The Best Healthy Fast Food Options at the Most Popular U.S. Chains

Fast food doesn’t have to equal bad food. Turn to one of the options on this list for when you’re in a pinch (or have a craving).

Fast food is convenient, widely available, and often delicious. Whether you’re road-tripping, traveling to a competition, or just busy running errands, a quick stop at the drive-through makes life a lot easier. According to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control, on any given day, nearly 37% of adults in the United States eat fast food for one of their main meals. In 2014, about 58% of Americans visited a fast-food restaurant two to three times per week. (6)

A cheeseburger and French fries
Alena Haurylik/Shutterstock

The United States Department of Agriculture reported that fast food provided nearly 16% of our daily calories in 2012, compared to less than 6% in the late 1970s. Increased fast food consumption has contributed to reductions in dietary quality and rising levels of dietary fat, sodium, and overall energy intake. (12)

You might be wondering how fast food could ever be considered healthy, especially after reading about its effects on dietary quality in the US. The fast-food industry has come a long way from the classic 1950’s burger-and-fries meal, though. Even if you’re on a first-name basis with the attendant at the second window of your favorite drive-through, you don’t have to sacrifice your health or goals for the sake of convenience. 

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.

The Best Fast Food Options

The next time you visit your favorite fast food joint, consider choosing one of these healthier recommendations, which contain more fiber and protein and lower levels of fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars compared to other menu items.

The list below contains the top two restaurants in six categories outlined in the 2021 edition of The QSR 50 — an annual chart published by QSR Magazine, a brand that covers the quick-service industry. Their list ranks the top US-based fast-food restaurants based on a variety of metrics, including their sales and number of franchised units.


Give your burgers a boost by adding lettuce, tomato, and onion, and swapping out mayonnaise for ketchup and mustard. Replace your fries with a side of fruit and you’re one serving closer to your recommended intake goal.



  • 250 Calories
  • Fat: 9 grams (3.5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 31 grams (1 gram fiber)
  • Protein: 12 grams

McDouble® (No Cheese)

  • 350 Calories
  • Fat: 16 grams (7 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 31 grams (1 gram fiber)
  • Protein: 20 grams


Jr. Hamburger

  • 250 Calories
  • Fat: 11 grams (4 grams saturated fat and 0.5 gram trans fat)
  • Carbs: 25 grams (1 gram fiber)
  • Protein: 13 grams

Jr. Cheeseburger

  • 340 Calories
  • Fat: 14 grams (6 grams saturated fat and 0.5 gram trans fat)
  • Carbs: 26 grams (1 gram fiber)
  • Protein: 14 grams


Choosing a grilled rather than fried chicken sandwich is an easy way to reduce the trans (and total) fats in your meal. Replace fries with fruit and add extra veggies if you have the option. Or, just skip the side altogether and munch on just a sandwich.


Grilled Chicken Sandwich

  • 320 Calories
  • Fat: 6 grams (1 gram saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 41 grams (2 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 28 grams

Chicken Tortilla Soup

  • 340 Calories
  • Fat: 10 grams (3 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 38 grams (17 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 23 grams

Bonus Snack: Grilled Chicken Nuggets (8) & Fruit Cup

  • 190 Calories
  • Fat: 3 grams (0.5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 15 grams (2 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 25 grams


Chicken Little & Green Beans

  • 325 Calories
  • Fat: 15 grams (2.5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 32 grams (4 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 15 grams

Snack-Size KFC Famous Bowl

  • 270 Calories
  • Fat: 14 grams (3.5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 27 grams (2 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 11 grams


Taco Bell and Chipotle have wide varieties of vegan and vegetarian options with highly modifiable menu items. They’re great choices for boosting your fiber intake!

