It’s hard to make healthy choices when you’re in a hurry, especially when you’re choosing between fast food drive-thrus that all seem equally unhealthy. Facing down a barrage of menu options leads many of us to give up on the whole idea of nutrition — and give in to deep-fried decadence.
“I very rarely eat fast food,” admits Dr. Christopher McGowan, a physician who specializes in obesity medicine and is known for his viral weight-loss TikTok videos, tells TODAY. “However, sometimes you really do have to,” he said, and adds that there are ways to do it in a healthy manner — or as healthy as possible.
Pause before you order.
The “fast” in fast food is what makes it so easy and convenient, but McGowan says that it’s crucial to plan out your order. That’s because reading the menu before you’re faced with the deliciously decadent images inside can prevent you from making impulsive decisions. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend hours researching nutritional information. “Planning could occur moments before you walk into the fast food restaurant,” McGowan said.
You can pull up the menu for any of the major franchises on your phone, either in the parking lot before you walk in or while you’re waiting in line. And don’t be swayed once it’s your turn. Make your order decisions and stick to them, said McGowan.
Prioritize lean protein.
“You want to prioritize protein,” McGowan said. In general, protein is more satisfying, he explained, because it makes you feel full. Your body also uses protein more slowly than carbohydrates, so you’ll stay satisfied longer than if you snack on things like French fries. McGowan said that menu items like chili at Wendy’s are chock-full of protein.
Be careful, though. Fried chicken has protein, but it’s also really high in fat. “Look for lean protein,” McGowan suggested. The easiest way to do this is to avoid fried items altogether. McGowan says to choose grilled instead. “If there’s a chicken option, always go with the grilled rather than the fried,” he said. Most franchises have great grilled options these days, and Chik-Fil-A even has grilled nuggets.
Leave the sauce on the side.
McGowan says that it is absolutely mandatory to order dressing and sauce on the side. Why? Because even if you order something totally healthy — like salad — dressing can make it a nutritional disaster. “Dressing is going to be one of the highest calorie components of salads,” McGowan told TODAY.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have dressing or sauce at all — you just have to be judicious. “You can add dressing to your salad,” said McGowan. “Add a small amount and then mix it in to add that flavor, but not the excessive calories and the oils and salt and the sugars that are often in those dressings.”
McGowan’s advice is the same for basically any sauce. A lot of fast food is swimming in it, but you can request otherwise. If you’re at Taco Bell, for example, you can order most items “fresco style,” and they’ll skip the cheese and sauces and replace them with fresh tomatoes.
Unfortunately, this sauce-on-the-side strategy means totally skipping menu options that you can’t personalize — like coleslaw. McGowan said that all those drippy-looking options look so saucy because they’re basically made of oil, sugar and salt.
Save half your meal for later.
“Oftentimes at fast food restaurants, the portions are too large,” McGowan said. Giant portions make it easy to eat too much, but McGowan has a strategy for dealing with this issue. “Split a meal with someone else to keep your portion smaller or simply take half of it home,” says McGowan. So, invite a friend to lunch with you or hold onto those leftovers for another meal.
Another way to control your portions is by ordering off the kids’ menu. “The children’s option that may be 300 or 400 calories is certainly superior to the adult option that could be north of 800 or 1000 calories. And if you eat that smaller portion in a mindful, slow manner and allow yourself to feel full and satisfied,” McGowan explained.
Order ala carte — and skip the soda.
“The surest way to gain weight is to drink sugary beverages,” McGowan says. “A lot of times you’re looking at the menu and you feel that you feel the need to purchase a meal,” he said. Just say no! “The meal is going to include the size range and the actual size, typically fries or something like that that’s almost never healthy,” McGowan said, and adds that even diet sodas may have adverse health effects.
5 healthy fast food orders, according to McGowan:
- Chick-Fil-A's Kale Crunch Salad: "You’re really getting your vegetables, healthy nuts, and grilled lean chicken."
- Chipotle's High-Protein Bowl: "It’s around 816 calories. So that’s a great opportunity to divide that in half and you get two meals out of [it]."
- Wendy’s Small Chili: "Great source of protein, iron and fiber for satiety. Low in fat and sugar."
- Popeye's Regular Red Beans and Rice: "No sugar, eight grams of protein. And they also have green beans and corn on the cob, so could have some vegetable options."
- Taco Bell's Chicken Taco Fresco-style: "[Fresco-style] eliminates the cheeses and sour cream and substitutes tomatoes."
All-in-all, eating fast food is usually not the healthiest option and McGowan recommends keeping healthy snacks and protein drinks on hands so you can avoid it as much as possible. But if you do find yourself in the drive-through, don’t belittle yourself for it. We all slip up and eat the “wrong” foods or a little too much sometimes. As McGowan said, “It’s OK to eat a less healthy meal. It’s one meal. Just jump right back into your healthier habits.”