What you eat is one of the most important factors in controlling diabetes, so avoiding fast food may be a priority. Still, fast food is almost sure to be an occasional or regular part of life since it is so convenient and great-tasting. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that on a given day, nearly 37% of Americans consumed fast food.
The good news is that eating fast food with diabetes can be healthy if you make better choices.
With some planning, you can choose meals that are:
- Low or moderate in carbohydrates and calories.
- High in protein.
- Low in unhealthy fats.
- Sources of fiber, essential vitamins and minerals.
These are some fast food choices that can fit into your diabetes diet. Just because you have diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t eat fast food if you make smart choices!
Burger and Chicken Joints
Small burgers and grilled chicken can keep you on track, while double or triple cheeseburgers and fried chicken sandwiches and nuggets can set you back. Look for small or kid-sized burgers and hold the mayo and fatty dipping sauces. When you can, order extra lettuce and tomatoes.
Follow your instincts when it comes to sides and desserts. French fries, onion rings, and mashed potatoes and gravy are as bad as you may think, while carrot sticks and side salads with dressing on the side can be the answer. Similar, choose fresh fruit or yogurt instead of cookies, apple pie, and ice cream.
- Small burger or cheeseburger – hold the bun if you are low-carbing it – with apple slices or baby carrots.
- Grilled chicken salad with vinaigrette or light dressing and without croutons or noodles.
- Grilled chicken with a fresh fruit cup.
Sandwich Shops and Cafes
You usually have quite the range of choices here, and can walk away with a diabetic disaster or a healthful meal. Sandwich shops and cafes often give you complete control over what goes into your meal, so take advantage.
You have the right to ask for your order to exclude certain ingredients, even if they are listed on the item’s description on the menu. But do be careful with the amount of carbs per serving if you are following a low-carb diet.
Go for a salad or eat only half the bread in your sandwich, try for mustard instead of mayo, and look for more healthful proteins such as chicken or cheese instead of processed meats or meatballs. Processed foods have been reported to be the source of 70% of an average American’s daily sodium intake according to The American Heart Association (AHA or heart.org).
You may also have the chance to load up on vegetables to help you create a filling, low-calorie meal, and you can finish with some sweet but guilt-free fresh fruit.
- A sandwich with vegetables and cheese or grilled chicken on whole-grain bread.
- A large salad with grilled chicken and dressing on the side, and with limited add-ons such as croutons, chow mein noodles, dried fruit, and bacon bits.
- Lentil or bean soup or a broth-based soup with vegetables instead of broccoli cheese or another creamy or cheesy soup.
Pass up the syrupy coffee beverages and sweet tea, and opt instead for unsweetened tea.
Best Fast Food Choices for Diabetes at the Biggest Fast-Food Restaurants
- McDonalds: Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad
- Starbucks: Chicken, Quinoa, and Protein Bowl with Black Beans and Greens
- Subway: Veggie Delite Salad with cheese, vegetables, guacamole, and Subway vinaigrette
- Burger King: Veggie Burger
- Taco Bell: Chicken Soft Taco with a side of Pintos n Cheese
- Wendys: Large or Small Chili and a Garden Side Salad without croutons and with Light Ranch dressing
- Dunkin Donuts: Egg and Cheese on half a Multigrain Bagel
- Chick-fil-A: Grilled Nuggets with Zesty Buffalo Sauce plus a Small Superfood Salad
- Panera Bread: Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl with Egg
- Pizza Hut: 2 slices of Large Thin N Crispy Veggie Lovers Pizza with Chicken
There may be more good news about pizza than you knew. Although it can be over-the-top in calories, saturated fat, and carbs if you get thick or stuffed-crust pizza, it can be a low-glycemic manageable treat if you stick to 1 or 2 slices of thin-crust pizza.
As for toppings, keep the cheese light – it adds calories and fat, but lowers the glycemic index. Skip the processed fatty meats such as pepperoni and sausage, and instead look for vegetables.
You are also sure not to find a good dessert option for diabetes, since “dessert pizzas” and cinnamon sticks are a combo of refined starches and sugars plus excess fats.