Taco Bell®

Power Menu Bowl: Grilled Chicken (No Signature Sauce, Easy Cheese, Extra Lettuce and Tomato)

  • 400 Calories
  • Fat: 15 grams (4 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 43 grams (8 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 25 grams

Vegan Black Bean Burrito (Extra Beans, Add Rice, No Cheese)

  • 420 Calories
  • Fat: 10 grams (2 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 69 grams (13 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 14 grams


Sofritas Burrito Bowl (Brown Rice, Black Beans, Fajita Vegetables, Lettuce, Salsa)

  • 545 Calories
  • Fat: 17.5 grams (2.5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 77 grams (15 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 21 grams

Grilled Chicken Salad (Black Beans, Fajita Vegetables, Roasted Chili-Corn Salsa)

  • 425 Calories
  • Fat: 10 grams (3 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 46 grams (13 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 45 grams


Pizza can be as simple as pepperoni and cheese, but you have the opportunity to add a variety of veggies and choose chicken for a leaner protein. Many pizza places also have non-pizza options.


Thin Crust Veggie Pizza (Light Cheese)

  • 290 Calories (¼ Medium Pizza) 
  • Fat: 15 grams (6 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 28 grams (1 gram fiber)
  • Protein: 10 grams

Chicken Parmesan Sandwich

  • 380 Calories (½ Sandwich) 
  • Fat: 15 grams (7 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 36 grams (2 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 24 grams

Pizza Hut®

Veggie Lovers Thin n’ Crispy Pizza

  • 360 Calories (¼ Medium Pizza) 
  • Fat: 12 grams (6 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 48 grams (4 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 16 grams

Chicken Garden Salad (No Cheese, Dressing Not Included)

  • 400 Calories
  • Fat: 17 grams (3 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 39 grams (4 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 30 grams

Soup, Salad & Sandwiches

The possibilities are endless with soup, salad, and sandwich combinations. Stick with whole grain bread, lean proteins, broth-based soups, and vinegar-based dressings. Go wild with the added veggies!


6-Inch Oven Roast Turkey & Swiss Sub (Multigrain Bread, Mustard, and Veggies)

  • 320 Calories
  • Fat: 8 grams (3 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 40 grams (5 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 24 grams

6-Inch Veggie Delight with Provolone (Multigrain Bread, Mustard, and Veggies)

  • 250 Calories
  • Fat: 6 grams (2.5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 39 grams (4 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 12 grams

Panera Bread®

Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich on Tomato Basil Bread

  • 540 Calories
  • Fat: 12 grams (3 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 89 grams (9 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 21 grams

Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken (Half) & Apple

  • 250 Calories
  • Fat: 15 grams (3.5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 35 grams (9 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 18 grams

Breakfast & Snacks

If you’re starting the day with coffee and a muffin, you might also be starting with a lot of added sugars and not much protein or fiber. For longer-lasting, nutrient-dense energy and less sugar, try a simple coffee drink with a breakfast sandwich that includes lean protein.


Turkey Bacon, Cheddar & Egg White Sandwich 

  • 230 Calories
  • Fat: 5 grams (2.5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 28 grams (3 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 17 grams

Spinach, Feta & Egg White Wrap

  • 250 Calories
  • Fat: 8 grams (3.5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 34 grams (3 grams fiber)
  • Protein: 20 grams


Egg and Cheese English Muffin

  • 340 Calories
  • Fat: 15 grams (5 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 38 grams (1 gram fiber)
  • Protein: 14 grams

Egg White & Veggie Omelet Bites with English Muffin

  • 270 Calories
  • Fat: 13 grams (7 grams saturated fat)
  • Carbs: 42 grams (1 gram fiber)
  • Protein: 19 grams

How to Make a Fast Food Meal “Healthy”

No single food or meal will determine the healthiness of your diet, and what’s considered healthy might vary from one person to the next, but decades of epidemiological research can provide solid guidelines for your fast food choices.

Opt for Complex Carbs 

Diets rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans provide both complex carbohydrates and fiber, which are associated with a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes. (8) Current recommendations include eating 15 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories that you eat each day, or 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. You should also try to eat one to two cups of fruit and two to three cups of veggies per day.

