Fast Food & Diabetes:
Healthy Eating is Possible Even When Life Has You on the Go!
If you’re among the more than 34 million Americans currently living with diabetes you know the importance that diet plays in helping you manage blood sugar levels and feel your best each day.
Making healthy eating choices and limiting those sugary, high-calorie and carb-loaded indulgences is a big part of life with diabetes, which is why fast food has developed a negative reputation in the diabetic community. A lot of this bad rap is for good reason. Fast food joints are, after all, home to an abundance of high-sodium, high-fat and high-carbohydrate choices that are anything but diabetic friendly.
However, if you think it’s impossible to grab a little fast-food indulgence and still stick to your diabetes diet plan, think again. Sure, you’re likely going to have to make a few menu modifications and kick some choices right off your list of possible options, but you can still enjoy the convenience (and let’s face it... the decadent deliciousness) of fast food and be diabetes smart.
Also, if you think we’re going to stick you with all the salads and grilled chicken options - wrong! How does a good burger or a burrito sound? Fast food and diabetes can coexist. Yes, you can enjoy the occasional bite on the run without worrying about throwing your blood sugar levels out of whack. To show you how, let’s start with some general rules to follow based on the type of fast food you’re craving.
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So, you’re in the mood for a good burger. Here are some overall tips to satisfying your hunger without loading up on fats, sugars, and carbs.
First, forget the double-decker cheeseburger loaded with mayo or the monster burger topped with bacon and the house’s special sauce. You already know these are bad ideas.
Instead, select a single burger and hold the cheese. It’s also a good idea to skip on the pickles as they tend to be loaded with salt. However, go ahead and pile on the tomatoes, onions, lettuce, peppers, and other healthy toppings.
If you’re looking to cut down on carbs, consider going open-faced and ditching half the bun. You can also ask if they offer a whole grain bun, which will have fewer carbs. Some burger joints have also introduced an option often called “green style” that replaces the bun with crisply lettuce slices. A great choice if it’s available.
As for condiments, mustard is usually your best bet as ketchup can be high in sugar. However, if you’ve just got to have that ketchup on your burger order it on the side so you can control the portion amount. Better yet, bring your own no-sugar added ketchup to the party. There are plenty of options available on the market today.
What About Those Fries?
We’re not going to sugar-coat it for you. French fries and onion rings are better left off your fast-food tray. However, if you’re going to go for the fries make it a small size and ask if you can have yours without salt. Most of the burger shops and fast-food joints these days are happy to oblige. Better yet, try one of the other healthier side options generally available - apple slices, carrot sticks, a side salad with low-fat dressing. But again, if you absolutely need a fry fix, keep it to a minimum.
What’s wrong with water? It’s sugar-free, fat-free, and calorie-free. Water is a great go-to beverage, especially when indulging in fast food that already has a fair amount of sugar and carbs. However, if you find yourself want something different, try unsweetened tea or an iced coffee. Avoid sodas, lemonades, and sport drinks as they tend to be loaded with stuff you don’t need when trying to control your blood sugar.
Whatever fast-food guru came up with the brilliant idea that everything needs to be gigantic sized is no friend to those of us living with diabetes. Don’t fall for it. You don’t need a bigger drink - even if it is iced tea. You certainly don’t need a humongous bucket of fries or potato wedges. Moderation is the key to diabetic indulgences. So, when they ask you about going big just say, “no thanks.”
Fast-Food Chicken Places
Many of the same suggestions we just covered at burger joints apply to fast-food chicken. In fact, many fast-food hamburger chains offer their own chicken menu items. When it comes to chicken, you may have a few more options to consider.
For example, go grilled if you can. Avoid breaded choices as they are going to be loaded with extra carbohydrates that can elevate blood sugar levels. You might also want to consider options like a grilled chicken salad, perhaps, with a low-fat vinaigrette dressing, which makes for a deliciously fast and healthy meal.
A lot of America’s favorite chicken chains also offer mashed potatoes and gravy as a side. It’s best to avoid this one. Unfortunately, fast-food mashed potatoes usually contain a good amount of butter (fat) and sodium. If you’re going to go with mashed potatoes, skip the gravy as it is certainly a high-fat, high-calorie addition.
Sub and Sandwich Shops
Sub shops are one of the best fast-food choices for those living with diabetes because they tend to give you added control over what goes into your order. Still, it’s important to choose wisely as some things on the menu that might seem okay at first blush are not the best options for a diabetes diet. So, what choices should you make?
