Market figures show that more and more people are buying breakfast from fast-food chains and places like Starbucks. It makes sense; after all, many people are already at one of those places buying coffee. Others just don't think they have enough time in the morning to get a bite at home, so they grab it on the go. But are any of these early morning offerings even remotely healthy?
In Search of a Better Breakfast
Finding a healthier fast-food breakfast means looking for items with some fiber and protein (which makes them more satisfying), but not too much saturated fat or total fat. Fiber is important for baked offerings, too -- even when these items are relatively low in fat, they can be high in sugar and white flour.
A look at the nutrition information some popular fast-food chains provide on their web sites shows that few of their breakfast items fit the bill. Some offer one or two items that are reasonably low in fat and saturated fat and contain some protein, but they're usually lacking in fiber. Others have not even one main-dish breakfast item that's low enough in fat and saturated fat to be considered healthy.
At Carl's Jr., for example, there was only one main-dish item with less than 20 grams of fat per serving (the French Toast Dips, with 18 grams of fat). It has some protein, 9 grams, but is lacking in the fiber department (1 gram). However, that's far better than the worst choice on their breakfast menu: the Carl’s Jr. Loaded Breakfast Burrito, with 820 calories and 51 grams of fat.
Best and Worst Fast Food Breakfasts
No matter which fast food chain you visit, high fat and high-calorie breakfast choices abound. But there are some better choices out there. Here are some of the best and worst-case scenarios at several major chains:
McDonald's BEST Breakfast Choices:
- Egg McMuffin: 300 calories, 12 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 260 mg cholesterol, 820 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
- Hotcakes (without syrup and margarine): 350 calories, 9 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
McDonald's WORST Choices:
- Deluxe Breakfast with regular size biscuit, without syrup & margarine: 1070 calories, 55 grams fat, 18 g saturated fat, 575 milligrams cholesterol, 2090 mg sodium, 6 g fiber.
- Deluxe Breakfast with large size biscuit, without syrup & margarine: 1140 calories, 59 g fat, 20 g saturated fat, 575 mg cholesterol, 2250 mg sodium, 7 g fiber.
- Big Breakfast (large size biscuit): 790 calories, 51 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 555 mg cholesterol, 1,660 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
Burger King's BEST Breakfast Choices:
- Ham Omelet Sandwich: 290 calories, 13 g fat 4.5 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 870 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
- French Toast Sticks, 3 piece: 240 calories, 13 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 4 g protein, 0 mg cholesterol, 260 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Burger King's WORST Choices:
- Double Croissan’Wich with sausage, egg, & cheese: 680 calories, 51 grams of fat, 18 grams of saturated fat, and 220 mg cholesterol, 1,590 mg sodium.
- Enormous Omelet Sandwich: 730 calories, 45 grams of fat, 16 grams of saturated fat, and 330 milligrams of cholesterol, 1,940 mg sodium.
Jack in the Box BEST Breakfast Choices:
- Breakfast Jack: 290 calories, 12 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 220 mg cholesterol, 760 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
- Bacon Breakfast Jack: 300 calories, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 215 mg cholesterol, 730 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Jack in the Box WORST Choices:
- Extreme Sausage Sandwich: 670 calories, 48 g of fat, 17 g saturated fat, 290 mg cholesterol, 1,300 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
- Sausage, Egg & Cheese Biscuit: 740 calories, 55 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 280 mg cholesterol, 1,430 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
- Sirloin Steak & Egg Burrito with Fire Roasted Tomato Salsa: 790 calories, 48 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 450 mg cholesterol, 1,440 mg sodium, 6 g fiber.
Carl's Jr. BEST Breakfast Choices:
- French Toast Dips (5 pieces, no syrup): 430 calories, 18 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 530 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Carl's Jr. WORST Choices:
- Loaded Breakfast Burrito: 820 calories, 51 g fat, 16 g saturated fat, 595 mg cholesterol, 1,530 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
- Breakfast Burger: 830 calories, 47 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 275 mg cholesterol, 1,580 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
Dunkin’ Donuts BEST Breakfast Choices:
- Blueberry Bagel: 330 calories, 2.5 g fat, .5 g saturated fat, 10 g protein, 0 mg cholesterol, 600 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
- Wheat Bagel:, 330 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 12 g protein, 0 mg cholesterol, 610 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
- Reduced Fat Blueberry Muffin: 400 calories, 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 8 g protein, 60 mg cholesterol, 490 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
- Honey Bran Raisin Muffin: 480 calories, 15 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 8 g protein, 60 mg cholesterol, 480 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.
