Eating nothing but fast-food for five days straight forced me to come to terms with which chains are actually healthy — and what restaurants nutrition-savvy customers should avoid.
As fast-food chains try to compete with more nutrition-centric fast casuals, there is increasing pressure to add healthy options to the menu.
From KFC’s grilled chicken to McDonald’s (shockingly caloric) kale salad, massive restaurant chains want to signal to customers that nutrition and fast food can go hand in hand.
After my 100% fast-food diet, I came to the startling conclusion that these companies aren’t wrong — fast-food chains can sell healthy food. The issue is that at many chains, these “healthy” options are not filling, insufficiently nutritious, or simply just gross.
Here’s my personal ranking of where it is easiest to eat healthy, from the worst to the best:
First things first: KFC shot itself in the foot when the chain served me fried chicken instead of the grilled chicken that I ordered.
Still, even if I had received my grilled chicken, KFC’s dedication to forcing unhealthy sides on customers puts it low on the healthy scale. When ordering a combo meal, I was unable to swap out the mashed potato, biscuit, and a cookie with healthier options, like corn on the cob. Additionally, while there are some healthier sides, the one I tried — green beans — was disgusting.
Wendy’s failed nutritionally on two fronts.
First, the Asian Cashew Chicken Salad that I ordered was completely ruined by its subpar chicken topping. Second, I only chose that particular salad because many of Wendy’s other “healthy” options are stuffed with calories and fat. The Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad, for example, contains 790 calories and 51 grams of fat.
With such a major misstep in one of the few healthy options on the menu, I’m not planning on returning to Wendy’s expecting a nutritious meal.
5. Burger King
Burger King’s biggest problem is a familiar one for fast-food chains: a lack of options, especially when it comes to sides.
My solution was simply to eat less — two halves of two hot dogs, plus a side salad. Moderation is the easiest way to eat healthy at most chains. Instead of ordering unsatisfying “nutritious” options, I found it is often better just to order what you actually want, then skip unnecessary sides or split the meal with someone else.
The most notorious fast-food brand around is better than any of its burger-and-fries-centric counterparts when it comes to nutrition.
To be fair, the competition wasn’t that stiff.
Still, McDonald’s has succeeded in providing a variety of healthy side options, including salads, apple slices, and clementines. Many of its classics, like the McMuffin or even a basic hamburger, aren’t particularly high in calories, fat, or sugar if you skip sides and add-ons. If you study the menu at McDonald’s and avoid super-sizing your meals, eating at the fast-food giant does not have to kill your diet plan.
I’ll admit it: Subway is a chain where my personal biases trump the cold, hard facts.
Logically, I realise that Subway is a chain with many healthy options (including sides). If you chose your bread wisely and skip mayonnaise and other dressings, it’s easy to put together a filling, nutritious meal. There is a reason there was an entire diet program built around the chain.
But… Subway always leaves me wanting more. The breakfast options just aren’t great. I get bizarrely stressed out while ordering. The distinct smell of most Subway locations makes me cringe. For these entirely illogical reasons, Subway is just No. 3.
2. Taco Bell
I entered the week suspicious of Taco Bell’s ability to produce any healthy options. I finished the week thoroughly impressed.
The element of surprise certainly helped propel Taco Bell to No. 2. However, the chain has three secret weapons.
One: the “Fresco” menu which replaces cheese, rice, and sour cream with pico de gallo. Two: a fully customisable online ordering feature. Three: a customisable nutrition calculator that lets you see which ingredients are contributing the calories, fat, and sodium to any meal.
The chain’s biggest downfalls are a lack of healthy sides and the insane amount of sodium in most items.
At the end of my week of fast food, there was no question in my mind about what chain would win in a battle of healthy fast-food chains.
Chick-fil-A has recently been promoting a number of healthy offerings, which helped inspire my fast-food diet. However, promoting nutrition is one thing — serving up healthy food that actually tastes good is another matter entirely.
Eating Chick-fil-A’s grilled nuggets and the kale-based “
Superfood Side” was the first time all week I enjoyed what I was eating, while also feeling like the meal was healthy and filling. The Asian Salad and Chick-fil-A Minis were equally delicious.
Every item I ordered at Chick-fil-A is something I would order again — the biggest compliment I can give to a fast-food chain trying to craft a healthy menu. For that reason, the chicken chain easily beats out the competition when it comes to nutrition.
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