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Here's a little secret for those of you looking to eat right: Fast food restaurants don't have to be your enemy. That's right, those brightly lit temples paying tributes to burgers, and fries, and nuggets can provide decent meals if you're in a rush. The key, as always, is to be careful and informed about the choices you make.
No one-possibly not even the restaurants themselves-will say you should eat fast foot three times a day, seven days a week. And it's best to prepare your own healthy food at home as often as you can. But people with diabetes are all-too-familiar with compromise. We have to compromise to live, given how demanding this condition can be.
And the restaurants themselves have made the task easier in recent years. They have added more and healthier options. They have made nutrition facts more easily available. They aren't charities, of course-the job of these chains is still to sell you as much fattening food as possible-but the situation is better than it used to be.
Here's a list of six of the healthiest meals from major fast-food chains. I've arranged them based on amount of carbs, going from lowest to highest. Carbohydrates aren't the only important nutrition information, of course, but they are how most people with diabetes calculate insulin dosage, and they do have the most direct impact on blood sugar.
A couple of disclaimers before we begin. First, these meals are not, by most standards, "low-carbohydrate." They should be thought of as lower or moderate carb. Second, you can always go to a restaurant and order a plain green salad, without dressing, and be healthy. My goal here is to point out actual menu items that you might want to eat..
All of the figures are taken from the chains' respective websites, which means they should hold true for most franchises. That being said, there will be some variance from meal to meal, so use your head when chowing down.
1. McDonald's Premium Caesar Salad (without chicken, 7 g carb / with grilled chicken, 24 g carb / with crispy chicken, 31 g carb).
While this salad may not be the lowest-carb item on the sprawling McDonald's menu, it's one of the healthiest entree options available. The chain has spent time and effort making its salads fresh, and they often compare favorably with what you could assemble yourself at a grocery store or at home. I've tried them several times and am nearly always impressed.
The other two salads on the chain's menu-bacon ranch and Southwest-have a few more carbs (3 to 4 grams), but are in the same ballpark nutrition-wise. One note of caution: Adding dressing to any of the salads means adding carbs as well. The Caesar dressing, for example, has 4 grams of the stuff. So watch yourself.
2. Subway Turkey Breast and Ham Salad (12 g carb / Turkey Breast and Ham 6" sub, 46 g carb)
The Subway chain brands itself as a source of healthy fast food, and it does a great job of listing nutrition information. But if you're focusing on carbs, it pays to treat these restaurants with care. Why? One word: bread. Sandwiches need delicious, abundant bread, after all. Foot-long subs from the chain can pack in 90-100 grams of carbohydrate, a challenge for any diabetic.
That being said, Subway does serve versions of most of their subs as salads. A particularly low-carb one is listed here, along with the full-on sandwich version. If you do want the version with bread, it pays to go with the 6-inch model.
3. KFC Original Recipe Chicken Breast (13 g carb / with wing, 18 g carb)
Here's a delicious secret about KFC: You could do worse than the chain's classic, original recipe chicken. As shown above, it's not especially high-carb. The problem with KFC, of course, is that much of the rest of the chicken it sells is coated in heavy batter, which ups the carbohydrate level significantly. And that's before you consider the roster of heavy side dishes, such as biscuits, mashed potatoes, and sugary coleslaw.
That being said, if you ordered a two-piece meal with an original recipe breast and wing, along with a side salad (topped with light Italian dressing) and green beans, your total carb load would be 27 grams. Not bad for a restaurant that once sold a sandwich with two pieces of chicken in place of a bun.
4. Taco Bell Crunchy Taco (13 g carb / Crunchy Taco Supreme, 15 g carb)
The Taco Bell menu presents an interesting dichotomy. If you're concerned about carbs, its offerings fall into two camps. Camp one: Crunchy tacos of all descriptions, most containing fewer than 20 grams of carb per taco. Camp two: Everything else. Burritos, enchiladas, nachos, and most side dishes are packed with unhealthy starches.
The two listed above are simply the chain's basic tacos. You can drop by the Taco Bell website to see nutrition information on the others, but they are generally similar. With numbers like these, adding a second taco doesn't seem like a deal-breaker. You probably should avoid a third (or fourth), though.
5. Wendy's Small Chili (21 g carb / large size, 31 g carb)
If you only go to Wendy's occasionally, you might not realize that one of the chain's tastiest treats is buried in the menu board. And that's the restaurant's shockingly excellent chili. As listed above, it's not outrageously high in carbohydrates, either. If you're looking for something fast, hot and tasty, one of these bowls of hearty soup might be just the thing.
A word of warning about Wendy's side dishes, though. If you're tempted to add a salad to the chili, note that both their Caesar and garden side salads have 19 grams of carbohydrate apiece, and that's without dressing. Why so high? The chain loads them up with plus-sized croutons.
6. McDonald's Mac Snack Wrap (26 g carb) / Angus Deluxe Snack Wrap (27 g carb)
Let's face it: If you want a truly low-carb burger, your best bet is ordering a regular sandwich and discarding the bun and any sugary sauce. You can do that with any McDonald's burger, too. But if you want a suggestion of a bun, and don't like to waste food, these snack wraps can be tasty options. Essentially burgers and toppings wrapped in tortillas, these meals compare favorably carb-wise to a sandwich you might make at home.
McDonald's has also launched a line of larger-sized chicken wraps recently. They're tasty, but since the tortillas are substantially larger, the carb counts are, too.
But wait, there's more!
But let's not leave it that. Food is a complicated topic, especially when you're trying to eat healthily at fast food joints. Here are a few more reminders.
First, avoid sugary soft drinks. These are the emptiest of calories, and the enemy of anyone attempting to pull off a healthy meal at a chain restaurant. Depending on the chain, an extra-large regular soda comes in at 70-90 grams of carbohydrate (or more). That undoes any healthy choices you might have made in ordering the main meal.
Second, watch the serving sizes. A single taco, or small hamburger, or piece of chicken is generally fine. As long as you know how many carbs are in them, you should be able to handle the challenge. The problems start when you order five tacos, or three hamburgers, or eight pieces of chicken. The more carbs you eat, the harder it becomes to cover that food with insulin, and the more likely you are to experience roller-coaster blood sugars (to borrow a phrase from Diabetes Health contributor Dr. Richard Bernstein).
Finally, your environment matters. While you can pull together an acceptable meal at a fast food place, these restaurants aren't healthy places for people with diabetes to be. Why? The temptation is always there. At home, you can control what food comes through your door. At a McDonald's or Wendy's you have no such power. And you will invariably be tempted to add a side dish, or order a bigger size.
I'm all too aware from my own life that blanket prohibitions don't do much good. But please be careful out there. Enjoy your food, yes, but also enjoy your good health.
So, readers, what have your experiences with fast food restaurants been? Have you managed to find healthy choices hidden in the menu boards? Do you stay away as a matter of principle? Let us know your experiences in the comment section below.
Diabetes Health is the essential resource for people living with diabetes- both newly diagnosed and experienced as well as the professionals who care for them. We provide balanced expert news and information on living healthfully with diabetes. Each issue includes cutting-edge editorial coverage of new products, research, treatment options, and meaningful lifestyle issues.