ByLauren DeMello/Jan. 24, 2022 5:59 pm EDT
Eating healthy at a fast food restaurant may seem impossible, but the truth is, many fast food and fast casual chains are broadening their menus to include healthier items. As more and more consumers go plant-based and the demand for vegan and vegetarian options increases, it only makes sense for these chains to provide more health-conscious items.
We've compiled a list of the top fast food chains adapting their menus to fit more health-conscious dietary needs and even restrictions such as gluten-free, low-carb, low-fat, low-calorie, vegan, and vegetarian. And fortunately, alternative meat products have been able to meet the consumer demand for plant-based options. The chains on our list are embracing these alternatives and creating incredible menu items that make eating healthy a tasty delight. At these chains, it's simply a matter of knowing what to choose in order to stick to your health goals. But you certainly don't have to give up your favorite restaurants in order to do so.
No matter what diet you choose to follow, Chipotle can cater to most, including vegan, vegetarian, keto, plant-based, gluten-free, or carnivore. This popular chain is all about using clean and fresh ingredients (perEating Well). They also allow you to mix and match meal components as you like, so the number of calories, grams of fat, protein, carbs, and sodium content that end up in your meal is entirely up to you. And some ingredients will get you to a healthier meal than others. As Eating Well points out, choosing a bowl without tortillas, adding fiber-rich foods like beans, guac, and brown rice, and doubling the serving of grilled veggies can make for a healthy and balanced meal.
Additionally, if you're calorie-conscious, you can easily opt for light servings of more calorie-dense foods, like sour cream, queso, and cheese.And while you may be tempted to order a salad in order to achieve your health goals, just know that the salad dressing alone is 220 calories which can add up quickly depending on what's in your salad.
Chips might sound tempting, but you'll likely not miss them if you're filling up on all the fiber-rich options like grilled veggies, beans, and brown rice. As Eating Well notes, each serving of chips clocks in around 540 calories — not exactly a low-cal side. That said, it's not all or nothing. As dietician Samantha Cassetty wrote forToday,"Get a crunchy taco shell on the side and have it in place of chips."
Subway reserves an entire portion of their menu to healthier items called Fresh Fit — and this range has received a major stamp of approval. As the company notes on their website, "That's why we're the first fast food restaurant to earn the American Heart Association heart check for heart-healthy meals."Sandwiches that have the heart-check approval include but are not limited to Veggie Delite,Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki, and two of their chicken sandwiches. (Oh, and we're talking about 6-inch sandwiches only.)Per Healthline, in order to meet this standard, the sandwich must use "9-grain wheat bread, lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, onions, and cucumbers." Chips aren't recommended for those following the American Heart Association's guidelines, or for those who watch their sodium intake.
If you wanted to skip the bread and opt for salad, AHA has given five leaf-heavy dishes their stamp of approval, including the Veggie Delite and Subway Club. Only the sweet onion salad dressing has been approved for a heart-healthy topping. Speaking of toppings, Healthline notes that there are a number of solid options. The list includes banana peppers, sweet onion dressing, jalapeños, and avocado.
While Chick-fil-A's menu definitely contains decadent options like milkshakes, waffle cut fries, and fried chicken sandwiches, there are some items that are much healthier than your run-of-the-mill fast food restaurant. In fact, the eatery has "low calorie, low carb, low sodium, and vegetarian options to suit many different dietary needs," according to Healthline. For the low-cal crowd, they have a whopping eight menu items to choose from, including things like chicken noodle soup and a chicken wrap. Their low salt menu included things like a kale salad and apple sauce, and the vegetarian menu offers up wraps and salads. In 2017, the chain added a gluten-free bun to its roster, noting in a press release that it was "one of the first" national fast food chains to do so.They also have healthy breakfast options like egg white sandwiches, Greek yogurt parfaits, and fruit cups.
For those searching for healthier meals, it's important to note that this restaurant's famous dressings and saucescan change a meal's nutritional value. Chick-fil-A's classic sauce, for example, packs 140 calories per serving and 13 grams of fat. On the flip side, the Zesty Buffalo Sauce is at 25 calories per serving.
If you don't mind the idea of drinking your meals, Pressed may be the perfect way to achieve your fruit and veggies goals. Pressed offers cold-pressed juices, smoothies, and wellness shots. Or if you want to "spoon your juice," they offer smoothie bowls and soft serve as well. Pressed states on their website that they use seasonal produce and avoid added sugars and preservatives. Their products focus on sustainably sourced, vegan ingredients. And health isn't the only thing they care about. "For us, flavor is just as important as nutrition benefits,"the company promises."Each Pressed recipe is designed with taste in mind. We don't just want to boost your wellness, we want to wow your taste buds too!"
Pressed cofounderHayden Slater told CNN that getting into juicewas a "gateway" for him that changed his life, andhe ultimately wanted to share the benefits of cold-pressed juice with others. Being able to increase access to nutritious foods at an affordable price were two of his primary goals.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, cold-pressed juices and smoothies can help you get more fruits and veggies into your diet. But it's important to be mindful of the calorie and sugar content, as these can quickly add up.
