Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
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, some 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, 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.
But with a busy work schedule, family responsibilities, and the chaos of life in general, sometimes fast food restaurants are the only option. So, what is a hungry person to do? Here is some food for thought the next time you are at the drive-thru ready to order a fast food salad:
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.
Choose more complex greens than plain old iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is calorie-free, but it is also nearly nutrition- and fiber-free. Worst of all, it is essentially flavor-free, leading you down the path to temptation by encouraging you to add more flavorful ingredients that increase your fat, sodium, and calorie intake.
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, which include different types of lettuces, spinach, and peppers. Enhance the greens with oranges from carrots, and reds from tomatoes or peppers.
Try ordering your salad without meat. Or, if you really want the meat, choose to have it grilled rather than fried, and consider eating only half of what is included with your salad. Consider lean meats, such as chicken or turkey over steak. Substitute beans or legumes for meat. The added fiber will help make you feel more full.
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 deliciously innocent, but these extras are a serious source of fat, calories, and sodium. Ask your server to leave them off of your order if possible. This will help you avoid the temptation before it gets to your table.
Ask if there is a low- or no-fat dressing available, and substitute that for the one that comes with the salad you have ordered. Use the smallest amount possible to flavor your salad. Remember, you do not want to drench your salad in dressing. Some restaurants have plain packets of vinegar or lemon juice available; consider sprinkling these on your greens instead of dressing. If packets are not available, ask for your dressing on the side. That way, you can control how much you actually use.
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.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
United States Department of Agriculture
Dietitians of Canada
Health Canada Food and Nutrition
5 healthy salad ingredients. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/planning-and-prep/snack-and-meal-ideas/healthy-salads. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Fast-food and quick serve salad entrees. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website. Available at:
http://www.pcrm.org/pdfs/health/rep_salad_comparison.pdf. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Healthy food fast: Tips for making healthier fast food choices. Helpguide website. Available at:
http://www.helpguide.org/life/fast_food_nutrition.htm. Updated December 2014. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Is iceberg lettuce really that bad? Food Info website. Available at: http://foodinfo.us/lettuce.aspx. Accessed February 28, 2013.
Your personal path to health: Steps to a healthier you. US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/downloads/resource/MyPyramidBrochurebyIFIC.pdf. Accessed February 17, 2015.
Last reviewed February 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
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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