Fast Food Fits
Ever been on the road when a wave of hunger comes over you? Maybe it’s a low growl in your stomach or the hint of a headache. Maybe you’re even getting “hangry.”
If your diet excludes ingredients, such a meat, carbohydrates, or modified components, finding a hearty meal on-the-go can be easier said than done. To help you along the way, we studied the main menu items at five major food chains — Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Starbucks, and Chick-fil-A — to show the meals that fit into each popular diet ranging from low-carb to vegan. Continue reading to see what we uncovered.
Dieting While Dining
If you’re on a low-carb diet, that means you’re staying far away from high-carb items like sugar, pasta, and bread. A lot of protein, fats, and veggies are right up your alley though – but you won’t likely find many of those items at America’s most popular fast food stops. Across the five food chains studied, 39 regular menu items qualified as low-carb.
If you’re on a low-carb diet, that means you’re staying far away from high-carb items, such as sugar, pasta and bread. A lot of protein, fats and veggies are right up your alley, though you won’t likely find many of those items at America’s most popular fast food stops. Across the five food chains studied, 39 regular menu items qualified as low-carb.
Mediterranean diets emphasize plant-based foods, such as fruits and veggies, while also including fish and seafood in addition to poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt (in moderation). If this is the kind of food you eat, and you find yourself looking for something on-the-go, the fast food restaurants we examined had 20 food items on their regular menus that fit the bill.
Pescatarians and vegetarians have more regular menu items than any other diet included. Pescatarians, who eat only seafood as a meat source, but include eggs and dairy into their diets, had 68 different meal options. Vegetarians, who do not eat meat but sometimes still include certain animal byproducts (dairy, eggs, etc.) in their diets, had 64 regular menu options. It’s important to note that while vegetarianism has various forms, the inclusion of dairy and eggs equates to menu items being selected based on a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. Vegans, who don’t eat any meat or animal byproducts, had slightly less variation to consider but still had 22 meal options that fit into their diet.
Staying Balanced at Taco Bell
If your diet restricts carbohydrates, there are 17 entrees and two side options for you at Taco Bell. Items like the mini skillet bowl, shredded chicken mini quesadilla and cheesy roll-up are all on your list, as well as sides like hash browns and black beans.
For those who limit their consumption of poultry, but still include food items like eggs, cheese, and yogurt, Taco Bell has four regular menu items to consider — but they aren’t entrees. Side orders of chips with guacamole, salsa, nacho cheese and pico de gallo are all options.
For animal-lovers who remain hooked on their seafood, Taco Bell has 14 entrees and 10 sides in which to pick. Entrees include items like spicy potato soft tacos, bean burritos and a cheese quesadilla, in addition to chips and salsa or seasoned rice, meaning one can satisfy the craving for a “fourth meal” basically any time of day.
Vegans, like those taking the Mediterranean route, have only sides to pick from at Taco Bell. There are five vegan-friendly sides on the menu at Taco Bell, including hash browns and chips with pico de gallo.
Taco Bell has 24 vegetarian-friendly menu items — 14 entrees and 10 sides. Entree choices include Taco Bell’s egg and cheese breakfast soft taco, triple layer nachos, and the seven-layer burrito. If you feel like having sides with any of these items, you can pick from black beans, cheesy fiesta potatoes, and pintos N cheese, plus more.
Diet Maintenance at McDonald’s
If you’re not a big believer in carbs, there are nine regular menu options to consider at McDonald’s. Your choices include two entree options — the premium bacon ranch salad with grilled chicken and a four-piece Chicken McNuggets and seven sides, like apple slices or a side salad.
For those looking to swing through McDonald’s and stick to a Mediterranean diet, there are no entrees and only three side options in which to pick. Mediterranean side selections include the side salad, apple slices and Cuties mandarins.
Pescatarians have 9 options to pick from, including four entrees and five sides. Entree choices include the classic Filet-O-Fish and breakfast selections like McDonald’s hotcakes and fruit and maple oatmeal (with or without brown sugar).
Vegans should be in the mood for breakfast if they’re planning on visiting a McDonald’s anytime soon. With five options to choose from, the fruit and maple oatmeal is the only entree selection as of this writing. Sides include apple slices, a side salad and Cuties.
Vegetarians can enjoy 10 McDonald’s regular menu items, most of which fall into the breakfast category. In addition to fruit and maple oatmeal and McDonald’s hotcakes, vegetarians can partake in a fruit ’N yogurt parfait, side salad, and apple slices, to name a few.
Sticking to a Diet at Starbucks
Besides the coffee, if you’re on a low-carb diet, you’ll have two choices to pick from at Starbucks. The sous vide egg bites (made with egg white and red pepper or bacon and Gruyere) breakfast entrees are both on your list, coming in at 170 and 310 calories, respectively.
Mediterranean eaters have something to pick from whether they’re in the mood for a salad, breakfast, or even just a side dish. With five options to choose from, the roasted tomato and mozzarella panini, hearty veggie and brown rice salad bowl, or the seasonal harvest fruit blend are all yummy considerations.
Those on a pescatarian diet have 14 regular menu items to pick from to help satisfy nearly every type of craving. Breakfast entrees like the hearty blueberry oatmeal or protein bistro box, a salad selection that includes their hearty veggie and brown rice salad bowl, or a side of fresh blueberries and honey Greek yogurt parfait help check the boxes in all three food categories to leave you feeling full and satisfied at Starbucks.
