It’s not news that regularly dining at fast food restaurants can do some serious damage to your health. Most menu items are fried, smothered in cheese, or both. While avoiding the notoriously unhealthy fare is obvious, it can be hard to ignore a craving for a cheeseburger or some meaty nachos. On top of that, a crazy schedule means that sometimes it just isn’t practical to cook or pack your own food.
Insider Monkey listed the most popular fast food restaurants in America, and as a way to help you stay on track, we’ve suggested healthier alternatives for the top eight. The next time you find yourself dashing while you dine, choose one of these picks to help you get the taste you love without making you feel like you have to stick to a kale diet for the rest of the week.
8. Popular Choice: KFC
Healthier Alternative: Chick-Fil-A
When the word “fried” is part of the restaurant’s name, that’s a good sign that it probably isn’t a great pick for healthy food. A standard meal at KFC usually involves at least one piece of chicken with multiple sides to go with it. According to KFC’s Nutrition Calculator, one piece of white meat fried chicken, a biscuit, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes with gravy will run you 790 calories and a whopping 36 grams of fat. Indulge in another piece of the crispy poultry and that number will climb even higher. Though KFC offers chicken that isn’t fried, the taste just isn’t the same.
Poultry lovers will likely fare better at Chick-Fil-A, since the menu’s packed with tons of choices that aren’t battered and fried. Everyday Health recommended this restaurant since many of the choices stay well within the 500-calorie range. The article suggests trying the Chargrilled Chicken Cool Wrap, since it’s delicious and substantial enough to keep you feeling full for hours. It’s a much tamer 410 calories with only 10 grams of fat. And if you’d rather go the sandwich route, the chain has some good choices for you. WebMD suggested going for the grilled chicken sandwich with a fruit cup on the side. The 400-calorie meal has just 3.5 grams of fat, and you’ll also get some vitamins and fiber from the additional produce.
7. Popular Choice: Pizza Hut
Healthier Alternative: Papa John’s
When it comes to fast food, a slice of this Italian favorite is actually not a bad option, and Pizza Hut has certainly listened to customers’ demands for healthier options. Fast Food Menu Prices reported the restaurant’s line of extra-thin pies caters to healthy consumers with 300 calories per two-slice serving. That’s only if you can resist the temptation to indulge in the chain’s famously decadent pan-style pizza topped with pepperoni, which rockets up to 520 calories and 24 grams of fat.
For die-hard pizza lovers, going for one of the diet pies probably just isn’t going to cut it. Keeping calories under the 500 mark at Papa John’s is easy without having to lose any of the cheesy goodness. The Spinach Alfredo clocks in at 400 calories and 14 grams of fat for two slices. That’s not bad for something that sounds like such an indulgence. But remember that dunking crust into those packets of garlic butter is a completely different story.
6. Popular Choice: Dunkin Donuts
Healthier Alternative: Einstein Bros. Bagels
For some reason, doughnuts have been dubbed a breakfast food. With a taste that’s similar to cake and frosting to match, the fried goodies are really more of a dessert. A cake doughnut with chocolate glaze from Dunkin Donuts might sound tame at 370 calories, but bear in mind that it’s also packing 24 grams of fat. On top of that, there’s nearly no protein or fiber to keep you full. That means you’ll be hungry again in no time.
When it comes to breakfast baked goods, Einstein Bros. Bagels beats the competition with ease. Health picked this chain as one of the more nutritious options for carb lovers thanks to choices like whole-grain bagels, reduced-fat spreads, and even hummus to get more protein and fiber. The article warned to stay away from the massive sandwiches, though. If you go for a whole-wheat bagel with reduced-fat salsa cream cheese, you’ll get a breakfast that’s 360 calories with 13 grams of fat. And this meal will also provide you with 8 grams of fiber and 14 grams of protein to keep you satisfied all morning.
