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10 Best things to order when fast food is your only option

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet

When you're busy, the drive-thru is inevitable. But that doesn't mean you have to give up on your diet, even temporarily, or that Subway is your only option. Just choose some healthier options from your favorite fast-food chain.

Of course, ordering healthy means sticking to specific options and may mean a few sacrifices to your diet. It also may mean understanding that a salad isn't always the healthiest option (actually, it's rarely the healthiest option!).

When it comes to fast food, there's usually one big sacrifice you have to make: sodium. It's going to be high in just about anything you can order. But other than that, you'd be surprised how well you can eat at fast-food joints for in and around 500 calories (and often less). Just don't be fooled by healthy-sounding options or actually healthy options you ruin by adding fatty extras or desserts.

1. McDonald's

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: McDonald's

The Fruit 'N Yogurt Parfait might be great when you just want a quick, healthy snack, but McDonald's Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich will make a far more substantial and satisfying meal when you're really hungry — with less total fat than any of its premium salads.

  • Calories: 360
  • Fat: 6 grams
  • Protein: 33 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 43 grams
  • Sodium: 960 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 1.5 grams

Source: McDonald's

2. Taco Bell

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: Taco Bell

Everything on Taco Bell's Fresco menu is under 350 calories and 10 grams of fat. Like all of its Fresco burritos and tacos, the Fresco Burrito Supreme loses the cheese, heavy sauces and sour cream for freshly made pico de gallo.

  • Calories: 340
  • Fat: 8 grams
  • Protein: 19 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 49 grams
  • Sodium: 1,060 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 2.5 grams

Source: Taco Bell

3. Chipotle

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: Mike Saechang/Flickr

With over 60,000 possible menu combinations, it can be a little tricky to make yourself stick to a healthy, low-calorie meal at Chipotle. To keep it light, pass on the burritos, and go for a bowl or salad. A Chipotle salad with romaine lettuce, chicken, black beans, fajita veggies and tomatillo green-chili salsa comes in at an impressively low 345 calories. Skip the dressing (or use it only sparingly on the side), as their vinaigrette will make all the bad numbers much, much bigger.

  • Calories: 345
  • Fat: 8.5 grams
  • Protein: 41 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 32 grams
  • Sodium: 995 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 3 grams

Source: Chipotle nutrition calculator

More: 10 International fast-food items we desperately want in the States

4. Boston Market

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: mehongry/Flickr

Given that so many of Boston Market's signature dishes are extremely high in calories, fat and sodium — its rotisserie chicken potpie is 820 calories with a jaw-dropping 1,960 milligrams of sodium — you could be forgiven for thinking that the popular franchise doesn't cater much to healthier lifestyles. But with over 100 options like this skinless, quartered white chicken entrée with fresh steamed vegetables and garlic-dill new potatoes (skip the cornbread), Boston Market does have options for health-minded customers.

  • Calories: 390
  • Fat: 9 grams
  • Protein: 53 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 28 grams
  • Sodium: 910 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 1.5 grams

Source: Boston Market nutrition calculator

5. Panera

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: Panera

The best chance you have of avoiding the post-lunch "walk of shame" brought on by eating a bagful of Panera's brownies in your car is to go to Panera's for breakfast, when you won't be as prone to temptation. You can power up with one of its nutritious breakfast sandwiches.

  • Calories: 390
  • Fat: 10 grams
  • Protein: 16 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 50 grams
  • Sodium: 790 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 5 grams

Source: Panera

6. Panda Express

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: Panda Express

It's easy to eat well at Panda Express by choosing one of its 18 Wok Smart entrées, appetizers or sides. Its spicy kung pao chicken has plenty of protein and under 300 calories — just remember that rice can add up to 420 calories, so either eat the kung pao by itself, or eat it with a side of mixed vegetables (only 80 additional calories).

  • Calories: 290 (370 with side mixed vegetables)
  • Fat: 19 grams
  • Protein: 16 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 14 grams
  • Sodium: 970 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 3 grams

Source: Panda Express

More: Taco Bell Cantina is a reality — you can now get booze with your chalupa

7. KFC

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: KFC

When it comes to KFC, you can have your chicken and eat sides too by opting for its Kentucky grilled chicken. While you can reduce the calories by substituting green beans or coleslaw, you can go more traditional with mashed potatoes (complete with gravy) for under 500 calories. Add a side salad with Parmesan-garlic croutons and light Italian dressing to make sure you get your fresh veggies.

  • Calories: 430
  • Fat: 14 grams
  • Protein: 45 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 32 grams
  • Sodium: 1,920 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 3 grams

Source: KFC nutrition calculator

8. Wendy's

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: Wendy's

With some care, you can actually eat pretty well at Wendy's, even if you have a big appetite. Order the four-piece chicken nuggets (not spicy), a side garden salad with light, spicy Asian vinaigrette (sorry, no croutons or other add-ons) and a small order of chili to dump on a plain baked potato. It's a little higher in calories than other options on this list, but way lower in sodium, especially given how much food you get.

  • Calories: 520
  • Fat: 15 grams
  • Protein: 19 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 32 grams
  • Sodium: 625 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 2.5 grams

Source: Wendy's

9. Pancheros Mexican Grill

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: Pancheros Mexican Grill

If you have a Mexican food craving, it's easy to default to fatty favorites like burritos and quesadillas. But Pancheros has a chili-tamarind-marinated chicken salad that comes in at under 400 calories, depending on how you build it. To save calories, skip or limit your selection of things like cheese, sour cream, guacamole and queso.

  • Calories: 385
  • Fat: 12 grams
  • Protein: 35 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 26 grams
  • Sodium: 1,270 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 5.5 grams

Source: Pancheros Mexican Grill

More: Unpopular opinion: In-N-Out Burger ain't all that

10. Fatburger

When you have to eat fast food, these are the healthier menu items that won't blow your diet
Image: Fatburger

Fatburger may sound like a place you'd never find a healthier option, but it's launching the Skinnyburger, which isn't just lower in calories, but may be a serious carnivore's dream. They just skip the bread and wedge all the yummy toppings between two juicy meat patties. If you skip the cheese and mayo, it's not nearly as bad as most fast-food options — including a lot of salads.

  • Calories: 320
  • Fat: 19 grams
  • Protein: 28 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 9 grams
  • Sodium: 810 milligrams
  • Saturated fat: 7 grams

Source: Fatburger

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