A Primer on Healthy Fast Food

December 29, 2016 2:31 pm
healthy fast food

You know there is such as thing as healthy fast food, right?

Yup, you heard me.

Trying to eat healthy fast food is hard when you’ve got a job or social life that has you eating out often. But the fact is, you can put together a pretty healthy meal at most restaurants if you know some basic nutrition.

When it comes to finding healthy fast food, there are three primary problems…

Problem 1: You’re Always On The Go

You’re busy. You’re stressed. You’ve got deadlines. You’ve got a family. You don’t have a moment to yourself and if you ever do, you probably want to be asleep.

Restaurants have evolved with our busy lifestyles and fast food has become astoundingly fast in order to accommodate our crazy schedules. With drive-thrus, you don’t even need to get out of your car to eat. Eating barely even needs to take time out of your day. It seems pretty incredible, except…

It’s making you gain weight.

If you’re always on the go, you’re always a little bit stressed. You might not be bursting at the seems with stress but you’re feeling it. And when your body feels stress, it’s not thinking about digesting. Let me explain…

Imagine this for one second: Let’s say you’re casually strolling through the jungle on a Tuesday afternoon, minding your own business. You just ate some fruit and you’re happily digesting it. All of a sudden, a hungry panther leaps down from a tree snarling at you. It’s pretty clear he wants to eat you. What are you going to do?

You’d make a tasty lunch for this fellow if you don’t move fast!

You’re going to run. Fast.

The human body has evolved over thousands of years to deal with this. When you’re faced with a threat or a stressful situation, your body gets ready to move fast. This is fight or flight. That means that blood flow stops going to places like your stomach and sex organs, and starts going to your lungs and muscles. You don’t need to digest things or think about reproducing right now, you need to move to survive.

So how does that apply to you right now? If you’re stressed all the time, you’re never turning off that stress response. And that means you’re always on, always tightening muscles and breathing shallowly, while your digestion is suffering. On top of that, when you’re eating on the go, you’re not being mindful of what you’re doing. You can probably wolf down a whole meal before you even think about what you’ve done.

And when you eat mindlessly and don’t digest food well, you gain weight. It’s like the perfect storm.

So what are you supposed to do?

The Solution: Slow Things Down

Unfortunately you can’t just quit your job and meditate all day to get rid of that stress. Stress is a fact of life and it’s not going away anytime soon. The trick is to learn to find moments of calm, and to treat the food you eat as more than an afterthought in your busy schedule.

Try these strategies to slow down for a moment and be more mindful about your eating:

  • Avoid the drive-thru. If you’ve got the option, always opt to go in and sit down to eat. In fact, it’s pretty common for there to be a longer line at the drive-thru than inside the restaurant. By sitting down to eat, you’ll have a chance to slow down your meal and eat mindfully. It’s a nice break in a busy day
  • Turn your phone off when you’re eating. Emails can wait for 20 minutes. This time is about you and your health
  • If you’re with a friend or business partner, chat about something other than work. Relax and connect over common ground like hobbies, movies, or anything you like
  • Set a timer for your meals and try to eliminate distractions while you’re eating


Slow and mindful eating is one of the most important habits when it comes to fat loss. In fact, it’s even more important than what you eat.


What you eat is still pretty important s let’s talk about how to make healthy choices when you’re eating out often.

Problem 2: The Menu Options Are Crappy

When you think of healthy fast food, you probably think the only option you have is a burger and fries. Or if it’s a sit-down restaurant, you likely think of a decadent pasta dish or an over-sized entrée slathered in too much butter. How else do they make it taste so good?

The problem with most of us when we walk into a restaurant is that we’ve given up already. We’ve all seen Super Size Me We associate restaurants with fattening food so we’re resigned to having a fattening meal. Might as well not even try to make it healthy.

But you’d be surprised.

In 2009, Comedian Tom Naughton produced a film called Fat Head where he ate nothing but McDonald’s for 28 days. He lost 12lbs and improved his cholesterol and body composition. And he wasn’t even eating from the healthy fast food menu. The trick? He kept himself in a calorie deficit the whole time.

I’m not trying to say that you can live on fast food burgers and fried chicken alone (I don’t recommend it). I’m just saying that a meal at a fast food restaurant isn’t a one way ticket to getting fat. You have more control in the process than you think.

Further to that, most restaurants are aware that we associate their food with being fattening. And they don’t want to lose our business. Over the past 20 years, there’s been a surge of menu changes at restaurants and the inclusion of more healthy fast food options. Most big chain restaurants have some kind of “calorie-wise” menu, low fat products, gluten-free items, high protein options, or whatever they think we’ll perceive as healthy.

This can all work to your advantage if you get wise about meal construction…

The Solution: Learn About Meal Construction

Here’s your checklist for a healthy fast food meal:

  • Adequate protein
  • Colourful vegetables
  • Healthy, unprocessed or low-processed carbohydrates
  • Healthy fats

For more information on what to eat and how much to eat if you want to lose fat, check out our article the best foods for weight loss.

Let’s run a couple of quick examples so you can see how this is done.

Let’s say you find yourself at the most common of fast food restaurants, McDonalds. You’re peckish and it was the closest place at hand.

You walk in and look at the menu. You start thinking through your checklist:

1. “I need some protein,” you think. Chicken sounds good and you see that they have a Greek salad that you can top with chicken. “Sweet! I’ve killed two birds with one stone. Protein and veggies.”

2. You need some vegetables and fortunately, with your salad choice, you’ve got that covered. What’s next?

3. “Carbs, carbs… what will I do about that?” This is where McDonalds tends to fall short. Most of their carbohydrate options are highly processed white bread, deep fried potatoes, or sugary sodas. This isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t eat them but moderation is wise. My suggestion is to pass on them completely or pick up a small fries. Share them with a friend so you can enjoy them together. Don’t order a soda.