A bowl of blueberries and oatmeal
Julia Sudnitskaya/Shutterstock

You’re probably already aware that carbs are the preferred fuel source for intense exercise, but they may support your performance in another way: by feeding certain microbes in your gut. Most bacteria in your large intestine produce energy anaerobically, or without oxygen, making them reliant on carbohydrates. Many observational studies have found a positive relationship between physical activity and microbiome diversity, with evidence to suggest that the high-carbohydrate diets of active participants influenced their findings. (2)(4)(7)

A more recent experiment in bodybuilders revealed the potential relationship between exercise and fiber intake. (10) Although researchers intended to study the effects of probiotics in the bodybuilders, they actually discovered that the participants with fiber-deficient diets didn’t have diverse gut microbiomes like the bodybuilders who hit the recommended daily intake. In fat, their microbiome diversity was no different from the sedentary participants in the control group.

While researchers still don’t know whether a more diverse microbiome translates to better exercise performance, this experiment suggests that dietary habits might mediate the beneficial relationship between exercise and the microbiome. If your diet is too low in fiber, you may not be getting the most out of your exercise habits. 

Limit Trans Fats, Sodium, and Refined Sugars 

Though trans fats occur naturally in very small amounts, the industrially-produced trans fat content found in some fast food is much higher than the recommended daily intake (which is to eat as little as possible, or less than 1% of your daily calories.) Trans fats are created through a process called hydrogenation, which modifies the structure of unsaturated fats so they become more firm with a longer shelf-life. (3)

Contrary to the recommendations, trans fats contribute 1-2% of Americans’ daily energy intake and most come from these industrially-produced, hydrogenated oils. Trans fats are associated with a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease or having a stroke or cardiovascular event (like a heart attack). (3)

Most fast food meals are high in sodium because it extends shelf-life and enhances taste, and evidence suggests at daily intake of more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium increases cardiovascular disease risk. (13) Some athletes may exceed this amount as they replenish electrolytes lost during intense endurance events, but on a regular day, it’s probably best to limit added salt or choose lower-sodium options if they’re available.

Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, energy drinks, and lemonade contain added sugars like high fructose corn syrup and table sugar. Unlike the sugars that occur naturally in fruits, these are added to foods (and listed on the nutrition facts label). They can be useful for a pre-workout or intra-workout carb source, but habitual intake is linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in a dose-dependent manner. (14) Based on current recommendations, you should limit your added sugars to 10% or less of your daily calories, which would translate to about 50 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet.

What about Saturated Fat and Artificial Sweeteners?

Though saturated fat in isolation may not increase disease risk in healthy people, certain foods high in saturated fat — like processed meats and red meat — are associated with the development of certain cancers. (3) Current recommendations include limiting your saturated fat intake to 10% or less of your daily calories, which would translate to about 22 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet.

Artificially-sweetened beverages, like diet sodas and sugar-free energy drinks, can reduce energy intake and body fat if used to replace sugar-sweetened beverages. Like their sugary counterparts, they’re also linked to higher cardiovascular disease risk in some epidemiological studies, though the relationship and reasons are less clear. (14) (Contrary to popular belief, evidence from studies on humans — rather than rodents — indicates that artificial sweeteners have little to no measurable effect on the gut microbiome.) (11)

How Fast Food Affects Performance

You’ll probably make it through a short workout on an empty stomach, but if you’re planning on a session lasting longer than an hour, your performance will likely suffer if you’ve been fasting for more than a few hours. (1) After your workout, you’ll have plenty of time to replenish glycogen and support muscle repair, but if you plan on training again later that day, your post-workout replenishment window isn’t as wide. If you’re away from home and need something quick, don’t hesitate to hit the drive-through.

If you’re grabbing some fast food for your pre-workout meal, it’s a good idea to choose something low in fat and fiber to prevent exercise-induced gastrointestinal distress. When macronutrients are matched, a fast food meal is just as effective as a meal of sport supplements (like energy chews and protein bars) for replenishing glycogen. (9) If your pre-workout meal was low in fiber, post-workout is a great time to incorporate some complex carbs with whole grain options and fruit or veggies on the side.

