So you're trying to eat healthy and/or lose some extra pounds, but you're on the road and in a hurry – so you find yourself in the drive-through line. Not to worry: There is such a thing as healthy fast food (or at least healthier). You can order a meal at most fast food chains with less than 500 calories, moderate amounts of fat and saturated fat, and ample protein and fiber.
Here are 10 of the healthiest fast food meals from some of the top fast food chains. (To make sure your beverage choice doesn't undo the calorie savings, be sure to go for a zero-calorie drink like water, unsweetened tea, coffee, or diet soda.)
Healthy Fast Food Meal No. 1. Grilled Chicken Sandwich and Fruit Cup (Chick-fil-A)
Several fast food chains offer a grilled chicken sandwich. The trick is ordering it without mayo or creamy sauce, and making sure it’s served with a whole grain bun.
One of the healthier grilled chicken sandwiches out there is made by Chick-fil-A. Grilled chicken sandwiches at Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, and McDonald’s are close seconds. The Carl’s Jr. sandwich comes with BBQ sauce, while the Wendy’s sandwich includes a calorie-friendly honey mustard sauce. Make sure you order the McDonald’s sandwich without mayonnaise.
Nutritional breakdown: A Chick-fil-A Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich (without the honey-roasted BBQ sauce), along with a large fruit cup, has 400 calories, 3.5 grams fat (8% calories from fat), 1 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 1120 mg sodium, 65 g carbohydrate, 6 g fiber, and 30 g protein.
Healthy Fast Food Meal No. 2. Chili-Topped Potato (Wendy's)
You won’t find a "chili topped potato" on the Wendy’s menu. But you can make this savory and satisfying meal happen by buying the plain baked potato and a small chili. Together, they make a balanced meal with ample protein, carbs, and fat, and half a day’s worth of fiber (12 grams).
A plain baked potato and small chili from Wendy’s has 460 calories, 6 g fat (12% calories from fat), 2.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 855 mg sodium, 80 g carbohydrate, 12 g fiber, and 21 g protein.
Healthy Fast Food Meal No. 3: Grilled Chicken Breast with Mashed Potatoes, Corn on the Cob (KFC)
When you want something far from standard fast food fare, KFC’s meal deal can be a healthful solution. Choose their tasty grilled chicken breast as your entree, and mashed potatoes and corn as your two sides. This combination offers plenty of protein (41 grams) with a moderate amount of carbohydrate (49 grams) and fat (10 grams).
A meal of grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, and 5.5-inch corncob from (KFC) contains 430 calories, 10 g fat (21% calories from fat), 2 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 905 mg sodium, 49 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, and 41 g protein.
Healthy Fast Food Meal No. 4: Chick-n-Minis Breakfast (Chick-Fil-A)
What’s the best fast food breakfast sandwich? Believe it or not, there are a few contenders. There’s the Breakfast Jack from Jack in the Box, which is fairly low in calories, fat, and sodium (284 calories, 11 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 790 mg sodium). And then there's McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, which has more fiber and protein (2 g fiber, 18 g protein) than many other breakfast sandwiches. But the title goes to Chick-Fil-A’s Chick-n-minis -- the lowest in calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium among the offerings at the major chains.
Chick-Fil-A's Chick-n-Minis have 260 calories, 10 g fat (35% calories from fat), 2.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 650 mg sodium, 30 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, and 14 g protein.
Healthy Fast Food Meal No. 5: Chicken Teriyaki Bowl (Jack in the Box)
This dish would be better if it had brown rice instead of white rice, and the sodium is definitely high (1461 milligrams). Still, it's very low in saturated fat yet contains plenty of protein (25 grams) and some fiber (4 grams). I chose the Chicken Teriyaki Bowl over Jack in the Box’s Steak Teriyaki Bowl because the steak option has even more sodium (1739 mg) plus 2 more grams of saturated fat.
The Chicken Teriyaki Bowl from Jack in the Box contains 585 calories, 6 g fat (9% calories from fat), 1 g saturated fat (2% calories from saturated fat), 0 g trans fat, 36 mg cholesterol, 1461 mg sodium, 106 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber, and 25 g protein.