4. Healthy fats. Well, the salad dressing is oil based so you’ve got that covered. You know they’ll probably slather the salad in too much, though, so you ask for the dressing on the side. That way you can control how much goes on. You use about half of it and get all the flavourful enjoyment with half the caloric load.

Now… Let’s say you’re just not in the mood for a salad. It’s been a rough day and you’re craving something more comforting. My first suggestion is to check in with yourself. Are you dealing with a craving ? Are you about to emotionally eat? Tune in and see what’s up before you order.

But let’s say you’re really hungry and dead-set on getting that burger. No problem. Let’s make this work for you, rather than against you. Go through the checklist again:

1. Protein. The burger patty will take care of that. Opt for one patty if you’re just a little peckish, two if you’re very hungry or you have a larger frame.

2. Vegetables… Where are those going to come from? You see that they have a side salad. “Alright,” you say… “I’ll eat that, even though it isn’t what I came here for. It’ll help me get to my goals.” Get the dressing on the side or pass on it if you can.

3. Unprocessed carbs are, again, the achilles heel of most fast-food places. You won’t find the highest quality sources here but you can do some damage control. Either get a small fries and no bun on the burger, or get the burger bun but no fries. Again, pass on the soda. It might feel like a compromise but it’s a habit that will help you get to your goal.

4. Fats. At this point, your meal already has plenty of dietary fat in it, whether from the burger patty or the fries. They aren’t the healthiest fats but they’ll do for now. You don’t need to supplement with any other fat sources at this meal.

And there you go, you’ve managed to have a satisfying meal without blowing your fat-loss habits. You can enjoy the meal without the post-indulging guilt.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that a sub-optimal choice doesn’t need to be a train wreck. Just because you’re going to eat something that’s considered “unhealthy” doesn’t mean you need to go off the deep end and eat five servings of it. You can get to your goal and still indulge. It just takes a little forethought.

And what if you’re going to a sit-down restaurant? The checklist still applies. Measure each menu option against your checklist then choose whatever suits you best.

There’s one caveat here, though. Unless you’re ordering off a particularly low-calorie section of the menu, most choices will be pretty high in fat. Restaurants do this because fats are delicious. They load up on them so that you like the taste of the food. Don’t panic. That isn’t a problem. All it means is that you can rest assured that you don’t need to supplement your meal with an additional healthy fat source. There’s more than enough in it already.

Bonus: Develop an Attack Plan for Your Meals

With the above two habits, of slow mindful eating and meal construction, you can develop an attack plan that makes eating healthy fast food even easier. If you’re trying to lose weight, eat your meals in this order.

1. Protein first

2. Vegetables next

3. Healthy fats third

4. Carbohydrates last

After each bite, check in with yourself to see how hungry you still are. If you get through just the protein and half your veggies and find that you feel full, that’s no problem. You don’t need to finish the meal. Pack it up and bring it home. You can enjoy it later as a fun treat to look forward to.

Anyway, there’s still one more problem that people who eat out often run into…

Problem 3: You Aren’t Prepared

You’re out of town, on the road to meet a client. You’ve been driving for a couple hours and you haven’t eaten since breakfast. It’s now 1:00PM and you’re getting hungry.

You stop at the closest restaurant, scarf down a burrito and some chips, and get back on the road. A short while later, your stomach feels bloated and you’re wondering why the hell you ate that. You’re trying to lose weight. You know you “shouldn’t” have done that but you didn’t feel like you had a choice.

Ever hear that age old advice not to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry?

Yeah, the same thing applies here. Avoid deciding what’s for lunch when you’re absolutely ravenous and the closest options aren’t that healthy (but are super delicious). That’s a bet you’ll lose every time. Or at least… I would.

If you end up deciding where to eat and what to eat when you’re very hungry, odds are you’ll go for whatever is comfortable and filling. So what are you supposed to do about this?

Solution: Pack Snacks

If you want to avoid being in a panicked hunger when you’re deciding what’s for lunch, packing snacks will help. You want snacks that are small, compact, dry, and very easy to carry when you’re away from home for very long periods of time.

Your best bet?

Nuts, seeds, trail mixes, and jerkies

A healthy trailmix. Your saviour on a long day.

Nuts, seeds, trail mixes, and jerkies are great because they’re calorie dense. That means you don’t need a lot of them to fill up. Nuts, for example, are chock full of healthy fats and protein, the two things that will keep you feeling satiated the longest. Having a couple of thumb-sized portions will take the edge off your hunger and help you to sort out what you’d really like to eat in order to stay on track to your goals.

Your Complete Guide to Healthy Fast Food if You Eat Out Often

Eating healthy fast food is totally possible even if you have a busy schedule that has you eating out often. All you need to do is slow down, learn how to construct a healthy fast food meal, and keep some healthy snacks on hand in case of emergency.

The next time you have a meal on the go or have to meet a client for dinner, check in with yourself before hand and ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have the time to eat this meal slowly and mindfully?
  • Does the meal I’m about to order have the right ingredients in the right proportions to support my fat-loss goals?
  • Is this a meal I could hold off on if I just have a quick snack for now?

After going through your checklist, use the information we’ve provided to make the best choice you can and don’t look back. These mental tools will help you to take the stress out of eating healthy fast food and help you to enjoy your food, not get more neurotic about it. And hey, if you make a mistake along the way, always remember this: You’re only ever one meal, or one mouthful, away from getting back on track.

What are your favourite healthy fast food options? We would love to know, post a few suggestions below and we’ll be sure to include them in a future blog post.

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