As we begin a new year, many of us are trying to embrace healthier lifestyles. For some, that may involve cutting back on the carbs. When watching our carbs or trying the keto diet, it can feel overwhelming to go to a fast-food restaurant. Are there any viable options? There are actually plenty, if you follow a few guidelines — and do a little dismantling.
“A low-carb or keto-friendly meal is going to contain about 70% fat, 20% protein and 10% carbohydrates,” Serena Poon, a nutritionist and chef, told TODAY Food. But just watching the carbs isn’t always the whole story. “In my opinion, these diets often overlook vegetables more than I would recommend. When looking for a low-carb dish, focus on high-quality protein, plant-based fats, such as olive oil, nuts or avocados and low-starch vegetables such as red peppers, tomatoes and greens,” she explained.
So, if you're trying to get lunch at your favorite fast food spot and watching your carbs, what should you avoid?” If you’re looking for a low-carb option, you’ll want to avoid grains, rice, legumes, fruit and anything with added sugar. Keep an eye out for salad dressings because they are often a hidden source of added sugar,” said Poon.
This may seem obvious, but it's best if you ask that a bun never be placed on your burger or sandwich. “This is because if a bun is used and you just remove it before eating you are likely going to get portions of bread that are difficult to remove from your sandwich,” Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and author of "The Candida Diet." It’s best to just ask for it to be left off.
Our favorite sandwiches are often loaded up with tasty condiments, but those can be bad news if you are watching the carbs. Most condiments contain a moderate amount of carbs, especially ketchup. “With the exception of mustard and mayonnaise, it is best to just avoid condiments outside of the home to ensure you aren't taking in hidden carbs,” said Richards.
Consider the sides, too
Most restaurants offer low-carb side options like side salads or steamed veggies. “For side salads, request no croutons and choose oil and vinegar as a dressing,” said Richards.
Keep it simple
While avoiding carbs can be as easy as removing a bun, there’s an obvious way to keep things simple and stay on track. “If you’re into ditching or slashing carbs, salad items are often the way to go without simultaneously overloading on unhealthy fats,” Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of "Read It Before You Eat It - Taking You from Label to Table," told TODAY. “You can cut lunch carbs even further by not eating the croutons on salad or by ordering a salad bowl instead of a taco or by eliminating the bread on a sandwich,” said Taub-Dix.
Wendy's Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad
If you’re looking to cut carbs and you don’t care about fat or sodium, this salad is for you. “With only 15 grams of carbs (about the amount in one thin slice of bread), you’ll get lots of protein (30 grams) along with 53% of the saturated fat from your day plus over 1,000 mg of sodium. Healthy fat, like avocado, will keep you feeling full while being heart healthy, unlike the saturated fats in this dish,” said Taub-Dix.
Burger King Whopper Sandwich
There’s nothing like a classic Whopper, but that feels off limits if watching our carbs. For those following a keto diet wanting high fat, not just low carb, a bunless burger is a great option. “Burger King's Whopper without a bun or ketchup meets your needs at just 3 grams of carbs. For those willing, you could eat 2 and still stay at only 6 grams of carbohydrates for a full meal,” said Richards. The downside, warns Richards, is that this meal is all meat and cheese, making it high in fat and protein, but low in other nutrients like vitamins and minerals that could be obtained from low-carb veggies.
Jack in the Box Southwest Chicken Salad
This salad is surprisingly hearty and will not derail your diet, or your day. “If you skip the croutons and the dressing, you’ll only get 230 calories and barely any sugar and you can keep the sodium down lower than it is on most other salads,” said Taub-Dix.
Taco Bell Power Chicken Bowl
There’s nothing like the ability to customize a dish, and in this bowl, you can reduce the sour cream or get the sauce on the side to keep things light. “The protein from the chicken and the beans will keep you feeling full and you’ll get plenty of crunch from the salad veggies which provide around 8 grams of fiber, a nutrient most of us don’t get enough of,” said Taub-Dix. This bowl does, however, bring in more than 1200 mg of sodium — about half of the amount you need in the whole day, if you use it as is, dressing and all.
Starbucks Grilled Chicken and Hummus Protein Box
This is a balanced lunch box you can literally grab-and-go — with a few tweaks. “If you're trying to limit carb intake, you don't need to also sacrifice feeling satisfied: simply swap the pita bread for red pepper slices that can act as a replacement holder for the chicken strips and hummus,” Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, author of "The Core 3 Healthy Eating Plan", told TODAY. In its original form, this Starbucks lunch contains 300 calories, only 2 grams of saturated fat, 7 grams of gut-friendly fiber and 22 grams of protein.
Chipotle Burrito Bowl
This will help you reimagine the concept of fast food by offering a variety of nutrient-dense ingredients that you can pick and choose from. “If you're watching total carbohydrates, replace the rice for a large serving of black beans. Although beans still contain carbs, they also offer a ton of fiber that slows down digestion and slashes net carb intake,” said Moskovitz. With 13 grams of fiber, 26 grams of protein and an assortment of nutrients from A to zinc, you can trust you'll get a fast source of energy.
Wendy's Grilled Chicken Sandwich
This might not be the first menu item that catches your eye, but it's certainly an easy way to eat on the lighter side when you're busy. “Nestled between a soft bun is a piece of seasoned grilled chicken and tons of antioxidant-rich veggies,” said Moskovitz. If you're following a low-carb lifestyle, consider going open-faced by removing the top bun or ask for an extra serving of lettuce and tomato to use as a vehicle to eat the grilled chicken instead. Offering 33 grams of protein and only 1.5 grams of saturated fat makes it a suitable solution for filling up on the road.
Chick-fil-A Grilled Chicken Nuggets
This item at Chick-fil-A is one of the lowest-carb lunch options available on their menu. “At just 3 grams of carbs for a 12 count of grilled nuggets this can be a satisfying lunch while also maintaining your dietary preferences,” said Richards. The best thing is that they don't have to be eaten plain, but there are a couple sauces that are just 1 grams of carbs per packet at Chick-fil-A. The Zesty Buffalo Sauce and Garden Ranch Sauce are both just 1 gram of carb per packet.