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The Healthiest Fast Food Sandwiches, According to Dietitians

By The Clean Plates Team and Candace Nagy
July 28, 2023
Image credit: Lindsey Engelken for Clean Plate

Great nutrition is key to overall good health, and eating well is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. But when we’re on a road trip or we’re super busy, fast food is often the best option around. Fortunately, there are healthier options at every fast food joint that can let you enjoy the occasional dive into the world of ultra-processed foods — and that’s according to nutritionists, who helped us determine the healthiest fast food sandwiches at every major chain.

“Fast food options are always ‘allowed’ in my diet, and can absolutely be incorporated into the eating pattern of my clients, if they want,” says Shelley Rael, MS RDN. “They’re convenient, easily accessible — especially when traveling — and can help minimize cravings when we include them on occasion (one or two times a month).” Rael encourages choosing options that fit into your overall diet goals, rather than viewing fast food as totally off-limits because this all-or-nothing approach can backfire and lead to thinking about fast food way more often than is healthy.

Michelle Rauch, MS RDN says that the best way to approach fast food is to skip the meal deals (which typically include a side of fries and a soda) and focus instead on piling healthy ingredients onto your sandwich. “Load on the vegetables,” Rauch says. “Lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, onions, and cucumber slices are all great ways to add nutrients and fiber, and keep you feeling satisfied for longer.”

Of course, nobody wants to be the person holding up the line while studying the nutrition facts or asking for endless substitutions when trying to determine the healthiest fast food sandwich option. We’re talking about fast food, after all — so check out our top picks for healthier choices at fast food joints.

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1. Subway Turkey 6″ Sub Sandwich

Subway’s turkey sandwich is a protein-packed choice that really lets you follow Rauch’s advice to add tons of vegetables, including antioxidant-packed baby spinach, green peppers, and red onions. In lieu of cheese and mayo, ask for avocado, which adds satisfying, monounsaturated healthy fats — and a seriously delicious, creamy texture.

“Avocado is a great source of potassium and is rich in folate and fiber,” Rauch says. Try it on the zero-sugar “Hero Bread,” which is low in carbs, while being high in fiber and protein. This really is one of the healthiest fast food sandwich options out there.

2. Burger King Impossible Whopper

This plant-based patty packs a surprisingly large amount of protein: 25 grams, only three less than the traditional Whopper. It’s also made of soy-based protein, which means it contains exactly zero cholesterol. To make this option vegan (and healthier overall), opt for no mayo — and replace it with mustard instead, which adds a lot of flavor without any fat or calories.

3. Wendy’s Grilled Chicken Sandwich

Wendy’s herb-marinated grilled chicken is packed with protein, and since it’s grilled, not fried, it’s not submerged in oil during the cooking process, which makes it a much healthier choice. Tomato slices and lettuce add a fresh, crisp element, not to mention vitamins like folate, vitamin C, and potassium. Skip the corn syrup-heavy honey mustard sauce and opt instead for tangy regular mustard, which adds a negligible amount of calories.

4. McDonald’s Classic Hamburger

In moderation, beef can play a healthy role in the diet, providing necessary iron, protein, zinc, and vitamin B-12 (essential for brain and nerve health). Ask for tomatoes, lettuce, and onions, and although you shouldn’t consider a McDonald’s hamburger a “health food” by any stretch of the imagination, at 250 calories and 12 grams of protein, it’s an ok choice when it comes to an occasional fast food treat.

5. Panera Bread Tuna Salad Sandwich

Although this is definitely not low-calorie (a whole sandwich clocks in at 740 calories), it’s very low-sugar, and the ingredients are actually pretty wholesome. Swap the focaccia for whole grain bread for fewer refined grains, and if you want more variety and a lower-calorie choice, opt for half a sandwich (370 calories) and the strawberry poppyseed salad with chicken, or a bowl of Thai chicken soup.

6. Starbucks Tomato & Mozzarella on Focaccia Sandwich

Cheese (in this case, mozzarella) is an excellent source of calcium and protein. Layered over roasted tomatoes, fresh spinach, and basil pesto, the mozzarella adds richness to this sandwich without the need for fats, like mayonnaise. Rauch suggests removing the top slice of bread to cut back on the carbs and calories — a smart option for all of these sandwiches.

Read next: 6 Ways to Tweak Your Chipotle Order to Make It 10x Healthier, According to Dietitians

7. Au Bon Pain Chipotle Black Bean Burger with Avocado

With a patty primarily made of wholesome ingredients like beans, brown rice, and egg whites, the chipotle black bean burger from Au Bon Pain is a pretty healthy choice in the world of fast food sandwiches. Ask them to go light on the chipotle aioli (or nix it altogether) and you have a really satisfying sandwich filled with 29 grams of plant-based protein, plus plenty of healthy fat from the avocado.

8. Arby’s Classic Roast Beef Sandwich

The classic roast beef sandwich is a surprisingly not-terrible pick from Arby’s. At 360 calories, this is a reasonably-sized meal —  just opt for the 15-calorie, fat-free Arby’s sauce in lieu of the super-caloric Horsey sauce. Another surprisingly good choice at Arby’s: the roast turkey wrap. Ask for no mayo and no Swiss cheese, and choose a container of buffalo dipping sauce instead. It’s surprisingly delicious on the roast turkey, and cuts the calories and fat in this sandwich considerably.

9. Jersey Mike’s Grilled Portabella Mushroom & Swiss

The grilled portabella mushroom sandwich is a healthier menu option at Jersey Mike’s: not only do the mushrooms contain selenium — a mineral found in soil that improves cognition and immune system function — but the green bell peppers also help lower LDL cholesterol levels, contributing to better cardiovascular health. Ask for wheat bread instead of white for added fiber and fewer refined grains.

10. In-N-Out Hamburger (“Protein Style”)

When traveling through the Western side of the U.S., a stop at In-N-Out is a road trip must. Pretty much anything on the menu is a treat, but if you’re looking to stay on the healthier side, try the plain hamburger done “protein style.” This means it’s wrapped in lettuce instead of bread, and it’s a great way to cut carbs while still getting your protein.

Read next: How to Order a Healthy Sandwich at Subway

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