I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance six years ago and have been gluten-free ever since.
In that time, it has become easier and easier to find gluten-free foods, especially in New York City where I live.
That is, unless we’re talking about fast food.
Even though an estimated 2.7 million Americans follow a gluten-free diet, fast-food restaurants in the US haven’t done much to appeal to this growing population of people who avoid foods like bread and pasta made with wheat.
In an effort to survey the gluten-free landscape, I set out on a mission to see if I could survive only on fast-food for five days.My most important rule was to only eat at fast-food chains and consume at least three meals a day.
Here’s how I did it:
First, I mapped out exactly what I could eat.
I kicked off day one with breakfast at McDonald’s.
This was my first time eating breakfast at McDonald’s so it was a momentous moment. My first hurdle was finding something filling that I could actually eat.
What I ate: Yogurt Parfait (without granola) and two bags of apple slices.
Verdict: The yogurt was extremely sweet. I gave up halfway through and decided to move on to the apple slices, assuming that these would be a safe bet. I was wrong. The apples were peeled and had lost all their crunch. Overall, not a good start to the day.
By lunch I was starving, so I headed to Shake Shack for a burger.
Shack Shack is one of two fast-food chains that offers a gluten-free bun and prides itself on serving 100 per cent Angus beef meat, free of hormones and antibiotics.
What I ate: Shake Shack’s gluten-free bun with a burger patty.
The verdict: I was so insistent that my meal be gluten-free that I confused the server when ordering.I ended up with a very bland sandwich that didn’t contain Shake Shack’s typical burger toppings, like tomato and lettuce. While the bread was tasty, it felt dry, and the limp meat inside was a bit disappointing. But at least I was full.
By evening I was craving vegetables, so I headed to Taco Bell.
Taco Bell’s website is one of the easiest of all to navigate as a gluten-free eater. It lays out exactly what you can and can’t eat if you have any type of food allergy.
Tex-Mex usually lends itself well to a gluten-free diet since many items are made with corn rather than flour. At Taco Bell you can have your fill of sides (black beans, rice, guacamole) but when it comes to main dishes, your main option is a rice bowl.
What I ate: Power Menu veggie bowl
The verdict: It was good to have some vegetables, but this dish wasn’t very tasty. The guacamole was pretty bland, though the lettuce and tomato salsa tasted fresh. All in all, it wasn’t an overly exciting meal.
Day 1 total:
Cost: $US15.92 excluding tax
On day two, I headed back to McDonald’s for breakfast.
I woke up feeling extremely tired. I wasn’t sure if the food or the heat in my room was to blame. I decided to hit McDonald’s again because it was convenient. But keeping in mind the mistakes I made the day before, I chose a more hearty dish, which also happened to be the only other thing I could eat on the McDonald’s breakfast menu.
What I ate: Two pieces of bacon and a folded egg, washed down with a strawberry and banana smoothie.
The verdict: Delicious. The bacon was crispy and not at all greasy. The egg didn’t taste too much like an egg or really anything at all, but in many ways, this made it the perfect simple substitute to bread.
When I walked out, I saw another customer had ordered the same thing but was garnishing his meal with fresh herbs. A smart trick!
The drink was very sweet with 39g of sugar, but it was nice to have something fruity.
I decided to give Chipotle a go at lunch. This chain is pretty gluten-free friendly.
What I ordered: The veggie bowl with brown rice, guacamole, sour cream, romaine lettuce, and tomato salsa.
The verdict: It felt too healthy to be fast-food and was definitely an upgrade from my Taco Bell bowl the night before. The guacamole was a lot more flavorful.
I ended up with Taco Bell again for dinner.
What I ate: Power Menu chicken bowl from Taco Bell
The verdict: The bowl was more flavorful with the addition of chicken, and it was reasonably filling.
Day 2 total:
Price: $US18.40 excluding tax
For breakfast on day 3, I needed something substantial and decided to give Shake Shack’s new breakfast menu a try.
Shake Shack’s breakfast menu is only served at a few locations in New York, which makes finding a gluten-free breakfast elsewhere in the US even harder.
What I ate: A bacon, egg, and cheese on a gluten-free bun.
The verdict: This was the best meal I had so far. The bread felt less dry than before with the addition of melted cheese and the sandwich held together well. Overall, a real hit.
After having no success getting soup at Subway, I headed back to Chipotle for lunch.
At lunchtime, I headed to my local Subway to test one of their reasonably healthy soups, of which there are four gluten-free flavours: tomato basil soup, chicken tortilla, broccoli and cheddar, and black bean. What I didn’t realise was that these are not served in all their locations. So back to Chipotle I went.
What I ate:Tacos. There’s plenty of choice in ingredients here but I went for chicken tacos with lettuce, tomato salsa, guacamole, and sour cream.
The verdict: Pretty tasty and extremely filling but at $US11.10 excluding tax, it was the most expensive dish I ordered all week.
