Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
Fast food restaurants have been under pressure to improve the quality of their offerings. And while their classic menu staples aren’t going away — they sell too well for chains to abandon them — many counter-service spots are offering healthier options. However, names can sometimes be deceiving; here’s a breakdown of how you can really go healthy at the fast food spots you frequent.
At first glance: The Premium Southwest Salad with Buttermilk Crispy Chicken contains roasted corn, tomatoes, poblano peppers, black beans, cheddar and jack cheeses, chili-lime tortilla strips, cilantro and a lime wedge, atop chopped romaine, baby spinach and baby kale. It’s served with Newman’s Own ranch dressing. Sounds healthy, right? Not so much.
A closer look: A Big Mac contains 540 calories, 970 mg. of sodium and 28 grams of fat, 6 grams of which are saturated. So I suspect you would be surprised to learn that with the dressing, this salad adds up to 710 calories, 1,090 mg. of sodium and 43 grams of fat, 9 of which are saturated.
A somewhat better choice: The Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken and Newman’s Own low-fat balsamic vinaigrette contains most of the same ingredients but the chicken is grilled instead of battered and deep-fried. Calories: 370. Fat: 13 grams, of which 4.5 grams are saturated. (Though note that the sodium, at 1,320 mg., is higher.)
At first glance: Where’s the beef? That was once Wendy’s tag line, but now the chain is testing the waters in three markets with its Black Bean Burger. According to Wendy’s corporate website, the new burger contains black beans, which are a good source of protein and fiber, as well as peppers, grains (faro, wild rice, quinoa, corn, carrots, onions and “a blend of spices, like cilantro, garlic and chili pepper.”) The burger is served with pepper jack cheese and a Parmesan ranch dressing on a toasted multigrain bun. If you’re a vegetarian or just trying to cut back on your red meat consumption, it sounds terrific.
A closer look: At 560 calories (for the vegetarian — not vegan — build) and 24 grams of fat, this isn’t looking like a particularly healthy choice. Subtract the sauce and the cheese and even then it comes in at 420 calories and 10 grams of fat. It somehow has 12 grams of sugar, as well.
A somewhat better choice: The Ultimate Chicken Grill Sandwich has one-third of the fat and 40 percent fewer calories than the veggie burger. Add a side of apple slices to add some fiber, and you have a far healthier choice.
At first glance: Burger King’s entry in the meatless burger category builds upon a MorningStar Farms Garden Veggie Patty. It’s billed as being made with “real” vegetables and grains, served with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, ketchup and mayo on a toasted sesame seed bun.
A closer look: The veggie burger logs in at 390 calories and 16 grams of fat, plus 21 grams of protein, which is a better profile than its Wendy’s alternative. Its patty is made with vegetables, but also relies heavily on soy protein and wheat gluten.
A somewhat better choice: The Burger King website makes it easy to see how customizing an entrée by subtracting or adding ingredients or adding a side dish changes the nutritional impact. Want to cut calories and fat? Eliminate the mayo and the calorie count drops to 320; total fat is halved to 8 grams and saturated fat falls to 1 gram.
At first glance: According to the Taco Bell website, the chain has made a concentrated effort to reduce sodium content by 15 percent since 2008. As of late 2015, it claims it has also removed artificial flavors and colors from its food, too, replacing them with natural alternatives, and is in the process of eliminating artificial trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup and unsustainable palm oil from its menu. The chain also plans “to remove preservatives and additives from our food, where possible.” These are all admirable goals, but let’s see how it plays out with the Cantina Power Bowl. This salad contains black beans, cheddar cheese, rice, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo and lettuce.
A closer look: This salad has more healthy, filling fiber than the average fast food choice at 13 grams (52 percent of the recommended daily value). It also has 16 grams of protein coming from the chicken and the beans, which is favorable over a ground beef-based menu item. But at 460 calories, it’s on the high end of acceptable. Of those calories, 170 come from 18 grams of fat. Its sodium content also takes up 43 percent of the recommended maximum intake. Of note, too: there are more than 40 ingredients in this salad, of which only a minority are items you and I would identify as whole foods.
A somewhat better choice: This salad’s nutrition profile goes way up if you skip the sour cream and avocado ranch sauce. If you’re missing the flavor, try asking for extra pico de gallo or sprinkling it with some hot sauce.
The Big Question
So, can you get a healthy meal at a fast food chain? I would say that it is possible to find a relatively healthy meal. Fast food inherently relies on inexpensive ingredients, preservatives and flavoring agents. But inform yourself of the calorie, fat and sodium counts, be hyperaware of portion sizes and gauge the impact of salad dressings and other condiments, and you’ll be able to find an acceptable choice when fast food is on the menu.
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