Each year, the average American is reported to spend $1,200 on fast food, with McDonald’s being the most popular option. Is it possible to eat at fast food establishments and remain on a diet? The answer is, actually, yes.
For 2024, the U.S. News & World Report annual diet rankings found the Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, and MIND diet to be the highest-ranking diet choices this new year. Fast food options like Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and CAVA all contain menu items that abide by these diet plans.
Unfortunately, not every state contains one of these popular fast food locations that are considered healthier. Nonetheless, there are fast food options in each state that can help you stay loyal to the above-mentioned diets.
1. Mediterranean diet
For seven consecutive years, the Mediterranean diet has been listed as the top diet by U.S. News & World Report. The Mediterranean diet is based on foods traditionally eaten during the mid-20th century in Greece and southern Italy. This diet is associated with decreasing the risk of heart disease, depression, and dementia.
The Mediterranean diet is mostly a plant-based eating program that focuses on daily servings of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, olive oil, herbs, and spices. Protein from animals is encouraged in smaller quantities, with the preferred protein being fish or other seafood. Individuals should determine portion size based on their activity levels and body size.
The diet focuses on healthy fats, which derive from olive oil instead of butter and other oils. Other foods with healthy fats include avocados, nuts, or oily fish like salmon or sardines. Poultry, eggs, and dairy options like Greek yogurt are recommended in smaller daily portions or a few times per week.
Red meat should be seen as a once-a-month treat. Water should be the choice of beverage, but the diet allows for a glass of wine with meals.
Fast food options for Mediterranean diet
According to QSR, a food industry magazine, Starbucks is the second-ranked fast-food establishment in the U.S. For a Mediterranean diet breakfast, the coffee chain’s "Berry Trio Parfait" contains non-fat vanilla yogurt, 240 calories, no saturated or trans fat, plus 14 g of protein. While Greek yogurt may have been a better choice, you can always make your own recipe at home if you have a few extra minutes on your hands. Otherwise, the non-fat option at Starbucks is the best option while on the go.
Starbucks also offers a "Spinach, Feta & Egg White Wrap" with 290 calories and 20 g of protein. The only downside is the wrap contains 840 mg of sodium, 37% of the recommended daily amount based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day plan.
For lunch and dinner, CAVA is a Mediterranean-style fast food restaurant similar to Chipotle. The restaurant has locations in 25 states, making it a viable option for many. Customers can create their bowl with a base of greens, grains, or a mix followed by a choice of protein and toppings or select a curated option.
CAVA’s "Tahini Caesar Salad" is 550 calories with 31 grams of total fat, 37 g of protein, 7 g of saturated fat, and 1,100 mg of sodium. The Caesar salad contains grilled chicken, hummus, pita crisps, pickled onions, feta, romaine, and arugula. It does contain even more sodium and saturated fats than Starbucks' "Spinach, Feta & Egg White Wrap," which should be limited in our daily diet. But it is still a better alternative than other options on the CAVA menu.
2. DASH diet
The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is a flexible eating plan that promotes a heart-healthy eating style, according to the NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The NHLBI has funded studies for several decades that show the DASH diet contributes to lower blood pressure, assists in weight loss, and reduces chances of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The DASH plan includes no special foods and focuses on daily and weekly nutritional goals, with the key to limiting sodium. Keys to the DASH eating plan include foods low in saturated and trans fat, plus rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein.
For those following the DASH plan, the NIH encourages vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, and nuts. Individuals should stay away from foods high in saturated fat, these include fatty meats, full-fat dairy items, and tropical oils. Limiting sugar-sweetened beverages like soda (pop) and other sweets is highly recommended.
DASH diet fast food dishes
The American Heart Association's general guideline for Americans is a recommended limit of 2,300 mg sodium, but the low-sodium DASH diet encourages an even lower amount at 1,500 mg. Of course, this is no easy task, with an average American eating a whopping 3,400 mg of sodium a day.