Panera Bread may seem like your standard sandwich and soup shop, but actually, they've got great options to suit even the most health-conscious crowd. And they take every last ingredient seriously. They've compiled a "No No List" with over 85 ingredients they've banned from their menu, including things like high fructose corn syrup, lard, FD&C artificial colors, and many more. According to Panera's website, they're committed to serving only clean ingredients eliminating all foods that "contain artificial preservatives, sweeteners, and flavors along with colors from artificial sources."
If you're a vegetarian, CNN recommends the Greek Salad with quinoa. (If vegan fare is what you're after, you can opt for the salad sans feta cheese.) For those looking to reduce sugar intake, you can order a turkey sandwich on sourdough which nets 2g of sugar in total. For a little extra superfood kick, they allow you to add avocado and kale. For the gluten-free foodies, they've got a Fuji Apple Salad with Chicken that's sure to fill you up. And they've even got a Kale Caesar Salad for the low-carb crowd. If your kiddos are in tow, fear not, they have all-natural chili and yogurt for a boost of healthy protein — and yes, those are separate items.
Native Foods is a purely plant-based, 100% vegan chain that's been around since 1994, according to Nation's Restaurant News. While plant-based eating hasn't always been on-trend, this restaurant was clearly ahead of the curve with its dedication to serving eco-friendly fare. While they offer ultra-healthy food options, their biggest draw may be the "plant-based versions of comfort foods like meatball subs, nachos, steak sandwiches and double cheeseburgers." Instead of beef, this company uses soy-based protein instead. At Native Foods, patrons can stick to their plant-based diet without compromising on taste. It's a win-win. Speaking of winning, according to Vegan.com, the chain has taken home a number of accolades, including VegNews' Restaurant of the Year.
Sandra Maria Thum, director of marketing at Native Foods, tells Nation's Restaurant News, "Comfort food has a place in every diet, including a healthy diet. If you're going that way to indulge, you may want to make a better choice like Native Foods." If you're looking for easy ways to go plant-based, Native Foods may be your new favorite joint.
Starbucks is pretty much everywhere nowadays, and while most of us think of coffee first when it comes to this chain, they actually have a number of healthy meal items as well. Whether you're stopping in for your morning cup of coffee or your afternoon pick-me-up, they have breakfast and lunch options to choose from that can keep you on track when it comes to healthy eating. For instance, their classic oatmeal is a great, fiber-rich way to start your day. With the addition of their fresh blueberries and chopped nuts, you can get a little extra superfood boost with your meal (perMindBodyGreen).
If you're looking for a savory take on breakfast, you'll want to check out the Spinach, Feta & Cage-Free Egg-White Breakfast Wrap which can get you to your protein and veggie goals faster. Or you can always go with the Egg White & Roasted Red Pepper Egg Bites.And if you're stopping in for lunch, there are plenty of options to choose from, including the Grilled Chicken and Cauliflower Tabbouleh Salad or the Chickpea Bites & Avocado Protein Box. Registered Dietician Frances Largeman-Roth tells MindBodyGreen, "I love that I can eat some of the items now (the eggs and cheddar cheese) and save some for later (the PB packet and muesli bread). The total protein for the box is 23 grams and you also get 5 grams of fiber." We don't just have to love our coffee prepared fast but can love the food Starbucks is serving up as well.
Fresh Brothers Pizza
Fresh Brothers is a pizza place doing their pies differently and, as they promise on their site, they've made it their mission to serve up healthy pies.While most traditional pizzas are high in calories, sodium, and fat, Fresh Brothers focuses on nutrient-dense ingredients, starting with their dough and ending with their toppings. The restaurant claims that all their dough is made fresh and never frozen, in order to avoid unhealthy preservatives. And they also offer alternative crusts including gluten-free and cauliflower crust for those with special dietary needs (or those who just want to sneak extra veggies into their meal).
In addition to a preservative-free dough, you'll also be eating preservative-free sauce that's locally sourced, according to Fresh Brothers. And if all this didn't sound health-conscious enough, you may be convinced by the fact that they source their cheese from Wisconsin and it's completely without artificial ingredients or preservatives. Oh, and if you're a dedicated veganite, they have plant-based options just for you.
After launching a vegan pepperoni 'za in 2020, CEOGeoff Goodman said in a press release (viaVeg Out),"We've been looking for new ways to satisfy the needs of our plant-based fans and we're ecstatic to be one of the first pizza chains to offer vegan pepperoni that's tasty and premium."If you have a Fresh Brothers near you, definitely check them out next time you're hosting pizza night.
Mendocino Farms is a fast casual restaurant doing everything different from your typical fast food joint, including a rotating menu that's seasonal. That said, it's hard to get bored here. The main dishes they offer up are sandwiches, salads, and soups. While sandwiches can be a no-go for the low-carb foodie, Mendocino offers breadless options with the ability to turn any sandwich into a salad, according to California Nutrition Group. Additionally, they've turned classic comfort food into something a little more fitting for the healthy lunch-goer. For instance, their Not So Fried Chicken Sandwich is a healthier take on a fried chicken sandwich, using shaved roasted chicken breast and crunchy polenta as the alternative.
