up nutritional brochures from fast food places. I cut the sauces, fried stuff, and load up on the veggies. Many places have healthier choices. Taco Bell has the "Fresco" menu that takes off the cheese & sauces and adds pico de gallo. Report
At McDonalds, saving money and enjoying a good salad is easy. I buy the side salad on the $1 menu with a light dressing and a 4 piece chicken nugget, cut those up and toss them in the salad and its a very filling meal! Just thought I would share, oh yeah and don't use the croutons, they just add more calories. If you do Weight Watchers, I think this was like 5 or 6 points, depending on your salad dressing. Report
Someone told me that Fast Food french fries will not mold. That sounds awful. I don't know if it's true, but it was enough to keep me away from there. I go to Subway instead.... *grin* Report
On the go and haven't planned ahead; I always default to the Whopper Jr with out mayo. I ask for extra lettuce and tomato. It's 310 calories and eaten slowly puts enough in my stomach to call it a meal. It's not an every day thing but there are a lot worse things out there to grab. And best of all it only costs one buck. Report
In Canada, we have pita fast food restaurants that have their nutritional information on the wall where you order. It's great, because you can see exactly what your fast food meal is going to set you back in terms of calories, fat, sodium, carbs, and everything else.

On another note, I have found that if I crave fast food, the craving won't go away unless I have something. Denying cravings has, in the past, made me completely fall backwards and end up in worse shape than when I started. I allow myself to go out once per month and have something unhealthy. That way, I don't end up going on fast food binges where I gain back everything that I have lost. Just one tip: if you are going to give in to a craving, make sure that you are sure about what you are craving before you eat. Otherwise, you may end up expending a lot of empty calories finding the perfect treat. Report
Wanted to add that these are all good suggestions though and when and If I do have to ever eat on the road I'll be sure to follow them. Report
If I want a treat I do mcdonalds medium iced coffee, with no sugar or that flavoring stuff they add and just splenda with it, its like 90 calories. I get my kids a cheeseburger meal to split, but its not an everyday or every week thing either, maybe once a month or less. Report
I agree with the comments stating that the best thing to do is stay away from fast food in the first place. If I am going to do fast food, I try to go to Subway. I feel like it's the best value in terms of getting a filling meal without too many calories. I love Chick-Fil-A's grilled chicken sandwiches. They come on a whole wheat bun & they're great plain or with extra pickles. If I go to Wendy's I usually go with a baked potato & chili. I was a big fan of the Asian Chicken Salad from McDonald's, but I haven't had one of those in a while. All the other places I stay away from! Report
Taco Time has a really great "less than 300 calories" meal. White-bean and chicken chili with a crisp-shelled taco. :) It's quite tasty, though the sodium content is probably out of this world. Report
We do fast food occasionally, esp. weekends. Usually Subway (6" on wheat - no sauce, just lots of veggies and maybe bag of Baked Lays chips), Wendys (chili, jr cheeseburger w/o bun) or McDonalds (plain hamburger happy meal w/apples, no dip, and milk - then share w/my 3yr old). Sometimes will opt for salad but find it easier to bring from home to work - lettuce same cost as one side salad but will yield more. Report
Buy "eat this not that" it's a book by David Zinczenko that shows you what to eat and what not to eat at fast foods. Report
I love the $1 menu at Wendy's. I can get a small chili and baked potato (plain) and mix them together for a great $2 meal!!! The fresca menu at taco bell is also great! They list the calories and fat grams right at the register so I know exactly what to order. Report
If you want something fast food but not so bad for you...try Taco Bell's Fresca Menu....they have quite a few different choices and the calories range from 130-330. I always find a nice treat there....good luck! Report
I don't eat fast food normally but, both McDonalds and Wendys have a grilled chicken snack wrap. They're delicious and if you order them without the sauce, they're even healthier. They probably have about 1-1/2 oz. grilled chicken, lettuce and a little shredded cheddar. If I'm really hungry, I'll order 2 and put the chicken on 1 wrap. Get it with a side salad and low cal dressing and it's a great lunch. Really good if you're traveling and fast food is the only option. Report
Wow! What a great gift! I am a McDonald's addict, self proclamed. My husband is also an addict. I am working on my cravings there by ordering milk instead of pop and sticking to a single burger, no cheese and I find lately I can't even eat half of what I order! Yeah! Report
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