We all know that walking into a fast food restaurant and ordering a large burger and fries is not doing our health any favours. But what if we opt for the veggie wrap or a nice big salad?
In this day and age, many fast food chains offer “healthy” low-cal alternatives to their gut-busting specials. The question is: just how virtuous are these foods? Could it in fact be that they are really junk food in disguise?
The makings of an unhealthy meal
The first thing to establish is that there are many things that can make a meal unhealthy. A vegetarian soup might be low in calories, but packed with salt and sugar. A veggie wrap might skip the red meat in favour of healthy pulses and beans, but if it’s also slathered in cheese and mayo, or a super sweet barbecue sauce, it’s not going to do our arteries any favours.
Perhaps one of the biggest offenders when it comes to fast food chains, though, is the humble salad.
Fast food salads
According to many news sources (and indeed, popular opinion), salad options at fast food restaurants are no better than the typically unhealthy items.
This Daily Mail article lays into McDonald’s for its now discontinued Caesar salad, which contained 425 calories and over 20g of fat – in contrast with a standard hamburger, which only contains 253 calories and 7.7g of fat.
That might seem a little scary, but it’s worth noting that the calories contained in these kinds of salads tend to be concentrated in the dressing and any tasty (but fattening) extras such as croutons.
If you want to order a healthy fast food salad:
- Ask for low-calorie dressing (or skip it altogether)
- Avoid unhealthy extras such as croutons or bacon
- Always opt for chicken that has been grilled instead of fried
And remember: eating a salad does not negate calories – so getting a side portion of salt-covered, greasy fries is not advised!
How to do healthy fast food right
If you live a busy lifestyle, eating fast food can be very convenient. The good news is, it’s possible to order relatively healthy meals from all the main fast food chains in the UK. Better yet, you don’t always have to rely on the salad option.
The next time you’re in McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King or Pizza Hut, choose a meal that ticks the following boxes:
- For meat eaters, lean protein such as chicken, turkey or fish
- For vegetarians, protein-rich pulses such as beans and lentils
- Wholegrain or complex carbohydrates, in place of refined carbohydrates
- Low in calories
- Low salt content (~0.3g per 100g)
- Low total sugars content (~5g per 100g)
- Low saturated fat content (~1.5g per 100g)
And of course, the more veggies and less oil, mayonnaise and cheese on the ingredients list, the better.
Below you’ll find some of the healthier options available from four of the UK’s favourite fast food joints.
Country Chicken & Vegetable Soup (Subway)
Saturated Fat: 1.8g
More nutritional information from Subway here.
Veggie Bean Wrap (Burger King)
Saturated Fat: 6g
More nutritional information from Burger King here.
Sweet Chilli Grilled Chicken Wrap (McDonald’s)
Saturated Fat: 1.8g
More nutritional information from McDonald’s here.
4 slices (half) of Medium Italian “Veggie Supreme” (Pizza Hut)
Saturated Fat: 6.8
More nutritional information from Pizza Hut here.
Unhealthy fast food: the worst offenders
Sometimes, we just want to sink our teeth into a big juicy beef burger, or a large cheesy pizza – and that’s OK, as long as we don’t make a habit of it.
Having said that, it might be wise to try and avoid the following…
- Pizza Hut: Half a large, stuffed crust “The Meaty One” (1,605 calories and 30g of saturated fat)
- Burger King: One “Angus Supreme” burger (1,237 calories and 20g of saturated fat)
- McDonald’s: One “BBQ” burger and a large portion of fries (1,226 calories and 19g of saturated fat)
- Subway: A 12-inch “Chicken & Bacon Ranch Melt” on 9-grain wheat bread (1,208 calories and 22g of saturated fat)
Ordering a Healthy Takeaway
Today, it’s easier than ever to order quick, cheap takeaway meals by using online services and apps such as Just Eat, Deliveroo and UberEATs.
Just remember to follow the rules laid out above, opting for menu items packed with lean protein, veggies and complex carbohydrates. Unlike fast food restaurants, which typically list all the nutritional values of their food online, it’s not always easy to know what’s in your takeaway. For this reason, it’s best to not turn it into a regular thing.
If you need some further guidance about cooking healthy meals at home, head to the NHS Live Well website. And remember that a little bit of indulgence every now and then is absolutely fine.