If vegan food is your jam, they offer Impossible meat you can add to your salad of choice. The Impossible Taco Salad which has "0 mg cholesterol (compared to 80mg in traditional beef) and only 14 grams of fat (compared to 23 grams in traditional beef)," perCalifornia Nutrition Group. And even if you're not looking to eat vegan, they don't shy away from superfoods in their meat-containing salads. You'll find that ingredients such as avocado, quinoa, millet, and succotash are a common addition to their salad bowls at Mendocino Farms.
Veggie Grill, like Native Foods, is another plant-powered fast-casual chain that offers up 100% vegan food. But don't think you'll be stuck with eating a stale, boring salad here. This restaurant offers delicious vegan food that'll make you forget it's all made of plants. Menu items include things like buffalo wings, mac and cheese, and burgers, according to Verywell Fit. In addition to ongoing staples on their menu, they also offer a rotating, seasonal list of items as well.
And their mission to offer healthy food doesn't just stop at plant-based menu items. Impressively, they also offer options for those who steer clear of gluten and carbs.According to Verywell Fit, "Its plant protein is made from non-GMO soybeans, and it only uses monounsaturated fats that don't negatively affect cholesterol levels." We love that this restaurant strives for an all-inclusive diet culture and allows for many people to enjoy eating plant-based menu options, no matter what their restrictions may be.
Au Bon Pain
Au Bon Pain, also referred to as ABP, can fix any sandwich, soup, or salad craving you might have. This bakery-style fast food chain offers both fixed and rotating seasonal menu items to ensure you never get bored.They make their missionclear on theirwebsite:"From delicious meals, to satisfying snacks or wholesome treats, food should always taste good, no matter if that choice is indulgent or nutritious; because life is about balance."
And their menu certainly seems to embrace health-conscious eating and even offers a whopping 19 low-fat soups that come in at under 200 calories, according to Washingtonian. But these aren't the only healthy options here. In fact, they have a killer chicken salad sandwich with the option for whole-grain bread. Clocking in at11 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, and 490 calories, the whole grain bread option ups your fiber count as well. And if you're looking for something even lighter, you can opt for the grilled chicken sandwich which totals 470 calories.
Even if bread isn't your thing, there are a plethora of salad choices to ensure you're hitting your veg goals. For instance, the Thai Chicken salad has 15 grams of fat and 23 grams of protein. It's also loaded with tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots. We love that ABP caters to healthy-ish eating along with providing options for even the strictest healthy eaters. Whatever your jam is, they've very likely got something just for you.
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Cava, a Mediterranean fast casual chain based in the DMV, is similar in format to the beloved Chipotle establishment. All the ingredients and meal components are served separately, allowing you to mix and match however they want, starting off with a base of your choosing. You can pick from super greens salad, a mix of greens and grains, grains only, and "right rice," which is a proprietary blend of chickpeas, lentils, and peas. Then, you can top your base with spreads, which include healthy ingredients such as roasted eggplant, Greek yogurt, roasted red peppers, and tahini sauce.
Moving onto proteins, you'll get to choose from falafel, lamb, roasted veggies, grilled chicken, and roasted white sweet potatoes. And if you're wanting to make your bowl even healthier, you can choose as many fresh toppings as you want, including romaine lettuce, pickled onion, avocado, cucumber, kalamata olives, corn, and tabbouleh. With so many amazing options, it would be easy to load up on fresh veggies, superfoods, and healthy fats without ever getting bored. Asdietician Allison Marco saidin theWashingtonianof the chain, "It's really easy to make a healthy dish."
Seriously, who would've thought Taco Bell would be on a healthy fast food list? And yet, here it is. This iconic fast food chain does way more than serve up Gorditas and Double Decker tacos. Ontheir website, they have an entire page dedicated to educating consumers on healthy menu items, stating, "Sticking to your health goals just got a whole lot easier." Their menu has been adapted to include items that satisfy vegetarian, gluten-free, and low-calorie diets. Three-quarters of their menu items are less than 500 calories.
And if you're looking for an even steeper cut in calories, you can choose any menu item "Fresco Style," which cuts mayo-based sauces, sour cream, and cheeses and adds in freshly diced tomatoes. Apply this modification to the Burrito Supreme, and you've got yourself a 340 calorie meal. Or maybe you're in the mood for a soft taco. Order it Fresco Style and you're only eating 160 calories. Additionally, Taco Bell has a nutrition calculator to help keep you on track when ordering from their menu.
"People say that we only have indulgent food," Missy Schaaphok, Taco Bell's dietician, told Skift. "But we actually have food for everybody and for all lifestyles, whether you want higher protein or something that is lower calories and lower fat."Now, who's up for tacos?