While McDonald’s "Egg McMuffin" is known for being on the "healthier" side, it loses to the "Turkey Bacon, Cheddar & Egg White Sandwich" from Starbucks in the sodium and saturated fat battle.
A low-sodium meal with high amounts of fiber and protein can be found at Chipotle. For example, a burrito bowl with black beans, brown rice, chicken, and fajita veggies comes out to 540 calories, 11 grams of fiber, 860 mg of sodium, over 40 grams of protein, and less than 15 total grams of fat. Chipotle is located in 49 states and is ranked number 10 in food sales among fast food competitors.
Sweetgreen is another growing fast-food chain devoted to salads and bowls. The chain is located in 18 states, and includes a low-sodium curated salad called the “Guacamole Greens.” It contains 515 calories, 334 mg of sodium, 31 g of fat, and 29 g of protein.
3. MIND diet
The MIND Diet is a combination of both the Mediterranean and DASH diets. As its name hints, the goal of the MIND diet is to focus on brain health and longevity. The CDC finds Alzheimer’s Disease as one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S., with 119,399 Americans dying from the disease in 2021.
Like the Mediterranean and DASH diets, the MIND diet also has a focus on plant-based foods and low amounts of saturated fats. However, the MIND diet emphasizes the consumption of berries and leafy greens such as romaine lettuce, kale, or spinach.
The MIND diet’s daily emphasis includes three-plus servings of whole grains and at least one serving of vegetables other than leafy greens. Each week, MIND diet followers should consume six or more servings of green leafy veggies, five-plus servings of nuts, four servings of beans, two servings of berries and poultry, plus a meal featuring fish for omega-3 fatty acids. Olive oil should be used for added healthy fats.
Individuals following the MIND diet recommended to limit certain "unhealthy foods." For example, sweets or pastries should be limited to five servings per week. Less than four servings of red meat and one serving of cheese and fried foods a week are also highlighted. Additionally, butter or margarine should be limited to one tablespoon each day.
Fast food choices for the MIND diet
With the MIND diet being a combo of the Mediterranean and DASH diet, the above-mentioned fast-food meals would comply. However, other fast food restaurants contain health-friendly items as well.
Chick-fil-A ranks third on QSR 50’s fast food standings. The establishment, known for being the "home" of the chicken sandwich, offers a "Greek Yogurt Parfait." The product contains 270 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 14 grams of protein.
They also boast a "Market Salad" with blueberries, strawberries, and grilled chicken as well. It contains 500 calories, 31 grams of fat, 1,010 mg of sodium, and 28 g of protein. The amount of sodium in this salad is high even though it does comply with certain aspects of these diets. Be watchful when indulging for the rest of the day.
Wendy’s, another top-five fast food chain, sells an offering of its "Apple Pecan Salad." With the dressing included, it has 500 calories, 24 g of fat, 1,240 mg of sodium, and 29 g of protein. Once again, it's high in sodium, probably due to the dressing so make sure you're keeping your sodium low before or after this meal.
While these options can't replace home-cooked meals adhering to your necessary diet, they can be a convenient alternative consumed occasionally when you're in a pinch, in a rush, or on the road.
- NIH. Mediterranean diet.
- AJCN. Mediterranean diet pyramid: a cultural model for healthy eating.
- NHLBI. DASH eating plan.
- JAMA. Assessment of risk factors and biomarkers associated with risk of cardiovascular disease among women consuming a mediterranean diet.
- ScienceDirect. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease.
- ScienceDirect. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging.
- CDC. Leading causes of death.
- QSR. Ranked: The top 50 fast-food chains in America.
- Starbucks. Turkey bacon, cheddar & egg white sandwich.
- Starbucks. Spinach, Feta & Egg White Wrap.
- CAVA. NUTRITION + INGREDIENTS.
- Sweetgreen. Fresh, plant forward, earth friendly food.
- Wendys. Apple pecan chicken salad.
- Chick-fil-A. Nutrition & allergens.