For people who don’t consume any animal byproducts, there are four choices for you at Starbucks. Their classic whole-grain oatmeal, hearty blueberry oatmeal, hearty veggie and brown rice salad bowl, and seasonal harvest fruit blend are all vegan-approved.
Vegetarians have 14 regular menu selections to pick from at Starbucks. Like pescetarians, veggie-lovers can enjoy the sous vide egg white and red pepper egg bites, egg and cheddar breakfast sandwich, and even the fresh blueberries and honey Greek yogurt parfait if the sweet tooth strikes.
Eating Well at Wendy’s
For carb-cutters, Wendy’s has four menu options in which to pick. Two entrees — the sausage and egg burrito and the four-piece chicken nuggets — and the apple slices and small chili items round out your choices.
Those who enjoy a Mediterranean diet have five options at Wendy’s. If you’re in a pinch, grab a bag (or two or three) of their apple slices to hold you over until your next meal or opt for a baked potato with broccoli and cheese or sour cream and chives.
For pescatarians, there are 12 regular menu items at Wendy’s, including their premium cod fillet sandwich. If you’re in the mood for breakfast, they also have steel-cut oatmeal with cranberries and pecans or a side of apple slices, as well as three baked potato options: sour cream and chive, broccoli and cheese, or cheese alone.
For vegans, three items work for your diet: Wendy’s steel-cut oatmeal with cranberries and pecans, apple slices and the plain baked potato.
With nine choices to pick from at Wendy’s, vegetarians have breakfast selections such as oatmeal bars and the steel-cut oatmeal with cranberries and pecans, in addition to sides like seasoned homestyle potatoes and garden side salads.
Counting Calories at Chick-fil-A
Low-carb eaters rejoice. There are six menu options at Chick-fil-A (as long as it’s not Sunday). You can pick between grilled chicken nuggets, a grilled market salad, or even a fruit cup, among other things.
For those who prefer to stick with a Mediterranean diet, there are only three items at Chick-fil-A that fit the bill, and they are side dishes. You can enjoy the fruit cup, side salad, or hash browns if you’re hungry and there’s nothing else nearby.
While the restaurant may not have any fish for you to enjoy, there are still nine items on the Chick-fil-A menu that work for a pescatarian diet. Breakfast items include the sunflower multigrain bagel and egg white grill, and side items include Greek yogurt parfait and the superfood side.
Chick-fil-A may not be your go-to fast food option if you're hungry and vegan at the same time. With just five options to pick from, only three are served hot: the hash browns, sunflower multigrain bagel (which you’ll only find at breakfast), and waffle fries. Small options like the fruit cup and superfood side are also available if you’re in the mood for fresh fruit and veggies.
Just like pescatarians, vegetarians have nine options that will work for them at Chick-fil-A. The superfood side and small waffle fries (considered by some to be the best option of any kind at a fast food joint) can tide you over until your next meal.
An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Whatever your diet of choice, eating healthy has its advantages – from reduced spikes in blood pressure caused by sugary foods and starches to a decreased risk of heart disease and cancer.
Watching what you put in your body may mean fewer trips to the doctor in the future. This guide will help you stick to your eating principles, even if you’re hungry and don’t know what you can still enjoy while on the go.
For this project, we looked at main menu items from Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Starbucks, and Chick-fil-A. We excluded items that were specific to a certain area, seasonal specials, or drinks.
*Please note there is a chance an item was not included or menu items have changed since we gathered the data for this project.
To view a list of the exact items that make up each restaurant’s menu in this project, please see a full list here. These menus were taken directly from the restaurant websites on 3/22/17.
*Please note menu items, ingredients, and nutritional information sometimes change.
- Low-Carb Diet: Carbs could not exceed 16 grams
- Mediterranean: Could not contain sugar or red meat
- Pescatarian: Could not contain red meat or poultry; eggs and dairy were OK
- Vegan: Could not contain fish, red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, low-fat products, butter/margarine, or yogurt
- Vegetarian: Could not contain red meat, poultry, or fish; eggs and dairy were OK
We went through each menu item and noted nutritional facts and ingredients to determine the percentage of each menu that fit into the above diets. Please keep in mind there is always a chance for error when categorizing a large number of menu items along with ingredients and nutritional values.
Assumptions: In some cases, we had to make assumptions. For example:
- Food with natural beef flavor was labeled as containing red meat. Food cooked in oil that could contain red meat or fish was labeled as containing red meat and fish.
- Refined sugar includes all forms of sugars, including molasses, cane sugars, dextrose, maltodextrin, dextrin, lactose, etc.
- High-fat dairy includes all cheeses, milk, and cream. Nonfat milk and skim milk were excluded.
Disclaimer: For this project, we have defined the vegetarian and pescatarian diets as including eggs and dairy products, and thus the vegetarian menus are based on the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. This project is intended as guidance but is not a substitute for legitimate medical advice from your doctor or dietician. Please consult with your dietician before making any decisions about what you eat, especially if you have food allergies.
Fair Use Statement
Feel free to share the information found on this page with your readers for noncommercial purposes only. When you do, please provide them with a link back to this page so they can read more about the project and view the items included on each menu.