First, avoid the white bread whenever possible. Go with a whole grain bun if that’s an option. Even better, go with a whole grain wrap when available. It’s also a good idea to go with a smaller sized sandwich. Most places offer a half-size or similar, and none of us need to scarf down an entire foot of bread, so stick to the smaller sizes.
For your protein choice, chicken is always a winner. Be wary of processed lunchmeats as they are usually extremely high in sodium. However, feel free to add some fresh cheese to your sandwich, as well.
Next, load on the veggies! Lettuce, tomato, cucumber, green pepper, onion, these are all great choices. Go mustard over mayo. Swap the chips out for a fresh fruit option. Tada! You’ve got a great-tasting and good-for-your fast-food meal.
Fast Food Mexican
As with sub shops, popular Mexican-oriented fast-food chains, such as Chipotle, give you added control over what goes into your meal. Plus, these fast-food folks do a fairly good job of making sure you have plenty of healthy options, including “bowls” that provide the flavors you crave without a lot of the starchy carbs and sugary additives.
The real advantage is that you get decide what ingredients and how much of each go into your burrito or bowl. For instance, as someone with diabetes, you can skip the sour cream and just add healthy guacamole. You can limit white rice to control your starch intake, choose brown rice, or even eliminate rice altogether. You can have them toss in just enough cheese to add great flavor without going overboard.
There are plenty of fast-food options in this category and more are popping up all the time. Mexican tends to be a great option for those of us with diabetes just if we remember that there are a lot of things on the menu (sour cream, cheese sauces, salty options) that we should avoid.
For a lot of us, good pizza is like a slice of heaven and just because you’re living with diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t indulge every now and again. Like most dietary choices, pizza is about moderation and making smart decisions.
For example, stay away from those absurd cheese-stuffed and flavored crust options you see these days. C’mon – diabetes or not – that’s just taking things too far. You should also avoid Chicago-style thick crust pizza. While delicious, it is pretty carb-crazy and can send your blood sugar into overdrive. So, what should you have?
Go with a slice or two of traditional thin crust pizza. Forget the sausage and pepperoni but feel free to pile on as many healthy veggie toppings as you can fit on a slice - spinach, onion, tomato, mushrooms, bell pepper, artichokes, broccolini - whatever they have at your favorite pizza place.
Limit your intake to a single slice, maybe two, and that’s it. To go along with your pizza party, how about a nice salad? Forget the mozzarella sticks, chicken wings, and fried deserts that a lot of pizza places have added to their menus. Remember, moderation and smart decisions are your friends when it comes to fast food and diabetes.
A Few Of Our Favorite Fast-Food Orders
Most of us with diabetes will do fine occasionally enjoying the grab-and-go options listed below. However, as someone living with diabetes, it is important that you speak with your diabetes physician and care team before making any dietary or health-related decisions, including these. Additionally, it’s a good idea to check out (and maybe even print out) these handy Fast Food Tips offered by the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
Some of our favorite fast-food orders include:
Hamburger or Quarter Pounder without cheese, side salad with a vinaigrette dressing option, unsweetened iced tea. If you want to add fries, order a small.
Try the new Impossible Whopper for plant-based protein. Hold the cheese, ketchup and mayo and go with mustard. Add a side garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing and don’t even open the crouton pack. If you want fries or onion rings, order from the Value Menu which features smaller portions.
The coffee giant has some great fast-food choices you’ll find in the pre-prepared fridges just next to the checkout counter. Some of our favorites include the Eggs and Cheese Protein Box, Tomato and Mozzarella Panini, and the Chicken and Quinoa Protein Bowl. They also offer fresh fruit cups to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Go with a bowl or indulge with a burrito. You’re in charge of what goes in so add chicken, double fajita veggies, a “half” portion of brown rice, black beans, lettuce, tomato, a sprinkling of cheese, and guacamole.
Order off the “Fresh Fit” menu and limit your order to a six-inch sub. Choose multi-grain bread and add fresh veggies to your heart’s content. Avoid mayo and go with mustard or try the fat-free honey mustard sauce. If you’re going to get chips, go with a baked variety.
Order from the “Pick Two” menu option that combines half a sandwich with a cup of soup or a salad. Go with a turkey on whole grain with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard paired with a seasonal green salad topped with Asian Sesame Vinaigrette dressing. Avoid the soups as they can be high in salt.
If you found this post helpful, we hope you’ll check out our other posts about living with diabetes. At DiabeticTestStrips.org, we’re committed to keeping you informed with diabetes care and treatment news and providing you with tips to make your diabetes health and lifestyle choices a little easier.