When we think of eating a healthy, balanced diet, popular fast food chains like Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s aren’t exactly the first thing to come to mind. That’s for good reason ― fast food consumption has been linked to everything from the obesity epidemic to rising infertility rates among men.
But as people have become increasingly concerned about their health and worked to clean up their diets, fast food chains have caught on and added an out of character item to their menus: Salad.
For the most part, the rise of the fast food salad is a good thing — especially for people have a hard time affording healthy food. “Generally speaking, I think fast food salads can be a good option for people who have limited access to whole, fresh, healthy food and produce,” nutritionist Tamar Samuels told HuffPost.
The issue with these salads arises when we just assume they’re healthy without examining the ingredients. “Even though you may want to applaud the fast food industry for finally offering something on the somewhat ‘healthy’ side compared to their traditional fare, you still have to ask yourself, ‘are these salads as healthy as they claim?’” said Karina Heinrich, an international certified integrative nutritionist. “Unfortunately, most are not.”
Many of these salads are high in sodium and calories and low in nutrients, Samuels noted. “They’re loaded with preservatives and contain several unnecessary food additives that one would not expect from a simple salad supposedly made of whole ingredients,” she said.
So should you avoid fast food salads altogether? No, but it’s crucial to do your homework and be an ingredient detective.
Luckily, we did some of it for you. Here’s a ranking of the most popular fast food salads.
This salad may look and taste delicious, but it’s pretty awful nutrition-wise. Containing 570 calories, 37g sugar, 23g fat and 1,300mg sodium, “It’s almost a full day’s worth of salt, fat and sugar in a bowl,” said Heinrich. “I say ‘A’ for effort, ‘F’ for healthy.”
Sorry, BK lovers — the burgers may delicious, but the salads aren’t healthy at all. “The biggest concern for me is the amount of sodium in this salad — 1,660 mg,” Samuels said. “That’s almost a day’s worth of the recommended amount of sodium in just one meal. And let’s not forget about the multiple fried items in this salad — fried chicken, croutons and bacon.”
Nutrition-wise, this salad doesn’t offer much, she said. “It’s just romaine lettuce and cherry tomatoes — those are the only veggies,” Samuels said. “It also has 610 calories per serving, which is about the same amount as a Whopper.”
First things first: Taco Bell’s power bowl isn’t exactly healthy. “Weighing in at a whopping 20g of fat, 1,230 mg of sodium and over 50 carbs, this bowl from Taco Bell is definitely a ‘power’ punch to your diet,” Heinrich told HuffPost.
Still, all hope is not lost. “The one positive is that you can customize the bowl, and the website is very helpful in laying out how many calories are in each ingredient. If you take the extra time, you may be able to create something healthy,” Heinrich said.
While Carl’s Juniors’ popular charbroiled chicken salad is low in calories (280 without dressing) and high in protein (32 grams), the rest of the salad is pretty “blah.” “They only use iceberg lettuce, and other than that all they have veggie-wise is a few slices of tomato and red onion,” Heinrich said. “The rest is cheese, croutons and chicken.”
Although Jack In The Box’s Grilled Chicken Salad is too high in sodium (1,093 mg), it has a few other redeeming qualities, Heinrich said. “The ingredients are mostly vegetables, and grilled chicken is a great source of protein,” she said. “Plus, it’s only 350 calories without the dressing.”
To make it healthier, she suggested going dressing-free and removing the black olives and cheese.
McDonald’s is perhaps the most popular food chain out there, and if you frequent those golden arches, we have some good news — their Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad is actually pretty good for you.
The salad has a great variety of leafy greens, Samuels said. “It has romaine, baby spinach, baby kale, Lollo Rossa lettuce, red leaf lettuce, red oak lettuce, red tango lettuce, red romaine lettuce, and red butter lettuce,” she said. “It also has a nice variety of vegetables, including black beans, roasted tomatoes, poblano peppers.” The salad is relatively low in calories, at 350 per serving without dressing.
There are a few issues with this salad, though. “It contains a whopping 1,070 mg of sodium,” Samuels said. “Plus, the cilantro lime glaze has a ton of preservatives and questionable ingredients, like propylene glycol alginate.”
If you’re looking for a nutrient-dense, low-calorie salad, Subway’s popular turkey breast salad is a good option. “This salad has a wide variety of vegetables compared to the other salads,” Samuels said. “It includes more nutritious salad greens like spinach, and also has cucumbers, green peppers, red onions, tomatoes, and black olives. It’s lower in calories (344 calories per serving), and has one of the lower sodium contents I’ve seen for fast food salads (560 mg), which is still considered high, but not as high as many others.”
The one thing to watch out for? Dressing. “The nutrition facts for this salad don’t include dressing, which is deceiving as we know because of the additional calories and sodium from the salad dressing,” Samuels said.
Good news, Chick-fil-A fans: Nutrition-wise, it doesn’t get much better than this salad. “The Grilled Market Salad at Chick-fil-A may be one of the best nutritional salads offered in the traditional fast food salad arena that I’ve seen,” Heinrich said. “It’s high in protein and fiber and not a disaster in sodium and fat. It has nice portions of fruits and vegetables.”
To make it healthier, Heinrich suggests removing the blue cheese and keeping the dressing light. “This is a fantastic salad to grab-and-go on occasion when you’re in a ‘find a healthy food’ bind,” she said.