Fast Food Salads: Are They Really A Better Choice?
While most people think that the salads offered at fast food restaurants are healthy, nutritious choices, the truth may be quite different. Fast food salads vary widely in the nutrition category. While some salads are reasonable choices, many fast food restaurants soup up their salads with a variety of less-healthy, fat- and sodium-laden items, such as fried chicken, creamy full fat dressings, sour cream, and lots of cheese, bacon, nuts, fried croutons, and taco chips or shells. Less prevalent or completely absent are the nutritious, high-fiber salad items such as beans, chick peas, and a wide variety of fresh vegetables.
Here’s a brief comparison of the nutritional news from several popular salads, as compared to a basic burger-and-fries meal at the top fast food restaurants:
Calories from fat
Ttl. Carbs (g)
TenderGrill Chicken Garden Salad
Burger King Hamburger & Small Fries
McDonald’s Crispy Chicken Caesar Salad
McDonald’s Hamburger and Small Fries
Wendy’s Chicken BLT Salad
Wendy’s Hamburger & Medium Fries
Au Bon Pain Chicken Caesar Salad
Compare this information with this very general information about what an average adult should eat during the course of an entire day:
Sat. Fat calories
400-700 (20%-35% of total calories)
(should be less than 10% of total calories)
Sometimes fast food restaurants are the only option. When you have to dine and dash, here are some good choices to make in the salad department:
Calories from fat
Ttl. Carbs (g)
Side Garden Salad
With Light Italian Salad Dressing
Caesar Salad Without Chicken
With Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing
Side Salad With Fat-free French Dressing
So, what’s a hungry person to do? Here are some suggestions for doctoring up the available salads to optimize their nutritional statistics:
Beware Deceptive Information
While all of the fast food restaurants have nutritional information available on all of their menu offerings, some of the information can be a bit misleading. For example, some of the information only gives nutritional statistics on the actual salad, leaving off the information about dressing, croutons, cheese, or other packets of ingredients that are included with your salad. Make sure you read the information carefully.
Remember: an Iceberg Sank the Titanic
Choose more complex greens than plain old iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is calorie-free, but it’s also nearly nutrition- and fiber-free. Worst of all, it’s essentially flavor-free, leading you down the path to high-fat temptation by encouraging you to add more flavorful (and higher fat, sodium, and calorie) ingredients to your salad in order to make it more palatable and satisfying.
Paint With a Broad Palette of Color
The greater the variety of colors in the vegetables in your salad, the greater the variety of nutrients. Go for a wide variety of greens (including different types of lettuces, spinach, peppers), oranges (carrots), and reds (tomatoes and red peppers).
Skip the Meat
Try ordering your salad without meat. Or, if you really want the meat, choose to have it grilled (not fried) and consider eating only half of what’s included with your salad.
Remember: Dynamite Comes in Small Packages
So if you want to avoid exploding your healthy eating plan, say no to those little packets of parmesan cheese, croutons, or Chinese noodles. They may look innocent (and yummy), but these extras are a serious source of fat, calories, and sodium. Ask your server to leave them off of your order—once you get them to your table, they’re just going to tempt you.
Don’t Douse, Dress
Ask if there’s a low- or no-fat dressing available, and substitute that for the one that comes with the salad you’ve ordered. Use the smallest amount possible to flavor (not drench!) your salad. Some restaurants have plain packets of vinegar or lemon juice available; consider sprinkling these on your greens instead of dressing.
Inquiring Minds Want to Know . . .
All of the major fast food restaurants have websites that detail the nutritional stats on each of their menu items. Read the available nutritional information about various fast food salads and other offerings. If you read about the choices in advance, and plan your attack, you might be more successful at making healthy choices.
American Dietetic Association
Au Bon Pain
Burger King Food and Nutrition
McDonald's Nutrition Information
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Wendy’s International, Inc.
How to make fast food friendlier. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3033900 . Accessed March 4, 2007.
Fast-food and quick serve salad entress. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website. Available at: http://www.pcrm.org/news/health030508_2.pdf . Accessed March 4, 2007.
Healthy food: healthy restaurant eating. Helpguide.org webstie. Available at: http://www.helpguide.org/life/fast_food_nutrition.htm . Accessed March 4, 2007.
Fast food. MedlinePlus website. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002462.htm . Accessed on March 4, 2007.
Last reviewed February 2007 by Janet H. Greenhut, MD, MPH
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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