Let’s be honest: we don’t go to
fast food restaurants in search of a “healthy” meal. We’re there for cheesy, greasy, and indulgent food that’s quick and convenient. Finding a nutritionally dense, diet-conscious dinner at a chain isn’t exactly on our checklist.
And over the years, fast food chains have started to get the memo. Instead of trying to convince us that they offer “healthy” options, companies like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell have quietly removed salads from their menus. Lighter fare used to be a major selling point in fast food ad campaigns through the early aughts. Now they’re either wiped from the menu or hidden at the very bottom.
What has remained a constant, however, is the inclusion of nutrition facts. Nearly every fast food chain in the country offers calorie counts for their menu items, with some spots outlining detailed macronutrients. But instead of giving us peace of mind, checking the nutritional information can be deeply unsettling. Don’t believe us? Try plugging in your go-to Chipotle order in their nutrition calculator and see for yourself.
But for those of us who like to be mindful of how many calories they’re consuming, checking the nutrition facts is a necessary task before pulling up to the drive-thru. So we decided to do some of the hard work for you by identifying the lowest calorie meals you can find at American fast food chains.
However, we need to make several disclaimers. Number one: what’s considered to be “low calorie” depends on a lot of factors. The suggested daily intake depends on your height, activity level, biological sex, and individual nutrition goals, among many other considerations. For the sake of streamlining our search, we determined the threshold for a low-calorie meal to be 500 calories or less. But depending on your own desired caloric intake, you can eat these chosen menu items on their own or alongside other sides.
We also considered the quantity of food in our roundup. Because, yes, a single junior hamburger or a small side of fries may be under 500 calories. But it’s also not enough food to constitute a filling meal for most adults. So we decided to avoid wasting your time and instead only feature menu items that could serve as a solid meal on their own. That’s why there are several fast food chains missing from our list. McDonald’s, Popeye’s, and KFC failed to make the list because they don’t have any menu items available that fit our criteria.
Another important note: just because a meal is low calorie does not make it “healthy.” What constitutes a healthy diet is ultimately up to you and your doctor. But most nutritionists agree that the best diets are balanced ones. A fried chicken sandwich with a few pickle slices is not what experts would call a balanced meal. But as one meal alongside other nutritionally varied meals in your overall diet, you can still enjoy a balanced diet while still indulging in fast food every now and then.
With those caveats in mind, here are the best low-calorie fast food meals.