How Can You Choose Healthy Options at Fast Food Restaurants?


Jim Dorsch has been a writer and editor for 25 years, specializing in food, drink and entertainment.

Learn some strategies for healthier eating when you're out for fast food, and review some research studies about McDonald's and Subway.

Learn some strategies for healthier eating when you're out for fast food, and review some research studies about McDonald's and Subway.

Restaurant menus become healthier. Americans become fatter. The proportion of obese adults increased from 23 percent to 31 percent between 1991 and 2001, while the proportion consuming low-calorie foods and beverages grew from 48 percent to 60 percent, and physical activity is on the rise.

What's going on here? For one thing, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) indicated that daily calorie intake had grown steadily between 1983 and 2000, when it reached 2,800 calories per person. Men need about 2,700 calories per day, on average, to maintain a desirable weight, and women need 2,000 calories. That means that, as of 2000, adults ate around 450 calories more than they needed, on average, less the amount expended through exercise.

Can You Find Healthy Food at a Fast Food Restaurant?

Be that as it may, sometimes busy people end up dining at a fast-food joint. It's either that or go hungry. How can you get out of such a place without leaving your diet a shambles?

You can do it if you're prepared. Do some homework before you leave the house, and you'll be armed with strategies to fill your stomach and not expand it. If you expect you'll be eating fast food, take a quick look at the menus and nutritional information on the websites of places you might visit. If you don't do that, you can still follow some simple rules to eat healthy foods, or at least minimize the damage.

Don't have it your way.

Don't have it your way.

Basic Tips for Healthier Fast Food Meals

If you find yourself in a fast-food outlet and you haven't done your homework, consider the following advice.

  • Look for smaller sizes. A regular hamburger may be enough for you.
  • Skip value meals, which tend to provide more food than you need. Share an item with someone, or order an appetizer portion.
  • Get whole-grain bread if possible.
  • Leave the top half of the bun on the side and eat your burger open-faced.
  • Order vegetables such as tomatoes and lettuce on sandwiches.
  • Go easy on mayonnaise and sauces. Ask about low-fat mayonnaise, or request salsa, ketchup, or mustard instead of mayonnaise or creamy dressing.
  • Get a small salad on the side instead of fries. Other options for side orders are a baked potato, steamed rice, a fruit cup, or a vegetable.
  • Order skinless chicken, grilled or broiled.
  • Drink milk, juice, or water instead of soda.
  • Pass on fruit pies, which contain a lot of sugar.

Fast Food Nutritional Information

Fast food tends to be high in fat, calories, and sodium, notes the USDA. It's also low in fiber, calcium and other nutrients, and it's short on fruits and vegetables. Large portions encourage you to eat more than you need.

The Affordable Care Act requires restaurants with more than 20 outlets to post calorie counts for regular menu items on menu boards and drive-through menus. This is not the case for special items. These establishments must also provide written nutritional information upon request.

Watch the sides.

Watch the sides.

Absent specific information, consumers must estimate the nutritional and caloric value of a meal, and they aren't too good at it. People tend to benchmark this information based on comparable goods, or on the healthful positioning of a restaurant. For example, Subway has successfully positioned itself as a provider of lower-calorie meals.

Does Labeling Really Help?

Studies have shown mixed results regarding the labeling of healthier foods. One study indicated that consumers were more likely to order an item if it was labeled “heart-healthy,” but another suggested that people were less likely to order something labeled as “healthy” because they thought it might not taste good.

One study showed that consumers are likely to order an unhealthy dessert with a healthy entrée, or vice versa. Another indicated that someone who perceives himself to be making progress toward weight loss may be more likely to want something that tastes good, and hence eat something unhealthy. People are also likely to order a healthy item along with an unhealthy choice due to guilt over ordering the latter.

Perception vs. Reality About Healthy Options

In a 2007 article, Pierre Chandon and Brian Wansink discussed a study of diners at Subway and McDonald's. The subjects of the study predictably indicated that Subway was a healthier choice than McDonald's.

  • The study found that McDonald's diners estimated that a 1,000-calorie meal contained 744 calories.
  • Subway diners estimated that their 1,000-calorie meal contained 585 calories, or over 21 percent less.

The study above could be prone to error because respondents may have only eaten one meal at either restaurant, and they were not asked to compare between the two restaurants.

A second study focused on people who had eaten several times at both chains. These subjects were asked to compare two Subway sandwiches containing 330 and 600 calories, respectively, with McDonald's sandwiches with the same caloric content. Respondents estimated the 330-calorie Subway sandwich's calorie count at 24 percent less than McDonald's, and the 600-calorie sandwich at 33 percent less.