Dunkin’ Donuts WORST Choices
- Triple Chocolate Muffin: 660 calories, 33 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 460 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
- Peanut Butter Cup Cookie: 590 calories, 29 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 530 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
Subway BEST Breakfast Choices:
- Egg White & Cheese Muffin Melt: 150 calories, 3.5 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 480 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.
- Egg White & Cheese on Mornin' Flatbread: 170 calories, 5 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 540 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Subway WORST Choices:
- Footlong Mega Breakfast Sandwich: 1,310 calories, 79 g fat, 31 g saturated fat, 550 mg cholesterol, 3,190 mg sodium, 10 g fiber. This sandwich is not available in all Subway restaurants.
- Footlong Sausage & Cheese Breakfast Sandwich: 1,210 calories, 71 g fat, 27 g saturated fat, 530 mg cholesterol, 2,820 mg sodium, 10 g fiber. This sandwich is not available in all Subway restaurants.
A Starbucks on Every Corner
And what about the Starbucks Coffee cafes you'll find on nearly every corner in cities across America?
The specific items that are available vary by region, as many Starbucks markets buy fresh bakery products from local suppliers. But -- at least in the California area -- there are a number of nutritionally reasonable offerings among the lineup of muffins, scones, loaf cakes, coffee cakes, croissants, and bagels. The trick is finding lower-fat items that also boast some fiber, so look for foods made with whole grains when available.
"We provide options to all our customers," explains Alan Hilowitz, a spokesman for Starbucks. "We have indulgent items, and each Starbucks also carries some healthier items."
Here are some of the healthier items you might find at your local Starbucks (keeping in mind that bakery items vary regionally):
- Low Fat Bran Muffins: 360 calories, 4.5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 40 g cholesterol, 290 mg sodium, 7 g fiber
- Reduced Fat Cranberry Apple Muffin: 310 calories, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 460 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.
- Low-Fat Oat Fruit Scone: 310 calories, 2.5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 9 g protein, 30 mg cholesterol, 280 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
- Spinach Roasted Tomato, Feta & Egg Wrap: 240 calories, 10g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 730 mg sodium, 7 g fiber.
- Reduced Fat Blueberry Coffee Cake: 320 calories, 6 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 4 g protein, 10 mg cholesterol, 390 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
- Reduced-Fat Cherry Lemon Coffee Cake with Oatmeal-Pecan Streusel: 370 calories, 9 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 7 g protein, 50 mg cholesterol, 540 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
- Reduced Fat Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake: 290 calories, 4 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 4 g protein, <5 mg cholesterol, 330 mg sodium, <1 g fiber.
Is Skipping Breakfast Better?
Is it better to skip breakfast or grab a bite at a fast food restaurant? If fast food is your only option, go ahead and go for some of the healthier choices on the menu. It’s definitely better to eat breakfast than to go without.
Results from a recent University of Minnesota study that noted breakfast habits and weight changes in 2,200 teens over a 5-year period, indicated that regular breakfast eaters tended to have the lowest body mass indexes (BMIs). As the frequency of breakfast skipping went up, so did the body mass indexes of these teens.
The Bottom Line
The truth is that fast food is here, and it isn't going away. An analysis of the Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals by researchers from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center found that 37% of the adults and 42% of the children surveyed reported eating fast food at least once over two survey days.
Should fast food take all the blame for our obesity crisis? No. Should we all try to make healthier choices when we find ourselves in a fast food restaurant? Absolutely, experts say.
"Fast food likely contributes to over consumption, and a sedentary lifestyle reduces energy expenditure," notes University of Minnesota nutrition researcher David Jacobs Jr. Yet, he notes, the causes of the obesity epidemic are many, and our susceptibility to weight gain varies from person to person.
The bottom line: When you find yourself at a fast-food or quick-serve chain before 11 a.m., choose a better breakfast option, keep your portions reasonable, and keep (or start!) exercising.
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.