Fast food is hardly health food, but when you're on the road or it's late at night, sometimes it's your only option. During the coronavirus pandemic, it may be the only way to get a meal together if you haven;t been able to get to a store or your delveries are delayed. But there are the menu options to look for that will fill you up without filling you out.
Fast food is bad for you. Everyone knows that, and based on average Australian weight figures, it seems like this is the way we like it.
Sometimes, however, you'll end up stuck early in the morning (think: Post-pub) or late at night with a group of friends, or on a road trip where junk food is the only food option. Other times, you just feel like a treat or need a quick dinner fix. In all these situations, it's entirely possible to enjoy fast food without blowing your diet. Here's what you need to know.
General food selection tips
Let's just come out and say it: fast food is generally not healthy. It's all processed and packed with sodium, unhealthy fats, and excess preservatives. When you compare it to meals you could make at home, there's obviously no way that fast food could be considered healthy options. Andy Bellatti, Registered Dietician, explains:
It is important to recognise that when it comes to chains like McDonald's, it isn't so much about "healthy options", but rather about "what is the least worst?" This is an important distinction to make.
So as long as you approach those "I have to eat something" moments with that mindset, you'll find it to be a less stressful experience. As Bellatti puts it, there's more to fast food than the nutrition facts:
We have to get away from the concept that a meal is "healthy" because it contains fewer than X number of calories or because it has X grams of protein. The issue with most fast food items is that even if they are among the 'better' choices, they are usually cooked in unhealthy oils and offer very little in terms of fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
Doing some research is especially helpful if you have special dietary restrictions. Something reasonable for one person could be really unhealthy for another, so don't hesitate to check nutrition facts online or ask for them at the counter or drive-thru.
The "Least Worst" Menu Items To Look For
The Australian road trip food scene is dominated by just a few key brands. It's a lot harder to get specific nutritional information for truck stops and milk bars, but the larger brands do make it feasible to track down the healthy options.
The same is true in reverse, as well, as we've seen collating the least healthy options for takeaway eating in Australia.
That makes it easy to work out the items to avoid, but what about the best choices in a bad situation? Here are some specific items to look for and avoid at each of these locations.
All nutritional data has been gleaned from each outlet's publicly available nutritional data. That presents some problems, as time-specific "specials" aren't always listed or updated. When it doubt, check at the venue, as they may have specific information on these items.
Without further ado, here are some specific items to look for and avoid at each of these locations.
For breakfast, consider these items:
- McMuffin With Jam It's not surprising that the best way to have a McMuffin without the fat is to remove most of the fatty content that sits between the Muffin parts. McDonald's nutritional info suggests that a McMuffin With Jam comes with an average 3 grams of fat on white or 3.3 grams if you opt for the wholemeal option. That might tempt you towards the white, but it hides more sodium in its frame — 277mg to the wholemeal version's 245mg.
- Fruit Bag There's not too much that even Maccas can do to slices of Apple, so they're an easy go-to if you find yourself under the arches trying to keep yourself trim.
- McMuffin BLT If you absolutely must have something hot with cheese, your best best is the BLT McMuffin, which has less fat and less salt than the Bacon and Egg or Sausage and Egg variants. Under all circumstances steer clear of the Mighty McMuffin, which carries 1240mg of sodium, nearly 2.5 times that of the BLT.
Do I really need to point out that the hash browns aren't healthy? They're a common value meal addition, but they'll also pack 352mg of sodium and 9.5g of fat onto your middle, each and every time.
For lunch and dinner, consider these items:
- Garden Salad Again, there's not so much that Maccas can do to humble vegetables, and at least in Australia the salad serving sizes are quite reasonable, so you should walk away at least reasonably filled. The trick here is to seriously limit your dressings, however, as while the veggies are naturally low in salt and fat, the same isn't true of the dressings. The Italian style dressing is markedly lower in fat, sugars and sodium than some of its contemporaries, especially the Sweet Sesame and Zesty Portuguese dressings.
- Warm Chicken Salad - Grilled Go Grilled over Crispy to save yourself an intake of an extra 179mg of sodium and 9.3g of fat. As with the straight salad, however, take it easy on the dressings, or you'll undo all your noble work.
- Chicken and Mayo Burger If you're after some McDonald's Chicken (and seriously, if you are, examine your life choices right this instant) then the best option on the local menu in health terms is the straight Chicken and Mayo burger, which packs in 583mg of sodium, 16.3g of fat and 32.1g of carbs. Most of the rest of the chicken burger menu top in over 1000mg of sodium alone. If you could convince the staff not to put the Mayo on there, you'd almost certainly dump some of that fat as well.
- McFeast Let's be honest here. You came to McDonald's for a burger, right? At a technical level, the healthiest thing on the burger menu is the straight hamburger (480mg sodium, 8.6mg of fat and 25.3g carbs), but they're tiny and you're more than likely to end up eating more than one of them just to sate your appetite. As such, the McFeast is arguably the better bet, with 851mg of sodium and 27g of fat, quite a bit less than comparable burgers such as the Big Mac or Mighty Angus.
- Chicken And Aoili McWrap - Grilled Chicken You might think that a Maccas wrap was automatically a healthier option, but you've got to pick your wraps carefully for best effect; the crispy Mayo wrap, for example, is packed with a hefty 1230mg of sodium, quite a bit more than even a Big Mac. In the wraps section, the safest bet is the grilled Aoili wrap, which packs a more modest 811mg of sodium. If you're only marginally hungry, the snack grilled wrap is even more waist-friendly.