Healthy Fast Food Meal No. 6: Chargrilled Chicken Cool Wrap (Chick-fil-A)
I think this is the best-looking, best tasting, most satisfying fast food chicken wrap on the market. It doesn’t compare to the smaller wraps made by a couple of other chains. Although you’d probably need two of the smaller wraps for a meal, one of these wraps is likely to satisfy. It’s packed with fiber (9 grams) and protein (33 grams) and moderate in fat and saturated fat. However, it is high in sodium (1,300 mg) and any dressing served with it would add to that. The two Chick-fil-A dressings lowest in fat and sodium are Fat-Free Honey Mustard (60 calories, 0 g fat, 210 mg sodium) and Reduced Fat Berry Balsamic Vinaigrette (70 calories, 2 g fat, 150 mg sodium).
Chick-fil A's Chargrilled Chicken Cool Wrap with Fat Free Honey Mustard Dressing has
470 calories, 12 g fat (23% calories from fat), 4 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 1510 mg sodium, 64 g carbohydrate, 10 g fiber, 33 g protein.
Healthy Fast Food Meal No. 7: Southwest Salad and Fruit n Yogurt Parfait (McDonalds)
The grilled chicken salads offered at a handful of fast food chains are among the best options -- as long as the chicken is grilled, not fried, and the dressing is light. One standout is McDonalds' Southwest Salad, which is the highest in fiber and protein and among the lowest in saturated fat among the major chains' chicken salads.
Another good choice would be the Chargrilled and Fruit Salad from Chick-fil-A, the lowest in fat and cholesterol. (Adding a large bowl of their Hearty Breast of Chicken Soup would make this a filling meal.) Not including dressing, the Burger King Tendergrill Chicken Garden Salad is the lowest in calories, and Carl’s Jr.'s Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Salad is the lowest in sodium.
A meal of McDonald's Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken (not including dressing) and Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait has 480 calories, 11 g fat (21% calories from fat), 4 g saturated fat , 0 g trans fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 1045 mg sodium, 61 g carbohydrate, 7 g fiber, and 34 g protein.
Healthy Fast Food Meal No. 8. Veggie Burger and Garden Salad (Burger King)
Veggie burgers come and go at fast food outlets, and at this moment the best one is also the only one among major chains. You should order Burger King’s Veggie Burger without mayonnaise, but the cheese slice is up to you.
This surprisingly tasty sandwich, which is more like a garden burger than a soy substitute trying to be a beef burger, contributes 7 grams of fiber and 22 grams of protein (25 if you opt for the cheese). Make it a meal by adding a garden salad.
A Burger King Veggie Burger (without mayonnaise), Garden Salad (no chicken) and half a packet of Light Italian Dressing totals 450 calories, 12.5 g fat (25% calories from fat), 4.2 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 1320 mg sodium, 52.5 g carbohydrate, 10 g fiber, 26 g protein.
Healthy Fast Food Meal No. 9: Veggie Delite Sandwich and Tomato Orzo Soup (Subway)
Another good vegetarian option, particularly if you watching your sodium intake, is the Veggie Delite Sandwich from Subway with 5 grams of fiber and 410 milligrams sodium. Pair it with a bowl of vegetable soup for a filling lunch.
A 6-inch Veggie Delite sandwich plus Fire-Roasted Tomato Orzo soup from Subway totals 360 calories, 3.5 g fat (9% calories from fat), 1 g saturated fat , 0 g trans fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 820 mg sodium, 69 g carbohydrate, 7 g fiber, 14 g protein.
Healthy Fast Food Meal No 10: Chicken Fresco Burrito Supreme and Pintos 'n' Cheese (Taco Bell)
Need a protein-and-fiber boost in the middle of the day? The Chicken Fresco Burrito Supreme gives you 8 grams of fiber and 18 grams of protein with only 21% calories from fat. The sodium is high, however – 1,410 milligrams. If you're looking for a vegetarian choice, Taco Bell's Fresco Bean Burrito has similar nutritional statistics, and goes great with a side of Mexican Rice.
A Chicken Fresco Burrito Supreme with Pintos ‘n Cheese from Taco Bell has 520 calories, 15 g fat (26% calories from fat), 5.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 2140 mg sodium, 69 g carbohydrate, 17 g fiber, 28 g protein.
(Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for WebMD and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.)