Nutrition Articles

Drive-Thru Nutrition

Food That's Fast and Healthy

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Having spent a week on a road trip, I learned one thing along the way: Fast food is unavoidable, given time and budget constraints. You can’t beat a drive-thru for convenience and speed of service, but the bellyache you get afterward can quickly remind you of the excess calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium you just put into your body.

While a super-sized value meal can give you a day’s worth of calories in a single meal, you can exit the drive-thru with a healthier meal. And for the times when nothing seems better than hot French fries or a juicy burger, it’s important to learn how to make good choices.

Drinks

It might only cost a few dimes more to guzzle down a large soda instead of a small one, but your waistline will pay the real price. Soda—diet or regular—isn't a healthy choice since it provides calories, but no real nutrition at all. Soda is often filled with sugar or artificial sweeteners, and other ingredients that fill you up without giving your body any benefits. One way to make a fast food meal healthier is to opt for a drink other than soda. Of course, water is a great choice to hydrate your body and aid digestion. Unsweetened tea is virtually calorie-free if you want something other than water. Juice (100% fruit juice, not "fruit drinks") and low-fat milk are two alternatives that add nutrition to the calories you drink, making them healthier choices than soda and other sweet beverages. If you must go with soda, opt for the smallest size available.

Fruits and Vegetables

Just as you would at any other meal, try to include at least one serving of fruits or vegetables with your order. (And no, French fries do NOT count as a healthy vegetable!) Load your burger with extra tomatoes, or enjoy a side of fresh fruit instead of fries or chips. If you are having a sandwich, load up on lettuce, peppers and even cucumbers. If they offer it, opt for a baked potato (nix the high-calorie toppings like cheese and sour cream) instead of fries.

Most fast food chains now offer delicious side and entrée salads. Including these with your meal is a great way to add lots of vitamins and filling fiber for just a few calories. Just make sure not to smother your greens with cheese, eggs, bacon, high-fat dressing or fried toppings, such as chicken and croutons.

And don't forget about the healthy sides that are staples at fast food joints these days, such as apple slices and baby carrots. If you don't see them on the menu, ask!

Portion Control

One of the biggest problems people face when eating fast food is the out-of-control portion sizes. You don’t have to order the value meal with the big burger, bigger fries and biggest drink. Instead, try a child-sized meal. You still get the burger, fries and drink, but will only consume about half the fat of the full-sized version. Ordering small is automatic portion control—you won’t be tempted to overeat.

If a kiddie-sized meal with a toy on the side isn’t for you, split your order of fries with a friend. You’ll still enjoy that salty crunch without consuming all the calories and fat of a full order.

Extras

The “extras” can quickly increase the calories and fat. A tablespoon of mayo will add an extra 57 calories, and you'll ad 106 more calories with a single slice of cheese! Instead of smothering your burger with sauces, opt for mustard (about 10 calories). Forgo the sour cream and three kinds of cheese on your taco, instead opting for low-calorie salsa. Go easy on the ranch dressing and salt shaker, too, as these little substitutions can really add up. Your taste buds will be happy (and so will your waistline).

Don’t be fooled by healthier sounding meats, either. While breaded chicken or fish may seem healthier than a beefy burger, these sandwiches often contain just as many, if not more, calories than a typical burger since they're fried in oil (and absorb a lot of that fat). Try grilled versions of your favorite sandwiches instead, or opt for the low-cal veggie burger, which is becoming more widely available.

Breakfast

A healthy breakfast is the best way to start your day. While hitting the drive-thru on the way to work may be convenient, it could cause a calorie overload early in the day. Making healthy, nutritious choices comes into play again. Instead of a breakfast sandwich (English muffin with eggs, bacon, and cheese), order a bowl of fresh fruit, a fruit and yogurt parfait, oatmeal, cereal with milk or plain eggs. That way, you’ll be starting your day off on the right foot.

Comparisons

See how many calories and fat grams you can save just by trying different menu options at some of your favorite fast food restaurants. (All nutritional information comes from each restaurant’s website.)