Other Helpful Diet Tips While Traveling

It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re traveling, but waiting too long to eat might lead you to eat so fast that you don’t notice when you’re full. Processed food (like fast food) is energy-dense and tasty, so it’s easy to exceed your calorie needs, especially when you eat it quickly. (5) To prevent this:

  • Eat and hydrate at regular intervals to prevent extreme hunger.
  • Bring a few non-perishable snacks in case of “emergencies”.
  • Slow down while you’re eating, and try to eat without distractions.

Most chain restaurants post their nutrition information online, but if that’s not available (or not something you track), you can still build a balanced meal and choose foods that are prepared in more healthful ways. To create your balanced plate:

  • Choose one or two fist-sized portions of a carbohydrate, another one or two fist-sized portions of veggies or fruit, and a palm-sized portion of protein.
  • Replace french fries with veggies or fruits as a side if possible.
  • Ask for sauces on the side.
  • Choose grilled rather than fried proteins.

In Conclusion

Fast food is often high in sodium and calories — primarily from fat and added sugar — which means it could increase your risk of certain diseases if you’re choosing the biggest, tastiest meal on the menu. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. With some planning and a few sensible modifications, a fast food meal can be a convenient source of nutrients when you’re on the go.


  1. Aird, T. P., Davies, R. W., & Carson, B. P. (2018). Effects of fasted vs fed-state exercise on performance and post-exercise metabolism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 28(5), 1476–1493.
  2. Allen, J. M., Mailing, L. J., Niemiro, G. M., Moore, R., Cook, M. D., White, B. A., Holscher, H. D., & Woods, J. A. (2018). Exercise Alters Gut Microbiota Composition and Function in Lean and Obese Humans. In Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (Vol. 50, Issue 4).
  3. De Souza, R. J., Mente, A., Maroleanu, A., Cozma, A. I., Ha, V., Kishibe, T., Uleryk, E., Budylowski, P., Schünemann, H., Beyene, J., & Anand, S. S. (n.d.). Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies.
  4. Estaki, M., Pither, J., Baumeister, P., Little, J. P., Gill, S. K., Ghosh, S., Ahmadi-Vand, Z., Marsden, K. R., & Gibson, D. L. (2016). Cardiorespiratory fitness as a predictor of intestinal microbial diversity and distinct metagenomic functions. Microbiome, 4, 1–13.
  5. Fagerberg, P., Charmandari, E., Diou, C., Heimeier, R., Karavidopoulou, Y., Kassari, P., Koukoula, E., Lekka, I., Maglaveras, N., Maramis, C., Pagkalos, I., Papapanagiotou, V., Riviou, K., Sarafis, I., Tragomalou, A., & Ioakimidis, I. (2021). Fast eating is associated with increased BMI among high-school students. Nutrients, 13(3), 1–19.
  6. Fryar, C. D., Hughes, J. P., Herrick, K. A., & Ahluwalia, N. (2018). Fast Food Consumption Among Adults in the United States, 2013-2016. NCHS Data Brief, 322, 1–8.
  7. Jang, L.-G., Choi, G., Kim, S.-W., Kim, B.-Y., Lee, S., & Park, H. (2019). The combination of sport and sport-specific diet is associated with characteristics of gut microbiota: an observational study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 16(1), 21.
  8. Reynolds, A., Mann, J., Cummings, J., Winter, N., Mete, E., & Te Morenga, L. (2019). Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. The Lancet, 393(10170), 434–445.
  9. Ruby, B. C., Cramer, M. J., Dumke, C. L., Cuddy, J. S., & Hailes, W. S. (2015). Fast Food Results In Similar Post-exercise Glycogen Recovery And Exercise Performance Compared To Sport Supplements. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 47(5S), 340.
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Featured Image: Alena Haurylik/Shutterstock