When you pick up fast food, it's often because you want something convenient, and stressing over choosing only the 'healthy' options isn't helpful, because oftentimes you won't be able to find a fast food option that fits into this category.
This 'healthy food' category also presents a very limited view of health and how food influences your health, says Sherry Lin, RDN, registered dietitian at Nourishment Works. What's typically labeled as healthy fast food is often talking about food that benefits physical health. "Health for me is more holistic," Sherry says. "It's more than what the food does for me physically—it's also how food impacts my mental, emotional, social, and cultural health. So I factor in all of these things when I am choosing a food to eat, including fast food."
Lin often chooses to select fast food options that are cultural, or culturally based, foods from her own heritage or from other ethnic backgrounds. "There's nostalgia, emotions, and memories attached to these. When I think about health and what is healthy, those are all relevant to me."
To Lin, a fast food order that supports your health could meet any one of these measures of health. For example, if you're having a busy day or traveling, to look after your mental well-being, you might choose a fast food option that is convenient and satisfying.
Eat and order mindfully.
Krista Linares, MPH, RD, registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition con Sabor, agrees with Lin. "I really value the ease of mind and not stressing ourselves out about it. If I'm on a trip and this is what's around, then I'm not going to worry too much about getting the healthiest items at the fast food place. It's more about feeding myself."
Once they start eating the meal, both Lin and Linares will both observe how the food tastes and feels in their body, and connect to their hunger and fullness cues instead of judging themselves for eating what they ordered.
That said, if eating fast food is part of a regular routine and eaten almost every day, Linares feels it becomes more important to pay attention to nutrient balance. This means ensuring you get all the nutrients you need, not displacing certain ones, and replacing them with higher amounts of another.
Here, nutrition experts share their best tips for ensuring you get the nutrients you need if you're eating fast food regularly.
Choose a restaurant that allows you to dictate what the meal looks like.
"Any restaurant where you have some agency and are able to help guide what goes into your meal is going to make it easier," says Linares, citing Subway or Chipotle as examples.
Adding to that, any restaurant that offers a range of options, in the form of meal types and cooking styles would be the first pick of Jasmine Westbrooks, RD, a registered dietitian in North Carolina and co-founder of Eat Well Exchange. If they have steamed, roasted, or grilled options on their menu, it means you can always choose these if you want to, instead of having to select the deep-fried food by default. For example, at Chipotle, add a scoop of veggies; and at Chik-fil-A, go for a grilled chicken sandwich sometimes instead of always getting fried.
Try to create a balanced plate.
Look for a meal that has protein, carbohydrates, and lots of fiber, suggests Linares. At the very least, find a way to add a fiber-rich side to your fast food meal (think: a side salad, fruit bowl, oatmeal, beans, avocado, collard greens). Westbrooks enjoys going to fast food restaurants that serve Mexican cuisine because it's easier to get an abundance of vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. You can often opt for a bowl with a base of brown rice and greens, which is equally satisfying while also offering a little boost of good-for-you (plant-powered) nutrients.
Find ways to have a variety in the fast food you eat.
"Think about how you can engage with more variety in certain foods and what would help with providing a variety of nutrients," says Lin. This can look like choosing a range of animal-based and plant-based proteins, choosing different colored vegetables, and different kinds of grains or breads.