A Research Study on Ordering Sides

In another study, subjects were offered either a 900-calorie Subway sandwich or a 600-calorie McDonald's sandwich, and they were asked to choose from a limited range of drinks, side items, and desserts, selected because they were common to both menus.

  • Subjects at Subway ordered an additional 111 calories on average, for a total of 1,011 calories.
  • Those at McDonald's added an average of 48 calories, for a total of 648 calories.
  • They estimated 439 + 48 = 487 calories at Subway, versus the true 1,011 calories.
  • At McDonald's, they estimated 557 + 43 = 600 calories, versus the true 648 calories.

Those at Subway added more calories to a meal already higher in calories than at McDonald's, and they estimated they were consuming fewer total calories.

Research Menus and Calorie Counts Ahead of Time

Based on the studies cited above, while one shouldn't avoid a restaurant that, like Subway, offers lower-calorie meals, consumers need to improve their skills at estimating calorie counts. Diners can also consider that they might negate the benefits of a lower-calorie sandwich by chasing it down with a high-calorie soda or following it up with cookies.

If you eat out regularly, you can research the menu and calorie information for the places where you eat regularly. There are some great websites with fast-food nutritional information. For example, you can evaluate specific items from a large number of fast-food chains at Drive Thru Diet.


Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 26, 2012:

Moon Willow Lake: thanks for your comments. I think that, as you say, the idea is to maintain awareness. Cheers.

Moon Willow Lake on February 26, 2012:

Thank-you for the information. I honestly do not think in terms of calories; but this is a good reminder that even though we may think something is 'healthy' doesn't necessarily mean that it is.

And I completely agree about sharing items whenever possible. I share items with my son all the time. Not only is it better for us because neither of us is over-eating the large portions, but it also saves money by not 'double' ordering. Plus, we are huge believers in taking items home to finish them later.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 25, 2012:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, crystaljerke and Thelma Alberts.

Thelma Alberts from Germany on February 24, 2012:

Congratulation on the hub of the day! Although I am not a fast food eater, I rather choose subway than Mc Donalds as I do love Subways sandwiches. Thanks for sharing.

crystaljerke on February 24, 2012:

Hi giocatore,

Congs. to got hub of the day!!!

Really a well-researched hub......Cal. are really a big factor to think about.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

I think you're right, emimemo, price and convenience. I'm guilty of that too sometimes, usually only when I travel. Thanks for stopping by. Cheers.

emimemo from USA on February 24, 2012:

Simply, fast food restaurant has cheaper menu than healthy restaurants. Many people go fast food restaurant for the price they offer not for the taste or health. It is pretty sad but it is real.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, Eric! Now I'm going to get back to my specialties of cynicism and back-biting.

Eric Newland from Dayton, Ohio on February 24, 2012:

Hey, I thought this looked familiar! Congrats on HotD, giocatore!

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, urmilashukla23. I'm glad you liked it.

Urmila from Rancho Cucamonga,CA, USA on February 24, 2012:

Great information! Congratulations on being Hub of the Day! Way to go giocatore!

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks very much, RTalloni. Much appreciated.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks very much, caramellatte.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, susanm23b. I'm working on a story related to your thoughts. Cheers.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks for the kind words, Fullerman5000.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, pranav k. You're right about the poll. Stupid me!

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, Tanya YpsiGirl. I've lost a lot of weight myself, partly from not eating fast food! Plus many hours on the treadmill.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, hecate-horus. Subway looks like the better option if you know what you're doing. Cheers.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Hi Melissa. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think a lot of it depends on whether a person eats fast food a few times a year or every day.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, Hally Z. One does need a solid strategy when eating out!

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks for your comments, DzyMsLizzy. It's not easy finding fast food to match your regimen sometimes. Cheers.

pranav k on February 24, 2012:

great hub,the options in the voting should be "once a week or MORE" instead of less??

Ryan from Louisiana, USA on February 24, 2012:

Very good advice and choices. I am always looking for easier ways to eat healthy and fast. Thanks for sharing this. Great work. Voted useful and up .

susanm23b on February 24, 2012:

Very well written article with lots of useful info! I found the Subway/McDonald's comparison very revealing--I guess it's all about the marketing. Subway's marketing has been very effective.

Your discussion of portion sizes growing is totally spot-on! I'm old enough to remember when portions weren't so large and so many people weren't battling weight problems. I think better education is needed about how much food you really need. Just because it is served to you doesn't mean you SHOULD eat all of it.

Excellent job! Congrats on Hub of the Day :)

caramellatte on February 24, 2012:

Congrats on being Hub of the Day! Cool article!:)

RTalloni on February 24, 2012:

Bravo on this eating healthy. Congrats on this Hub of the Day to help people make smart choices for fast foods.

