What fast foods can you eat on a low-carb diet?
By Zawn Villines
Reviewed by Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, ACSM EP-C
- Low-carb fast food
- Fast food alternatives
- Health consideration
Many fast foods are fried in unhealthful oils or coated in salt to make them more appetizing. Also, additives, such as salt or oil make fast foods a less healthful option for people seeking to reduce carbohydrate consumption.
A low-carb diet is not necessarily a healthful diet, especially if someone mainly eats fried meat or high-calorie processed foods.
Tips for low-carb fast food
A burger without the bread or bun is a low-carb alternative.
A person’s carbohydrate needs will vary based on their activity levels, their stature, and their health goals. For specific requirements, it is best to speak with a dietitian.
One study in Nutrition and Metabolism noted that to achieve a low-carb diet people should aim to consume less than 130 grams (g) of carbs each day.
Dietitians consider anyone consuming below 30 g of carbs per day to be on a very low-carbohydrate diet.
Some fast food restaurants do offer low-carb alternatives, but if not, the following tips can make it easier to eat low-carb fast food:
- Ask for sandwiches and burgers without the bun or bread.
- Replace sides, such as fries, potato chips, and bread with salad or a more nutrient dense carbohydrate choice, such as a fruit cup.
- Ask for grilled meat. If there is no grilled option available, take the fried skin off.
- Know the serving size, and keep portions small.
- Skip the main menu and head to the salad bar. Steer clear of dressing, and instead top the salad with protein, such as eggs or chicken. Add more flavor by including healthful fats, such as avocado, nuts, and seeds. Drizzle some lemon juice on top.
Low-carb options at fast food restaurants include:
- Chipotle burrito bowl: Chipotle makes it easy to customize food. Add meat and beans for protein and fiber and be mindful of the amount of rice the bowl contains. By limiting the portion of rice to 1/3 cup, or about 3 oz, a burrito bowl will contain about 30 g of carbs. When combined with a similar amount of beans, this will total 45 g of carbs.
- Subway without the bread: All of the sandwiches at Subway are high in carbohydrates because of the bread. Try ordering a sandwich, taking it out of the bread, and eating it as a salad. The Veggie Delite contains 9 g of protein.
- Arby’s roast turkey farmhouse salad: The farmhouse salad contains up to 22 g of protein, only 8 grams of carbs and 230 calories. Ask for dressing on the side or a vinaigrette option to decrease calorie intake.
- Taco Bell pintos and cheese: Pintos and cheese are a moderate-carb option, with 22 g of carbs. This snack contains 190 calories and offers 10 g of protein. People on low sodium diets should limit or avoid pintos and cheese as there are 680 milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving.
- Burger King bacon Swiss sourdough king: The sourdough king sandwich contains 48 g of carbohydrates. Removing the bread cuts the carbohydrate content down to 4 g. The burger still provides a large serving of protein. Make it healthier by taking off the bacon and cheese.
- McDonald’s southwest grilled chicken salad: This savory salad contains 27 g of carbohydrates and 37 g of protein. It contains 350 calories. This salad is high in sodium, making it a bad choice for people with heart disease or high blood pressure.
- Carl’s Jr. low-carb thickburger: The low-carb thickburger replaces the bun with lettuce and has just 9 g of carbs. The thickburger is still high in calories (560) and sodium (1,390 mg).
- Starbucks sous vide egg bites: Starbucks egg bites contain just 170 calories per serving. They have 13 g of protein, 13 g of carbs, and 500 mg of sodium.
Health considerations for eating fast food
Learning the nutritional value of food is helpful when eating fast food.
- trans fats
- saturated fats
Even a healthful choice, such as a salad, may be full of unhealthful additives, such as high-sodium or high-calorie salad dressing.The following strategies can help make fast food more healthful:
Have a precise definition of what “healthful” means: A healthful diet for a person with diabetes might mean foods with a low glycemic index, while a healthful diet for a person on a whole foods diet may mean only “natural,” unprocessed foods.
- Read the nutrition facts: Learning the nutritional value of something that seems healthful might reveal unhealthful ingredients.
- Limit fast food consumption: People who travel a lot or who otherwise find themselves eating a lot of fast food should stick to small, simple fast food meals and try to get the majority of their nutrition elsewhere.
- Beware of sauces, dips, and other add-ons: Dressing and sauces can make even healthful options less healthful.
- Pay attention to how fast food feels: People who experience stomach pain, low energy, or other symptoms after eating fast food should either avoid fast food or eat something different next time.
- Fill up on vegetables: Vegetables offer a filling alternative to bread and other high-carb snacks. Choose grilled or raw veggies because fried options are less healthful, or opt for a salad.
Healthful eating and making healthful choices can help a person support specific nutritional goals. Fast food can be a part of a healthful diet, and people can make choices to make fast food options more nutritious, balanced, and healthful.
It is nearly impossible, however, for fast food to form the bulk of a healthful diet.
Eating fast food in moderation, keeping healthful alternatives to fast food close by, and eating plenty of nutrient-dense, wholesome meals at home can all be part of a nutritious, balanced low-carb diet.