Expert Weighs in on How to Hack Your Next Fast-Food Run

There’s plenty to digest in the emerging fast-food market. Here’s a game plan.

The U.S. fast food market remains in supersizing mode in 2023, with over 201,000 fast food eateries in 2023 – up 2.55% from 2021. Overall, Americans are spending approximately $200 billion on fast food every year, and about $70,000 individually over the course of a lifetime.

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Yet change is afoot in the fast-food game, as plant-based menu options expand and as scores of new sector entrants prefer the moniker “fast casual” as they cook up healthier menu options.

Even so, diners need to have their guard up when imbibing at a fast-food restaurant.

“Just because it says McDonald’s and the store next door says Chipotle, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to eat healthier,” said Rutgers University’s Cooperative Extension professor and nutrition educator Luanne Hughes in comments to USA Today. “If you go into Chipotle, it means still that you have to make smart choices.”

What’s the game plan? Hughes offers these fast-food dining experience tips.

If you really want to nail down a restaurant, Hughes said the healthiest fast food locations are those that offer “more of a hybrid between a traditional fast food with a drive-thru and a restaurant where you would go in and sit down.”

Larger menus are a good sign. Fast food establishments that offer expanded menu options are good options for consumers. “Look for menu items that have vegetables on there,” Hughes advised. “Those sandwiches that either come with the tomatoes, lettuce or spinach, any kind of vegetables on there or allow you to add those options.”

Grilled over fried. Diners can easily be swayed by the healthier aspects of chicken dishes at establishments like Chick-fil-A or McDonald’s  (MCD) – Get Free Report. But be careful – fried chicken dishes aren’t the healthier choice you’re looking for.

“Just because it’s chicken, it doesn’t mean it’s healthier than a burger, you have to get a real sense of how it’s prepared,” Hughes noted.

Go easy on the sauce. Many fast-food eateries are offering special sauces like honey mustard, barbecue, Buffalo, or garlic ranch. If you opt for the sauce, do so with a light touch or better yet, not at all.

“Many times you find a sandwich that’s grilled chicken, but you’re trying to figure out why it has so many calories, and where’s all the fat coming from and the sodium?” Hughes said. “And many times it’s in those special sauces that they add to the sandwich.”

Wash it down with water. Sugar and calories can also be added at the beverage counter, so opt for ice water or soda, or sugary sports drinks.

That goes for coffee, too. “The more items you put in your beverage, the more calories and sugar you’re adding to your diet,” Hughes said, “Some of those fancy coffees that you can order have hundreds and hundreds of extra calories.”

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