5. Popular Choice: Taco Bell
Healthier Alternative: Chipotle
Late-night favorite Taco Bell may have rolled out a healthier menu, but its shockers like the Chicken Biscuit Taco with Jalapeño Honey and the Sriracha Quesarito are the options that really draw the crowds. Eat Clean singled out these items as some of the worst choices offered at the chain. The latter packs 34 grams of fat into a 650-calorie package. And the classic Nachos BellGrande? That whopper is 760 calories and 39 grams of fat.
Fresher, healthier choices are almost a given if you opt for Chipotle. Though it’s completely possible to go overboard at this restaurant when you start adding tons of cheese, sour cream, and guacamole to the mix, Health named the Mexican eatery as the sixth healthiest fast food restaurant. That’s thanks to customers’ ability to control ingredients. You can even choose fajita veggies and lower calorie salsas. According to the chain’s calorie calculator, a chicken burrito bowl with veggies, brown rice, tomato salsa, and salsa verde tallies 435 calories and 14.5 grams of fat. Even the famous burritos can stay reasonable if you cut out the rice and amp up the vegetables.
4. Popular Choice: Burger King
Healthier Alternative: McDonald’s
It turns out that a Whopper really does live up to its name. The flagship sandwich at Burger King weighs in at 650 calories and 37 grams of fat, and that’s before you add fries and a drink. Even going with a small order of fries from the chain will deliver 340 calories with 15 grams of fat. While the menu has grown to include more salads and sandwiches with grilled chicken, they’re seriously lagging behind the competition.
Get ready for a surprise, because Health chose McDonald’s as the eight healthiest fast food chain in America. The article praises the eatery for its kids’ options, low-cal snack wraps, and transparency when it comes to sharing nutritional information with consumers. That same order of small fries from McDonald’s is only 230 calories. Even a Big Mac is tamer than the competition at 530 calories and 27 grams of fat. Go for a grilled Ranch Snack Wrap and a side salad, and you’ll get plenty of fiber, protein, and vitamins for just over 300 calories and 13 grams of fat. The count will be slightly higher with dressing, but that’s a still a pretty slim meal.
3. Popular Choice: Starbucks
Healthier Alternative: Just Sip Smarter
Coffee is not the enemy. The government actually gave the beverage the green light in 2015. Bloomberg Business reported the new dietary guidelines say even five cups of the caffeinated stuff every day is perfectly healthy. The problem with the bitter beverage is that it’s so often adorned with sugar, cream, and syrup. A 16-ounce Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino topped with whipped cream will have you slurping down 480 calories and 17 grams of fat. That seems a little bit crazy for a beverage.
The good news here is that there’s no need to stray from this chain. It’s all about being more selective about your order. If you really crave something cool and creamy, an iced Caffè Mocha cuts the count to 230 calories and 6 grams of fat. But black coffee is the clear winner since it’s calorie-free. Starbucks offers a number of different roasts to suit your taste. Better yet, sample some brews from a local spot instead.
2. Popular Choice: Subway
Healthier Alternative: Panera
Americans love sandwiches, which explains why a deli chain ranks as the country’s second most popular fast food restaurant. While choices like a 6-inch Chicken Teriyaki might only clock a modest 340 calories and 4.5 grams of fat, it’s likely that most are going more for the gut-busters. Add chips and a cookie, and you’re talking about a diet disaster.
If delis top your list of fast food choices, you’re better off going for Panera. Health praised the chain’s option to pair half sandwiches with a cup of soup or salad. The article also highlighted the number of good picks for kids. Nutrition expert Jenna Braddock told Everyday Health that she goes for half of a Sierra Turkey Sandwich and the Garden Vegetable Soup with Pesto for only 480 calories.
1. Popular Choice: McDonald’s
Healthier Alternative: McDonald’s
As we mentioned in the comparison with Burger King, this popular pick also happens to be one of the better choices for fast food. Just be sure you’re being smart about what you order. There’s still plenty of room to supersize yourself into a calorie bomb. If you need a little help on figuring out where to start, The Huffington Post spoke to 10 nutritionists about the foods they choose when eating at the golden arches.