Food & Nutrition

Make Healthy Choices at a Fast-Food Restaurant

Fast food seems unavoidable at times—it’s affordable and typically close to home. When life gets in the way, fast food is a convenient way to get dinner on the table. Besides, who doesn’t love the occasional fast-food meal? As a person with diabetes, you’re well aware of the impact it can have on your blood glucose (blood sugar) levels. Generally, a meal from a fast-food restaurant can pack enough calories, sodium, fat, and carbs for the whole day.

Woman ordering healthy food from food truck

Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make healthier choices at the drive thru. And making these choices doesn’t need to be hard. Use our five tips on making healthier choices at a fast-food restaurant so you can enjoy without the guilt.

According to the Diabetes Plate Method, a healthy meal should include a balance of vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates. While this may vary depending on where you choose to eat, it is an excellent rule of thumb while placing your order.

Look for the Healthy Choice Section of the Menu

Many restaurants and fast-food chains are now more accommodating to different dietary needs. Keep an eye out for the healthy choices section of the menu, and if you do not see one listed, it never hurts to ask if they have friendly options for people with diabetes, or healthier alternatives in general.

Asking for information and recommendations is a great way to practice advocating for yourself. Plus, this will be helpful as you learn more about what fast food restaurants are a "go" and which might be a "no." Healthier options listed on menus typically include low-carb, low-fat, or steamed foods.

Downsize Your Meal 

If you’re not interested in giving up your favorites at the drive-thru, that’s okay! Instead, try downsizing your meals. It’s a great way to cut calories, carbs, fat, and sodium. Most fast-food restaurants automatically give you a medium-sized meal, but others may default to a large size. When ordering, opt for a small size, including the side and the beverage. If you’re used to eating things like double cheeseburgers, order a single-patty burger. You can also order a kid-sized meal.  

Swap It Out 

When ordering fast-food, remember you might have the choice to swap fatty, crispy, and fried foods with healthier alternatives. For example, rather than a fried chicken sandwich, try switching to a grilled chicken sandwich—you might even have the option to swap the bun with whole grain bread or opt to use lettuce as the bun. And, if sandwiches aren't your thing, you can't go wrong with a salad. Grilled chicken salads are simple but always yummy and a great go-to if you are unsure what to order.

Did you know that you can ask to swap your sides? Typically, drive-through meals come with a side of fries or tater tots. While both of those options are tasty, they are not the healthiest. Rather than fries or tots, see if you can swap for a side salad or fruit cup. On average, a small fry contains 45+ grams of carbs and 200 to 300 calories, which is roughly a tenth of the daily recommended caloric intake for an average adult and a seventh of the daily recommended caloric intake for a child. A small fruit cup contains 100 to 150 calories and almost half the carbs compared to a small fry. Swap those sides when you can!

Rethink Your Drink 

Water and diet drinks probably aren’t the most appealing drinks for quenching your thirst, but they are the best and healthiest options when managing diabetes. These days, there isn’t just diet soda, there’s unsweetened tea, diet lemonade, and if you really want to get fancy, you can order a half and half iced unsweetened tea and diet lemonade (also called an unsweetened Arnold Palmer). You have options!

Take Your Time

Thoroughly scanning through the menu takes time. When there is a line of cars behind you, you might feel pressured to order quickly so the person behind you can place their order, but they can wait. Learning to make healthy decisions takes time, so be patient with yourself and do not be afraid to ask questions. As you start learning what works for you, this process will begin to quicken. Be vigilant, be mindful, and always give yourself grace. If you know where you’ll be eating ahead of time, cut down on ordering time by checking out the restaurant’s menu online to make your healthy choice in advance.

Talk to Your Provider

You can use these tips to make healthy decisions at the drive-through, but be sure to talk to your provider to see what foods are best for you.