It’s quick, it’s easy, and usually served fresh out of the package and coated in grease. While it’s no secret that fast food is a staple in many American diets, many restaurants that serve up burgers and fries are also serving up more nutritious salads, grilled sandwiches, and meal options for those who want the fast food flavor without all of the calories and fat. Don’t be fooled by some “healthy” sounding meals, however; while you may think that your meal may have some slight nutritional value due to the addition of fresh veggies, you’ll want to steer clear of those sandwiches that are deep-fried or those salads that are smothered in cream-based dressings.
While nutrition is one of the biggest reasons to stay far away from the drive thru window, you’ll also want to take into account which foods are being served to you fresh and which foods are left fully cooked and sitting before they’re even ordered. The following six items are either high in fat, calories, and sodium, or they’re rarely cooked to-order, making them definite fast foods to avoid.
1. Chicken nuggets
While plenty of fast food restaurants boast that their chicken nuggets contain 100% white meat, Dr. Axe found that only about 20% of the average chicken nugget is actually breast meat. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that up to 60% of the chicken nugget itself is actually ground up bone, fat, blood vessels, and gristle — and this is in addition to the GMO corn, bleached wheat, sugar, hydrogenated oils, and preservatives found in the nugget as well.
While fast food nuggets may contain a surprising amount of protein and a few grams of dietary fiber, the amount of fat and sodium (900 milligrams of sodium per 10 chicken nuggets at McDonald’s) should be enough of a reason to leave these at the takeout window. And, you’ll also rarely get your nuggets fresh out of the fryer. You can thank TBHQ for this, as it’s a chemical preservative found in the nuggets that helps extend their shelf life.
2. Veggie burgers
While veggie burgers seem like they might be your best bet when it comes to a healthy choice for fast food, you may be right — they’re low in calories, saturated fat, and sugar, and they offer a decent amount of protein as well. However, be aware of the add-ons that can make your somewhat healthy veggie burger into a meal as unhealthy as a Big Mac — Eat Clean describes several veggie burgers that are smothered in cheeses and sauces that offer few nutritional benefits and a boat-load of calories. Don’t expect your veggie burger to be anywhere near fresh either, as they are typically bought pre-made and locked deep inside the freezer until ordered, and only then are they resurrected and thrown on the grill.
If the frozen and never-fresh patty doesn’t bother you, it may put you off that your veggie burger could be grilling on the same grill top as the burgers — for strict vegetarians and vegans, this is definitely something to watch out for. While it’s common knowledge that fast food restaurants fry their fries and their meat products in the same grease, vegetarians may not think of the grill top as a shared vessel for the cooking of both meat and meatless products.
3. Blended and frozen coffee drinks
One of the most sinister fast foods is not necessarily a food item you’ll be chewing at all — blended coffee beverages, whether from Starbucks or McDonald’s, both contain sky-high amounts of sugar and saturated fats, making them no better for you than an ice cream sundae or a burger and fries. In fact, you can drink half a day’s worth of calories in just one of these frozen concoctions without even realizing it, and with next to no protein content either, you’ll still crave a full meal after you’re finished.
The Huffington Post describes some of the worst frozen coffee drinks you can purchase, some of which contain over 100 grams of sugar, which is 2.5 times the recommended daily intake for men. While you may not consider Starbucks to be “fast food,” a large coffee-flavored Frappuccino, even after using 2% milk instead of whole, still comes to a whopping 69 grams of sugar. Skip out on these milkshake-like beverages and go for a regular iced coffee instead.
4. Salads containing sugary or creamy dressings
Fast food restaurants do an excellent job of making you believe that their salads are low-calorie, nutrient dense, and still packed full of flavor, but this is rarely the case. Many of these quick-prepared salads are loaded with cheese, bacon, chili, or guacamole, offering up a meal that is typically higher in fat and calories than a classic burger and fries combo. And, beware of words like “crispy” to describe the chicken that’s atop many of these salads, as this implies that there’s a deep-fried element to your lunch that will add plenty of saturated fat that you may not have been expecting.
The add-ons found in these fast food salads can be problematic, but it’s the dressings that come with these salads that can really raise the calorie and fat content to a whole new level. Dressings with a creamy base, like ranch, Caesar, or blue cheese, are packed with oils that can ruin your diet. Or, salad dressings that sound healthy like “pomegranate vinaigrette” are typically packed with plenty of sugar. Rodale Wellness outlines the worst salad dressings so you can know what to avoid when eating at your favorite fast food joint.
5. Fish sandwiches
Eating a fish sandwich sounds like you’re doing your health a favor when compared to ordering a double cheeseburger, but in some fast food restaurants, the fish is actually worse. No matter what fast food restaurant you’re going to, you’re in for more or less the same thing — a fried piece of reconstituted cod from the freezer, a white bun slathered in mayo, and a slice of cheese. While Diets in Review tried to find a fish sandwich that was below 500 calories and 500 milligrams of sodium on the market, they failed to find one, proving that the fish sandwich, all around, is a bust.
While the fried piece of fish itself can hold over 10 grams of fat, the heavy dosage of tarter sauce might help the relatively tasteless fish, but it won’t help your health. And, while the sandwich may appear to be deceivingly simple, don’t be fooled — one single McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich contains 101 ingredients, which range from preservatives to sugar.
6. Anything served in a tortilla
Though the contents of a burrito — the meat, the veggies, and the beans — may give your lunch a nutritious and flavor-filled boost, you’ll want to order that burrito without the tortilla the next time you’re craving quick Mexican cuisine. Fast Food Nutrition found that in a Chipotle tortilla, and just the tortilla alone, there were 300 calories. This is without adding anything into the tortilla, so your burrito is already off to a starchy and carb-heavy start before any rice can even touch it.
Many fast food meals themselves actually contain fewer calories than a Chipotle tortilla. For example, an order of Burger King value sized onion rings, a McDonald’s strawberry sundae, and a Burger King bacon cheeseburger deluxe all contain less calories than the tortilla itself. That’s not to say that these items are any healthier, but if you’re adding steak and sour cream onto that tortilla as well, you’ll likely be looking at a meal that’s over 1,000 calories and 50 grams of fat.