Again, it should be obvious, but that large size fries you just ordered on the side? It's not good for you, with, as per McDonald's own nutritional information, 435mg of sodium, 24.3g of fat and essentially stuff all in the way of actual nutritonal value.
Burger King/Hungry Jack's
Burger King diverts all nutritional info queries to Hungry Jack's, though it's not uncommon to see either brand in Australia. Its nutrition guide can be found here.
For that post-hangover breakfast, consider ordering these items:
- Bacon And Egg Muffin The Bacon And Egg Muffin edges out the BK/HJ competition with only slightly less sodium and fat than its compatriots, but the limited nature of the menu means that there aren't many truly excellent options open to you.
- Grilled Chicken Classic Burger As with any fast food choice, opt for grilling over frying to make the optimal healthy choice. The Grilled Chicken Classic still packs in 640mg of sodium and 19.7g of fat, but that's well under any fried chicken burger on the menu.
- Whopper Jnr Not surprisingly, the smallest burger on the menu is the one that's least worst for you, with 482mg of sodium and 19.4g of fat on board.
- Veggie Whopper But, again, let's be honest: You probably want a more substantial burger. With only 18.6g of fat, the Veggie Whopper beats out even the Whopper Jnr on the fat level, although it is a little more salty with 837mg of sodium. Surprisingly, that's more even than a regular Whopper.
You might not think of KFC as the healthy option. Actually, I doubt that anyone does, but I will give the Colonel this: If you've got a specific meal in mind, the local website has an excellent nutritional calculator that makes it easy to sort menu items by the kind of health advice you want.
For breakfast, go for these items:
- Bacon & Egg Roll You're not awash with breakfast choices at KFC as it is, but the Bacon & Egg Roll, at 9.9g of fat and 1503mg of sodium is quite a bit better than the Chicken, Bacon and Egg Twister, which weighs in at 26.4g of fat and 1987mg of sodium. Try to offload the hash brown that comes with the combo to somebody else, though, unless you want another 6.8g of fat and 286mg of sodium to ingest.
- Original Fillet Burger There are some seriously worrying choices on the KFC Burger menu when it comes to health, but with 852mg of sodium and 13.3g of fat, the basic original fillet burger isn't notably terrible. Steer clear of the Zinger Stacker, however, unless you've been given medical advice to seriously upgrade the amount of sodium in your diet.
Original Recipe Chicken
Again, let's be realistic; people go to KFC to buy chicken pieces. If you absolutely must, eat in moderation, and choose the original recipe (453mg sodium, 13.3g fat per piece) over the Hot & Spicy variant (542mg sodium, 18.4g fat per piece).
Just because I'm sure you want to know what that 21-piece bender did to your waistline, I feel compelled to inform you that you just downed 9506mg of sodium, 279.2g of fat and a hefty 18,899kJ, which is nearly twice what you needed in total energy intake just for today. You may now feel faintly queasy. Yes, I do speak from (sad) experience.
Subway sells itself as the "healthy" alternative fast food, but that can vary a lot depending on your choice of fillings, toppings and sauces. You can find the rundown of its nutritional claims here.
There's an obvious health point to be made for any Subway sandwich. Choose the six-inch sub whenever you can, because you're quite logically halving your intake by doing so. Subway Australia's nutritional information presumes you're opting for white bread, but its wheat bread is marginally healthier - 281mg of sodium to the 296mg of sodium on white, for example — as an option. Both are better in most respects than any other Subway bread choice.
What about the subs themselves? Again, Subway calculates its figures based on a six inch sub with white bread, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, capsicum and cucumber servings, but as anyone who's ever eaten at a Subway could tell you, the actual amount of each you score can and will vary wildly. Still, within Subway's accepted figures, the best options are:
- Poached Egg and Cheese Six Inch Breakfast Sandwich With 498mg of sodium and 14.9g of fat, the Poached Egg and Cheese is by far the best Subway option if you're there around breakfast time. Nothing else is even remotely close.
- Veggie Delite Six Inch Sub Remember how mum always told you to eat your vegetables? Turns out there was a reason. Subway has an entire range of what it calls "6g of Fat or Less" subs, and the best of them from a health perspective has to be the Veggie Delite. Bear in mind, though, that the figures are sans sauces, which can add serious quantities of fat — steer clear of the Chipotle or Thousand Island sauces if you're fat-averse or salt — where the Hot Chili and Sweet Chili sauces are the worst offenders.
- Veggie Delite Salad Want an even healthier option? Omit the bread entirely, and skip the salad dressing, and Subway's Veggie Delite salad is a positively lean option, with an estimated 74mg of sodium and 1g of fat. Yes, there will be more if you put a bacon strip on it. Don't be silly.
- Oven Roasted Chicken Six Inch Sub If you're hankering for some meat in your sub, the Oven Roasted Six Inch Sub is the best health bet, with 534mg of sodium and 4.4g of fat, although most of the "under 6g of fat" subs hover around that mark.
Generic Fast Food Joint
What if you're not at one of the big four prominent takeaway joints? The chances are that smaller venues simply won't have this kind of information available to them, so it's more a matter of making sensible general choices.
- Avoid fried foods generally. If there's a grilled or baked option, take that.
- Don't automatically upsize or go for a "combo" meal. You're not getting much nutritional benefit from those fries.
- H20 is the way to go over any kind of soft drink. Your teeth and figure will thank you later.
- Sauces hide lots of salt, sugars and fats. Sometimes you can't avoid them — places will squirt tomato or bbq sauce on just about any burger, for example — but if you're passed a bottle or offered a squirty package, just say no.
- Despite popular gossip, calories totally do count "when you're on holiday". Sorry about that.
This article has been updated since its original publication