Restaurant

Think Again

Better Choice

You Save

Arby's

Beef 'n Cheddar
440 calories
21 grams fat

Junior Roast Beef
270 calories
9 grams fat

170 calories
12 grams fat

Burger King

Original Whopper
700 calories
39 grams fat

Hamburger
310 calories
12 grams fat

390 calories
27 grams fat

Hardee's

Double Thickburger
1240 calories
90 grams fat

Thickburger
850 calories
57 grams fat

390 calories
33 grams fat

McDonald's

Big Mac
560 calories
30 grams fat

Hamburger
260 calories
9 grams fat

300 calories
21 grams fat

Sonic

SuperSonic Cheeseburger
839 calories
55 grams fat

Jr. Burger
353 calories
21 grams fat

486 calories
34 grams fat

Wendy's

Big Bacon Classic
580 calories
29 grams fat

Jr. Hamburger
280 calories
9 grams fat

300 calories
20 grams fat

 


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Member Comments

  • I am proud, I haven't been to a drive-thru in 11 months
  • Everything in moderation
  • What about Pizza is there a healthy pizza
  • What about Pizza is there a healthy pizza
  • Looking at the choices - original and the alternatives I can only think - why bother with either. I no longer have a sense of taste but these hit me in the gagging refex area.

    Someone else suggested Chick a fil - I won't eat them (dry as dust) but Subway does offer a lot of options that actually (in memory) do pretty well on both calories and taste.
  • I was surprised that they didn't mention any veggie burger options in the article? Or even chicken instead of burgers? I love Harvey's (not sure if they are in the US but all over Canada) They make a fantastic veggie burger. Even my (die-hard carnivore) hubby had to admit they are like real burgers. A fraction on the calories and fat.
  • My 9 y/o only likes Chick-Fil-A and Subway, so I get the same things... A grilled sandwich at Chick-Fil-A with a side salad... Subway has lots of sandwiches for around 300 calories (I don't put Mayo on it).

    I found that when you go out and order salads, they often have more calories than a sandwich.
  • We just got a Burger King nearby, and since we get little American food here I wanted to get one. I looked on the BK website and the Whopper (no cheese) is listed as 630 calories...but with no mayo... 470. That is a lot of mayo calories! Easy for me as I hate all things mayo. I carry a small mustard container with me since almost no Filipino restaurant seems to have any ha ha. So the Whopper (470), small fries (230!?), and Coke Zero was 650 calories. Crazy high for a single meal, but I planned for it and stayed well under my calorie goal for the day. ...and I certainly do not do it every day.
  • It's amazing just how sluggish you feel after a meal like that. Makes you wander where's the fiber and nutriences? The beef doesn't taste as good as it use to either. I'll either have a tossed salad, hold the dressing & use lemon or nothing until I'm home. I always have a water bottle when I'm out.
  • If I need a quick meal, I grab a McDonalds Hamburger Happy Meal. With a diet soda, it's only 365 calories (according to their calorie count). You get a burger, a tiny size fries - which gives you about 10 - just perfect, and apple slices. It fills me up and I don't feel terribly guilty.
  • I am so glad I am a veg and don't eat at these greasy fast food joints! I agree with the woman who suggested hitting up the local grocery store for salads or fresh fruits instead. It takes no longer and is healthier. I do go to the occasional sandwich shop or deli for a veggie sandwich.
  • I eat out maybe every two months and maybe not then. But when I do I go to Burger King and get a whopper cut in half and share it with my hubbym we get a small onion ring. Have our own water but if not ask them for water.
  • In this article, the author writes, "If you MUST get a soda, get the small." What I do when I get a soda is ask for extra ice (sometimes you have to specify, "Fill it up with ice and THEN add the soda") in addition to getting the small drink. In this case, there is less soda, less sugar, so on and so forth. I know that some people hate watered-down drinks but if you can tolerate the extra ice, this is a great tip.
  • CHEERFUL-ALT-3
    Am I the only one annoyed to open spark and find a photo of french fries?? maybe I am just being cranky...
  • I never eat fast food in the restaurant anymore.
    If we want to have some fast food, I take away a small hamburger and small fries and eat at home with steamed broccoli. It goes very well together!
    The rest of the family can eat what they want...

About The Author

Liz Noelcke Liz Noelcke
Liz is a journalist who often writes about health and fitness topics.