Tanya YpsiGirl from Ann Arbor on February 24, 2012:

Great hub! I totally agree, and this is coming from a gal who lost 50lbs. The best decision I ever made was to limit my fast food intake. Thank you again. ;)

hecate-horus from Rowland Woods on February 24, 2012:

I'd rather go to Subway...nothing is frozen and it's definitely healthier. And I can see them make and handle my food.

(This is from a former McD's employee!) Great hub, and congrats on HOTD!

Melissa A Smith from New York on February 24, 2012:

There is nothing wrong with 'fat' and calories. What matters is the quality of those calories, and the type of fats.

Hally Z. from Madison, Wisconsin on February 24, 2012:

Great article! Everyone blames McDonald's for the obesity epidemic, but the fact of the matter is that places like Subway and Hardee's can also pack on the calories depending on what one orders. And just like at sit down restaurants like Outback: it's supposed Bloomin Onion appetizers packs enough calories for a full meal! I don't avoid any of these places, but I take their items' caloric content to heart and share my meal with a friend. This way, I still get to taste the restaurant food, but at only half the caloric cost. And I make sure to put in a run the next day.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on February 24, 2012:

Hubby and I eat at these joints now and then. The "value meal" issue depends on the establishment. While I lean very far toward being a vegetarian, and don't like meat, I have trouble finding ANYthing worth eating at these places. However, hubby has discovered that the "value meal" or "dollar menu" at (ugh) Burger King actually gives you very small burgers. So--he orders 3 of them! His intended savings is to the wallet, not the calories!

One pitfall I've encountered is this: a FEW places (Burger King being about the only fast-food one) do offer a VEGGIE patty...but beware: ASK to be sure it's microwaved! Otherwise, they'll just slap it on the grill to heat with the regular burgers, in all the meat grease. So much for a vegetarian patty! And for those who would say, "Oh, that little tiny bit of meat grease isn't going to hurt you," they are totally missing the point.

There are many reasons people may be vegetarians, only ONE of which is that they just don't LIKE meat. Throw that veggie patty on the common grill, and you've just RUINED the flavor with meat contamination.

Good article, well researched! Congratulations on HOTD!! Voted up and interesting.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, woodamarc, I appreciate your comments.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

tsmog, you're making me hungry! I love burgers, but I rarely eat them these days. I enjoy the peanuts at Five Guys during my rare visits. Cheers, and thanks for your comments.

Marc Woodard from Portland, Oregon on February 24, 2012:

Funny, my wife and I were just talking about that the other day. I like the way you think. That's why I'm now following you. Keep those great hubs coming!

Tim Mitchell from Escondido, CA on February 24, 2012:

Very informative hub. Describing the habits of the working class, students, and hurried parents full of this and that's to get done pondering occurs. Being in that group, work hours 1pm - 10 or dinner is discovered within three blocks. New choices abound recently - but that bacon, cheese hamburger, Cajun fries and all you can drink soda has grown to $11.50. But, it was good. Marketers are shrewd for sure. Oh, but they do offer free peanuts to munch while waiting in the growing, lengthy line. Keep 'em coming giocatore! Looking forward to more.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, pinto2011. It's always a challenge to eat right and exercise when we're so busy with work, family, etc.

Subhas from New Delhi, India on February 24, 2012:

Nice hub. Really we are shaken out of our dream and we will surely take care in future how to behave in this fast food chain.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by, woodamarc. And yes, we all need to super-size. I read that people buying old dinnerware sets often think the dinner plates are the salad plates. Even our plates have become super-sized!

Marc Woodard from Portland, Oregon on February 24, 2012:

The one thing that has always bothers me "IF" I have to eat at a McDonald's for lack of a better choice on the road... The cashiers always ask me this question "do you want to super-size that?" And when I say no, they always have a surprised look on their face. Like "seriously" I must look like I need the calories right [I know it's their job to do this, but it still bothers me. If I wanted it, I'd ask for it]. "Don't let the temptation get to you, stand your ground, never super-size, otherwise they win and we gain more weight!"

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Yes, it's a minefield out there in fast-food land. Thanks for your comments and kind words, Michael. Cheers.

Michael J Rapp from United States on February 24, 2012:

Great info with compelling stats to back it up. I know if I go to Subway I sure don't do any better than if I had gone to McDonald's (What do you mean meatball subs aren't low-fat?) Either way you have to be careful. Congrats on Hub of the Day.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, everyone. I appreciate your kind words and comments.

Deb Welch on February 24, 2012:

Great Hub! I order the salads at MacDonald's - I love the Paul Newman Dressings. I enjoy their Parfaits and coffee - too. Subway - once in a while and only the 1/2 Sub but with spinach, peppers, tomatoes - usually veggie.

