6 Tips for Healthier Fast Food Options

Choosing healthy alternatives at fast food restaurants

A healthy and attractive woman eats salad while enjoying the company of her girlfriend in a busy restaurant.

Choosing healthy alternatives at fast food restaurants

In our fast-paced world, eating on the run is a fact of life for most of us. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2007 to 2010 adults received 11.3 percent of their daily calories from fast food, and children and teens consumed on average 12.4 percent. 

While convenient, grabbing fast food can be detrimental to your health because it is almost always high in calories, saturated fat, sugar and salt, and has low nutritional content. However, with some thought and planning, you can find healthier food at your favorite fast food haunt.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that you and your family, especially the older kids, will never grab a quick bite at a fast food restaurant,” says Tracy Alexander, DO, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center, Solana Beach. “But there are ways you can stick to a healthy eating plan and still have the occasional fast food meal.”


Follow these six tips to stay on track nutritionally.

1. Control portion sizes

“Super-sized portions mean double the calories, and usually lots of fat, salt and even sugar,” says Dr. Alexander. “Even if you are not trying to lose weight, these big meals are probably more calories than you need to eat in one sitting.”

Stay away from the value meals, which may make sense economically, but not nutritionally. Choose the junior or regular version of a burger and keep it simple, ditching the mayonnaise and special dressing.

2. Choose healthy side dishes

Forgo the French fries and onion rings. Substitute baked potatoes without the butter and sour cream, or choose fruit, steamed vegetables or a side salad.

3. Think green

While salads at fast food restaurants aren’t always the healthiest choice, you can keep yours lite by avoiding toppings such as bacon, cheese and fried tortilla chips. Instead, choose vegetables in a rainbow of colors. Skip the creamy dressings in favor of vinaigrette and ask for the dressing on the side so you can use a small amount. 

4. Go grilled

“Fried and breaded foods, such as crispy chicken sandwiches and breaded fish fillets, are high in calories and fat,” says Dr. Alexander. “Grilled or roasted lean meats, including chicken breast, lean roast beef and turkey are the healthier choice.”

5. Drink smart

Water with your meal is the best selection you can make to quench your thirst. Milkshakes often contain more calories than your meal, and a regular soda of 30 ounces has about 300 calories and a lot of sugar.

6. Get nutritional information

You can look up nutritional information for many of your favorite restaurants online to help plan what to order before your stomach starts growling. When you walk into the restaurant, don’t get hooked on the delicious-sounding adjectives that advertise the less healthy options. Stick to your original, thoughtful choices when you get to the counter. Better yet, order from the drive-thru window so you can avoid the temptations and mouth-watering smells inside. 

“The bottom line is that fast food doesn’t have to sabotage your diet,” says Dr. Alexander. “While it would be great if we all had time to cook homemade meals with fresh ingredients every day, this is not pragmatic for most families. When grabbing fast foods, look for whole grain products, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, soy and dairy.”

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