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12 healthiest things to order at your favorite fast food chains

TODAY logo TODAY 5/4/2021 Samantha Cassetty, RD
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Compared to what we make at home, meals eaten out tend to be higher in calories, portion sizes, sodium and saturated fat. Yet they’re lower in fiber and healthful foods, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It should come as no surprise, then, that a long-term study revealed that frequently eating restaurant meals was tied to earlier deaths. The study found that eating out or ordering takeout at least twice a day was linked with a 49% higher risk of dying early from any cause compared to infrequently eating out.

By making better choices when eating out, you can enjoy your favorite haunts while staying mindful of your health. Here are some pointers for putting together healthier meals:

  • Make room for veggies. Stack some extra lettuce and tomato on your sandwich. If you’re getting a grain bowl or burrito bowl, ask for extra vegetables.
  • Make it a point to share. Since portions are often oversized, share larger meals and sides.
  • Make water your go-to drink. Soda contributes more sugar to the U.S. diet than anything else. The majority of Americans exceed recommendations for added sugars so stick with water.
  • Consider skipping the sauces. Most of these meals are plenty flavorful without adding dressing or special sauces. These packets are often sneaky sources of added sugar and sodium — both of which are typically high when dining at these eateries.

Related: Trying to keep your salt consumption in check? These easy substitutions should do the trick.

Looking for better fast food options? Try these 12 healthier picks

There are some nutrition trade-offs when eating fast food and fast-casual fare. Most meals are high in sodium and many are filled with refined grains — and the sandwiches lack produce. Working within these parameters, here are some RD-approved choices at popular chains.

Chipotle

Vegetarian Lifestyle Bowl

This hearty meal is packed with plants! This meal has 15 grams of protein and 20 grams of fiber, plus 13% of your daily calcium needs and 34% of your daily iron requirements. These minerals are often short-changed on a vegetarian diet. On the downside, it has more than 1,500 mg of sodium — more than half of the maximum amount of sodium recommended per day.

Paleo Salad Bowl

This bowl is among the many specialized diet bowls, such as keto and Whole 30, that Chipotle offers. With chicken, fajita veggies, tomatillo-green chile salsa, and guacamole over a bed of greens, you’ll get plenty of nutrient-rich veggies plus 36 grams of protein and 9 grams of fiber. It also supplies 12% of the calcium and 26% of the iron needed daily. With 1,100 milligrams of sodium, it still has more salt than we’d like.

Related: People are also invited to thank medical workers on a virtual thank you wall Chipotle created.

Panera

Mediterranean Bowl with Chicken

Salad vegetables are mixed with a cilantro-infused brown rice and quinoa blend and then topped with chicken, olives, hummus, and a lemon-tahini dressing. The meal has 32 grams of protein and 9 grams of fiber to keep you full and satisfied, but like other meals that made the cut, it’s high in sodium with 1,400 milligrams.

Turkey Chili

This cozy meal has 21 grams of protein and 14 grams of fiber, but just 300 calories, so it’s lighter than some of the other entrees on the list. Still, it should fill you up. And if you’re tired of cooking, you can get the group order, which serves four people.

Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich

Veggie sandwiches are often light in protein, but this one delivers 21 grams between ingredients like hummus and cheese. With a mound of veggies, you’ll get plenty of fiber and nutrients, but it would be nice if Panera had 100% whole grain bread. You can trade the tomato basil bread for whole grain, but it’s a blend that still includes processed refined grains.

Starbucks

Chickpea Bites and Avocado Protein Box

You can score some nourishing eats at the coffee chain. This box has lots of snackable, plant-based items from falafel-style chickpea bites to snap peas and baby carrots to a nut mix. All together, it has 15 grams of protein and 13 grams of fiber, and just 710 mg of sodium, which is very reasonable for a restaurant meal.

Chicken and Quinoa Protein Bowl with Black Beans and Greens

The name sums up the gist of this bowl, but it’s also flecked with fire-grilled corn and cojita cheese. What makes this meal a winner: antibiotic-free chicken, veggies, and satisfying amounts of protein (27 grams) and fiber (9 grams). The only downer is the 1,030 mg of sodium.

McDonalds

Quarter Pounder

You’re not going find healthy eats at McDonald's, but if a fast food burger is calling your name, your best bet is to keep it on the smaller side and to limit the less healthful toppings and sides. For instance, if you skip the cheese on the quarter pounder, you’re sparing your heart 4 grams of saturated fat and 410 mg of sodium. That’s a worthwhile tradeoff. We didn’t spot any veggies on the McDonald’s menu so you’ll have to get your fill at home.

Chick-fil-A

Grilled Chicken Sandwich

If you’re eating at Chick-fil-A, this is one of the best bets. You could make this meal a tad healthier by requesting extra tomatoes and lettuce and skipping the popular dipping sauce, which adds 6 grams of sugar and 170 milligrams of sodium to the sandwich’s 9 grams of sugar and respectable 680 mg of sodium. While the sandwich is served on a multigrain bun, it’s mostly made with refined (read: white) flour.

Lemon Kale Salad with Grilled Nuggets

This salad packs a substantial 43 grams of protein. Don’t worry if you’re not a huge fan of kale since it’s predominantly made with romaine lettuce. Since the chicken itself is flavored and the meal contains 1,280 milligrams of sodium and 8 grams of sugar without the toppings, see if you can skip the dressing, which adds another 400 milligrams of sodium and 5 grams of sugar to the total.

Related: Don't forget to look up on May 4 — and get your free taco!

Taco Bell

Veggie Power Bowl

This bowl is a good choice for plant-based eaters. It’s made with a base of seasoned rice and black beans, and it supplies 10 grams of fiber and 12 grams of protein. Plus, it’s an excellent source of calcium and a good source of iron. Go ahead and add extra lettuce and tomatoes for more veggie power.

Crunchy Taco

If you’re in the mood for Taco Bell’s signature taco, consider ordering one a la carte and alfresco style, which trades the dairy and mayo-based sauces for extra tomatoes. Each taco has 8 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, and 310 milligrams of sodium. If you want to round out your meal, try a side of black beans. You can use the beans as a base and top them with lettuce, tomatoes, and guac. Two tacos and a side of beans would be a filling meal with 755 milligrams of sodium, which is tame for a fast food meal.

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