Excellent information. Many restaurants agreed to offer calories and some are still undetermined. It costs money to make these changes. Congrats on the Honor. Voted Up, Useful, Awesome and Interesting.

amckean84 on February 24, 2012:

Great hub! Very informative and interesting. I was about to vote that I rarely eat fast food, but then I remembered specific occasions when I ate out in December, October, and August. They usually involved traveling and just grabbing a meal along the way. I guess I have some work to do!

KDF from Central Illinois on February 24, 2012:

Congrats on hitting hub of the day. Well written and informative. Nice job!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on February 24, 2012:

Congrats on Hub of the Day! You put a lot of research and work into this Hub, and you deserve the award. Good info here for everyone!

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thank you, Levertis. One of my weaknesses is that I have a hard time ordering a salad in a fast food restaurant. Cheers.

Levertis Steele from Southern Clime on February 24, 2012:

There is nothing like a fat burger dripping with mustard, mayo, and ketchup. Ok, that's not so healthful, but I occasionally order only a salad and use a small amount of dressing, and I really enjoy it. Some fast food places have great salads with healthful fixings.

This is great information. thanks for sharing.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks for the kind words, J. Looks like you figured this stuff out for yourself! I didn't say much about sodium in this hub. Thanks for reinforcing that.

J Burgraff on February 24, 2012:

What a nicely researched hub. I use to travel a lot for work and had clients in a lot of small communities where the dining choices were limited. I always kept fresh fruit in the car to snack on, but tended to get a lot of lunches at Subway and quickly learned to get a 6" sub with one meat choice (no cheese) and all of the veggies, and mustard instead of mayo. Not immune from the need for something salty and tasty, I usually added a pack of the 'baked' chips which was totally unnecessary. I did pretty well on total fat and calorie count, but my sodium was over the top, which is another huge problem with eating at fast food joints. I voted your hub 'up' and 'useful' and reading your other hubs is next on my list.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks, everyone! I had no idea this was going to happen. Cheers.

rlaha from Spartanburg, SC on February 24, 2012:

Thank you so much for sharing this hub! Congratulations on becoming the hub of the day! This has a lot of useful and interesting information! Voted up and shared with my followers!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on February 24, 2012:

Congratulations on Hub of the Day! This is realistic and practical...sometimes fast food cannot be avoided completely but we can modify our behavior.

aprilkielb on February 24, 2012:

i saw your all hubs ...your writing skill is awesome thanks for share with us...

FordeAhern from Broadford, Co. Limerick. ireland on February 24, 2012:

Your hub is great, thank you. YOU have loads of useful information. I love sub way. yum yum. I never feel bloated after eating it. voted up and useful.

Keri Summers from West of England on February 24, 2012:

A really well-researched, factually based hub. Distilling those studies for everyone is really helpful. And how enlightening! Congrats on Hub of the Day too.

MP50 on February 24, 2012:

Brilliant Hub, so true your poll included in the Hub says it all, useful, interesting and funny voted up and shared....thanks lol :-D

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 10, 2012:

Thanks; I'm following and am sure I will. Cheers.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 10, 2012:

Thanks for your comments, Eric and PC. Problem with all this information is that it makes it tough for us to fool ourselves and eat what we really want.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on February 10, 2012:

I'll stop at a fast food place only if I have no other reasonable choice and really, really need to eat something.

Eric Newland from Dayton, Ohio on February 10, 2012:

I've been guilty too. Subway even highlights their low fat sandwiches but I keep going for the pepperoni and salami because hey, it's still Subway.

I applaud Panera Bread's recent decision to put all their calorie counts right there on their menu behind the counter. Everyone ought to do that. Now I can't order a healthy-looking half sandwich and salad combo and inadvertently consume 1500 calories.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 09, 2012:

Thanks. I don't eat much fast food anymore, but I usually skip the drink when I do.

thepathtohealthy from Jacksonville, FL on February 09, 2012:

Great hub! I use to be one of those people who would order something healthy and then order unhealthy to give myself a treat. Now I know better. I'm with cathylynn99, I only get water with my Subway sandwich.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 09, 2012:

Very good ... you're a fast food master! Cheers.

cathylynn99 from northeastern US on February 09, 2012:

the sandwich i get at subway has 350 cals. once you've done the research, you don't have to repeat it. i don't get ANY sides, drinking water with my meal.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 09, 2012:

The psychological aspects of eating are fascinating. I just learned most of it while researching my food stories today.

Tonu1973 from the outer reaches of reality on February 09, 2012:

I have to admit I get sucked into the whole Subway thing. Just tonight I asked my nine year old son if he wanted to goto McDonalds or Subway and he responded that McDonalds would kill ya. The propoganda startes young.

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