I found a light and satisfying dinner at Subway.
After loading up on tacos at lunch, I decided to give Subway another go.
The sandwich chain has been struggling in recent years.Bloomberg reported that sales fell 1.7 per cent last year to about $US11.3 billion as customers flock to healthier fast casual alternatives such as Panera and Sweetgreen. In a bid to win back customers, it has been removing artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives from its US menu.
What I ate: Broccoli and cheddar soup.
The verdict: Although this soup looked pretty stodgy, it tasted good and it was the only major fast-food chain that I could find that served soup.
Day 3 total:
Price: $US19.04 excluding tax
On day four, I gave the Arby’s breakfast menu a try.
There are only two Arby’s locations in Manhattan – one of which is next to our office in Flatiron and opened in March this year. The restaurant felt brand new; it was clean and cool inside and didn’t smell of fried food. The staff were also extremely friendly.
What I ate: Arby’s scrambled egg patty and bacon.
The verdict: Arby’s don’t offer a gluten-free bun so I had to go off-menu and get the bacon and eggs on their own. The egg had much the same texture as McDonalds’ version and the bacon was equally crispy.
Lunch was a no-brainer — Chick-fil-A launched its new gluten-free bun on day four of my diet and I headed straight there to try it.
There are only three Chick-fil-A locations in New York (one is closed over the summer) so it’s not the easiest chain to get to, but I was most excited about this lunch.
Chick-fil-A has been voted the top chicken chain for four years running, according to the customer experience firm Market Force, which ranks chain loyalty. It also generates more revenue per restaurant than any other fast-food chain in the US, according to QSR Magazine.
I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and whether the new gluten-free bun tasted like.
What I ate: Grilled chicken sandwich on a gluten-free bun with lettuce and tomato and a superfood side (kale, broccolini, roasted nuts, and dried cranberries).
The verdict: I had high hopes for this sandwich but it was a disappointment. The chicken was very tasty but the bread didn’t stick together well and the tomatoes made it soggy. The side salad, on the other hand, was a hit. It was on the sweet side because of the maple dressing but felt fresh and healthy.
This was the first day I had to break my diet and have a snack because I was so hungry. I ate some carrot sticks and hummus.
By the time 6 p.m. came around, I was ravenous and headed to Wendy’s for an early dinner.
I needed something wholesome for dinner and Wendy’s did just the trick. The store’s manager persuaded me that the chilli wasn’t gluten free so I didn’t get it. It turns out, it absolutely is (according to Wendy’s website) and would be a great option to try.
What I ate: Wendy’s baked potato with chives and sour cream, with a side salad and apple slices.
The verdict: The baked potato was a bit soggy by the time I got home and I regretted not eating it at the restaurant. The salad was fresh and simple and the apple was perfectly crunchy. Overall, a good meal.
Day 4 total (not including my carrots and hummus snack)
Price: $US17.39 excluding tax
I had run out of breakfast options so I headed back to Shake Shack for my new favourite meal.
What I ate: A bacon, egg, and cheese on a gluten-free bun.
The verdict: This was the best meal of week by far and I would be happy to eat this at any time of day. I sat out in the sun at Shake Shack’s Madison Square Park location and savoured every bite.
It wouldn’t be a true fast food test without Burger King, so I went there for lunch.
The gluten-free options at Burger King are pretty limited. It’s a choice between either a meat patty or a garden fresh salad with tendergrill chicken and fries.
What I ate: Garden fresh salad with grilled chicken.
The verdict: This was a mistake, I should have gone down the burger route. The chicken didn’t taste nearly as juicy as the chicken I had at Chick-fil-A they day before.
For my final meal, I made my first ever trip to Five Guys.
I had exhausted my list of alternatives at fast-food joints and decided a burger was the only way to go.
Five Guys was recently voted the best burger chain in the US, by the Harris Poll EquiTrend survey, knocking the West Coast favourite, In-and-Out burger, off its peg. This was the first time I had eaten at Five Guys and I was excited to see if it lived up to the hype.
What I ate: TwoFive Guys burger patties wrapped in lettuce with tomato, mushrooms, and relish with a side of fries.
The verdict: The innovative iceberg lettuce wrap made the burger easy to hold and even made it feel slightly healthy. However, the real star at Five Guys was its expansive selection of toppings, which made the burger much more exciting.
The two burger patties and topping alone were only 473 calories, which was pretty low considering how filling the meal was.
Day 5 total:
Price: $US23.56 excluding tax
By the end of the week, I felt tired, hungry, and in desperate need of some fruit. But I had definitely found some clear winners.
Breakfast: This was by far the hardest meal of the day to plan. The only chains to offer gluten equivalents were Chick-fil-A and Shake Shack. The overall winner was definitely Shake Shack.
Lunch: Chipotle was my saving grace at lunch. It felt healthy but also very filling.
Dinner: Five Guys won overall here as the range of toppings made this the most interesting burger to eat.
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