There’s a reason why people are inclined to indulge in fast food from time to time — it’s quick, instantly gratifying and the restaurants are ubiquitous. But oftentimes, after the food has been consumed, guilt starts to set in. It doesn’t need to be that way, however.
Every fast food menu offers relatively healthy options (or at least, less unhealthy options) — it’s just a matter of knowing what to order, nutrition experts say.
“There’s no excuse to say, ‘I couldn’t get a healthy meal,'” says Kyle Byron, a Toronto-based nutritionist and trainer. “But most humans will succumb to the environment and it takes extreme goal focus to . Don’t even look at the tempting foods, like cookies or chips. Think of it in terms of ‘out of sight, out of mind.'”
The next time you find yourself in the middle of a food court and at the mercy of your growling stomach, consider these healthier fast food options as chosen by nutrition experts.
“With most of these places, it’s the salad that’s the best option,” Byron says. “It’s boring and overpriced, but it’s a fact.”
At Subway, he recommends ordering a grilled chicken salad with loads of vegetables.
“Although even their chicken is slightly processed, it’s still so much better than their cold cuts,” he says. “You want to add as many vegetables as possible so that you have a better chance of feeling full longer, and Subway has a good selection of fresh vegetables to choose from.”
However, he cautions against doubling up on fats — if you get avocado on the salad, for example, opt for a light vinaigrette. And always be mindful of how much dressing you’re adding.
The good news is, salads are not your only option.
“I’m not a big fan of fast food iceberg lettuce salads, so I’d probably order either the Whopper Jr. or the Grilled Chicken Sandwich,” says Abby Langer, a Toronto-based nutritionist. “I’d like to say I’d order the veggie burger, but it has so much sodium and sugar in it. The Whopper Jr. is perfect size-wise and still has that Whopper taste.”
And there’s no need to let this one meal derail you for the entire day, she says.
“Then I’d go home and have a big arugula salad for dinner to make up for the veggies I didn’t eat at lunch.”
With fast food salads, what’s in them and what you put on top of them can be chock full of fat and calories. That’s why Vanessa Vorbach, a holistic nutritionist in Vancouver, suggests starting with half the amount of dressing and then adding more if needed as you go along.
“If they have fresh lemon slices, I would squeeze that over the salad instead of the dressing,” she says.
At Wendy’s, her first choice is the Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad, and for dessert, she suggests opting for apple or strawberry slices. She says the salad offers several nutritious ingredients that make it a wise option, including quinoa, leafy greens and hummus.
“This salad is overall rich in fibre, protein and complex carbohydrates ensuring that you stay satiated and energized longer. It will also keep your blood sugar steady, which prevents cravings.”
A lot of the menu options at Tim Hortons sound healthy, but their sodium content says otherwise.
“If you’re watching your sodium levels, the Harvest Vegetable Soup is the best of all options,” says Janice Cohen, a Montreal-based registered dietitian and nutritionist.
But if calories are your main concern, there are a number of options available.
“The chili is comforting and filling, and offers a good amount of fibre and protein. The chicken noodle soup makes a good snack because it’s low in calories and carbs, and has a decent amount of protein,” she says.
She also points to sandwiches as a good option, as long as you stay away from extras like bacon, and opt for bread instead of a croissant.
What’s perhaps ironic about burger joints is that a basic burger is often the healthiest choice, and that gets compromised by the sides that go along with it, says Jessica Begg, a registered dietitian at Shift Nutrition in Calgary.
“The most important thing to keep in mind when is to avoid anything deep fried. By doing that, you’re already leaps and bounds ahead of where you’d otherwise be with a side order of fries or onion rings,” she says.
At Harvey’s, Begg suggests going for the Grilled Chicken sandwich and keeping the toppings simple with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise.
“As long as you aren’t adding a deep-fried topping or getting fries on the side, there’s no need to skip the mayo.”
Otherwise, she says, the chain’s Build-A-Bowl dish is a good choice as long as you choose a healthy base, like rice or salad, and load up on fresh vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, corn and black beans. And as always, go easy on the dressing.
The Greek-ing Out Salad with Grilled Chicken (without the herb and garlic pita) is a natural choice, says Toronto-based holistic nutritionist Sarah Goldstein, but that’s not the only healthy option.
“The point isn’t just to look at caloric content, but the nutrient load and quality of the food you’re eating,” she says. “You want to get a good source of protein, fibre and vegetables.”
She points to wraps as a much better option versus burgers, especially if you choose a whole wheat tortilla.
“Whole grain wraps have far fewer ingredients than something made from white flour, like an English muffin, and the fewer ingredients a bread product has the less likely it is to be overly processed. You’ll find half the ingredients in a whole wheat wrap than you’ll find in an English muffin.”
This is especially significant if you’re lining up at McDonald’s in the morning, when the Egg McMuffin is typically the go-to.
“The Feta and Tomato More-Ning McWrap is a great option because it has eggs, which are a good source of protein, and the wrap is whole grain.”
She also points to the Fruit and Maple Oatmeal as a wise breakfast option, provided you skip the added maple brown sugar packet.
“The sliced apples and cranberries will provide enough sweetness, so you won’t need the added sugar,” she says. “I think what’s most important is changing how you view eating at a fast food restaurant — you can opt out of certain ingredients or choose not to add them. It’s not all or nothing.”
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