Good fast food choices for diabetes when eating pizza may include:
- Thin crust.
- Extra sauce.
- Extra tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, and any other vegetable toppings.
- Anchovies or chicken instead of pepperoni or sausage.
Skip the breadsticks, pasta, and chicken wings as sides, and opt for green salad instead.
Tips for Eating Fast Food with Diabetes
- Check the nutrition information before you go or while you are there – most chains are great at making their info available, especially if you ask for it.
- Plan your order ahead of time when you can. Even if you cannot, look for a lean protein such as grilled chicken plus a vegetable such as a salad.
- Go easy on the bread or skip it entirely, and ask for whole-grain when you can.
- Check for green salads and steamed or raw vegetables for your side dishes.
- Limit fried or starchy sides such as French fries, mashed potatoes, noodles and pasta, onion rings, and rice.
- Get dressing and sauces on the side, and look for lower-calorie condiments such as mustard, hot sauce, and salsa.
- The “small” size can easily have less than one-third the calories as the “large” size.
- Get baked, roasted, or grilled, and not fried, battered, or breaded.
- Keep your eyes open for opportunities to add vegetables as sides, as toppings on burgers, tacos, sandwiches, and pizza, and in stir-fry and entree salads.
Eating fast food with diabetes can be disastrous if you choose wrong at a Mexican restaurant, but it can also be nutritious if you are careful. Grilled chicken and lean steak are rich in protein and low in fat, pinto and black beans are high in fiber and protein, and avocados (think: guacamole!) are among the healthiest possible sources of fat in a study from the Mayo Clinic. Tacos can be good choices because they tend to be smaller than burritos and tostadas.
Just keep in mind that too much of anything can be bad for diabetes, blood sugar, and weight, and that Mexican fare tends to include plenty of problem ingredients, such as fried tortilla chips and tostada shells, oversized starchy tortillas, and overly generous amounts of unhealthy cooking fats.
Any of these options may help you come out ahead.
- “Naked” burrito or burrito bowl with grilled or salad vegetables, pinto beans, and chicken, and with no tortilla.
- Taco salad with lettuce, tomato, light cheese, pinto or black beans, avocado, and olives, with no sour cream or chips, and with salsa or pico de gallo instead of creamy dressing.
- Chicken or fish taco with lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, and avocado.
- Chicken shrimp, or steak fajitas without the tortillas.
Chinese and Other Asian Cuisines
Chinese and other Asian fast food choices for diabetes can be really good, or really bad. You are sure to spike your blood sugar and put a damper on weight loss if you have mounds of white rice, fried rice, or chow mein or pad thai noodles. The same is true if you get fried or breaded chicken, fish, or shrimp dishes.
On the other hand, you can almost always find dishes with plenty of vegetables and lean protein, such as skinless chicken, shrimp, tofu, or fish. Oyster sauce and wine sauce are lower in sugar than sweet and sour sauce. Teriyaki salmon and chicken are good options at Japanese restaurants. For dessert at a Chinese fast food joint, enjoy a fortune cookie for 30 worthwhile calories.
- Clear soup, such as hot and sour, egg drop, or tom yum, plus stir-fried vegetables and tofu or chicken.
- Stir-fry with chicken and vegetables, plus a fortune cookie.
- Fish in black bean sauce plus mixed vegetables.
- Teriyaki salmon, seaweed salad, and edamame.
When possible, ask for vegetables or brown rice instead of white or fried rice.
Wherever you eat, your choice of beverage can make or break your meal. Water is always a great choice, since it is naturally calorie-free. Decaffeinated tea and coffee are also good options. While diet drinks are calorie-free, they can throw your body’s blood sugar regulation further out of whack.
Steer clear of sugary beverages, such as regular soft drinks or other sugary fountain drinks such as sports drinks or lemonade. A large soda can have 400 or more calories and 100 or more grams of sugar – more than the daily recommended limit for four days! Blended coffee beverages and sweet tea are just as bad.
Most fast food places these days do have healthy choices. You may just need to look for them or special-order the regular menu items to make them healthier. With diabetes, you can eat convenient and great-tasting fast food while managing blood sugar and weight.