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Craving a burger? Try these healthier picks at McDonald's, Burger King and more

You don't have to give up your favorite fast food all the time. Here's what to look for when choosing a better-for-you burger.
/ Source: TODAY

Fast food restaurants have come a long way in an attempt to offer healthier items to diners following different diets.

But, sometimes, all you really want is a classic burger.

Before you give up and go for that salad (which, by the way, may actually have more calories than fries or even a sandwich) do a little homework ahead of time so you can enjoy a better fast food burger on the road.

1. Pay attention to the sodium.

The average American consumes almost double their recommended daily allowance of salt, so it's important to pay attention to how much you're consuming at every meal. "Keep in mind that we’re supposed to be aiming for around 2,300 milligrams of sodium for an entire day," Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of and author of "Read it Before You Eat It - Taking You from Label to Table," told TODAY Food.

Not all burger patties are created equal (and extra toppings often mean extra salt) so look at the full nutritional profile of the food you want to order. While you’re at it, check out how much sodium is in that order of fries, too.

2. Size matters.

Consider how big that burger really is. "An appropriate portion size of protein can range from 3 to 6 ounces, depending on [a person's] height, weight, gender, activity level..." said RD and nutrition consultant Alix Turoff. Many fast food burgers are actually within that range ... unless, of course, you Super Size it or get extra meat.

"A Quarter Pounder literally equates to 4 ounces," explained Turoff. "A regular McDonald's hamburger patty is about 1.6 ounces, which is actually a very small portion of protein. A McDouble is two of these patties, so that's 3.2 ounces.

"Regardless, [the] size of the patty itself doesn't seem to be the problem with most fast food burgers," Turoff added, noting that In-N-Out has a 2-ounce burger, one Five Guys burger patty is about 3 ounces and Shake Shack offers a 4-ounce burger patty.

3. Pack on the protein.

Protein is an important part of any diet, but just because something looks like beef doesn't mean it's exactly what you think it is. Check the ingredient list for any signs of extra fillers.

"Basically, 1 ounce of pure protein — coming from a piece of meat, chicken or fish — weighs in at about 7 grams of protein per ounce. If your 4-ounce Quarter pounder is giving you less than 20 grams of protein, then you may be getting more filler than meat," said Taub-Dix.

4. Count the carbohydrates.

Not counting the bun, burgers may actually have additional carbs hidden as fillers in the meat. "Check the [total] carb content of your burger," said Taub-Dix. "A small bun should bring about 30 grams of carbohydrates, so if ... your bun and burger combo weighs in around 50 to 60 grams of carbs, your burger may be bulked-up with breadcrumbs, soy fillers and so on."

If you're really watching your carbs, then ditch the bun altogether. You can still enjoy toppings like lettuce, tomato, pickles and mustard.

5. Eat your veggies ... but do your homework.

Plenty of major chains are rolling out their own vegetarian and vegan burger patties. But being meat-free doesn't necessarily mean these burgers are a healthier option. You should always ask for the full list of the patty's ingredients because they can vary widely.

"Some are actually made with veggies and beans ... those are the best as far as providing protein, fiber and valuable nutrients," said Taub-Dix. "Others may be mostly made of soy concentrate, rice, potato, and other ingredients that provide less protein and nutritional value with an emphasis on mouthfeel and texture that resembles a meat-driven burger." Some veggie burgers may have as much protein as traditional beef burgers, but many don't so it's important to evaluate the overall nutritional profile of any fast food sandwich.

McDonald's McVegan
McDonald's McVegan burger is now a permanent menu item in Finland and Sweden.Courtesy of McDonald's

If you're already out and just want a quick go-to order, Turoff told TODAY Food his top five fast food burger picks that provide a good ratio of calories to fat and protein.

1. In-N-Out Protein-Style Hamburger with onion: 240 calories, 17 grams of fat, 11 grams of carbs, 3 grams of fiber, 13 grams of protein

2. Five Guys Beef Burger Patty wrapped in lettuce with peppers, mushrooms, onion, tomatoes, relish and mustard: 270 calories, 17 grams fat, 11 grams carbs, 2 grams fiber, 18 grams protein

3. Burger King Veggie Burger (no mayo): 310 calories, 7 grams fat, 42 grams carbs, 6 grams fiber, 22 grams of protein

4. McDonald's McDouble (no cheese): 340 calories, 14 grams fat, 32 grams of carbs, 1 gram fiber, 20 grams protein

5. Shake Shack's Single Hamburger (with a gluten-free bun): 325 calories, 21 grams of, 19 grams of carbs, 2 grams fiber, 20 grams protein

The bottom line, no matter which fast food burger you choose, treat it like a treat but don't forget that you can always add more bulk — and nutrition! — to your meal with lots of lettuce, tomato and onion ... just go easy on the Special Sauce and fattier toppings.