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Diet and Nutrition

Choosing Healthful Fast-Food Options

Despite popular opinion, fast food doesn't always have to be high-fat, high-calorie, and high-guilt. But how can we make smart fast-food choices? The best guideline is to look up nutrition information about your usual choices at your favorite fast-food restaurants. All of the major fast-food chains have that information online on their official Web sites. For example:Fast Food


Fast-food chains often have this information posted in the restaurant and available in a brochure you can take home with you. You can also find generalized information about nearly 150 fast-food items in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Nutrient Database. Just put the words "fast food" in the site's keyword search engine and then choose which item you're interested in.

General Guidelines

In the meantime, you can use these general guidelines to make your fast-food meals as healthful as possible:

1. Choose smaller sandwiches, and say "no" to cheese, special sauces or spreads. Also, beware of added fat and calories from mayonnaise or bacon on the sandwich. Instead, ask for extra lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions.

2. Avoid breaded and fried chicken, fish or other sandwich options. Opt for grilled or broiled instead.

3. For a side dish, choose fruit, when available, or a side salad instead of french fries or other high-calorie side. Entree salads are also often good choices instead of sandwiches, but it's best to double-check the calories in them. You might be surprised. Always ask for fat-free or reduced-calorie dressings for your salad.

4. Save money and calories by asking for ice water instead of a high-sugar beverage. Or, spend the money and save the calories by ordering a diet soft drink, low-cal lemonade or unsweetened iced tea. Yet another healthful option is to get a calcium boost by ordering a carton of milk as your beverage.

It's not hard to make smart choices at most fast-food restaurants. But, as you know, it can be even easier to make lousy choices. In fact, ordering a large sandwich with cheese, bacon, sauce or other high-calorie add-ons, an order of fries and a large high-sugar beverage could easily add up to (or exceed) the total number of calories you should be consuming in an entire day.

While it's perfectly OK to indulge on rare occasions, the health consequences can add up if you make the same poor choices over and over again. If you're a frequent fast-food patron, do yourself a favor and look up the nutrition information of your choices -- and opt for healthful choices most of the time.

This article originally appeared in Chow Line (5/30/08), a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2008.

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Last Reviewed: Jun 26, 2008

Melissa Kalb, RD, LD
Registered Dietitian, OSU Faculty and Staff Wellness Program
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University