Top Fast-Food Picks for People with Diabetes

By: Katie Shields, M.S., RDN  |  Diabetic Living Magazine

Fast food is not off-limits for people with diabetes, but knowing what to order makes all the difference. Check out our top picks for healthier eating at fast-food restaurants including McDonald's, Subway, Wendy's and more.

Photo: Chipotle

Fast-food joints get a bad reputation for serving up foods high in carbs, sodium, fat and sugar—but that doesn't mean a trip to Wendy's has to be completely off the table, even if you have diabetes. After all, fast food does have its benefits—like convenience and consistent quality wherever you go—and sometimes it's the only option for a meal if you're on a road trip or stuck in an airport.

You don't have to stick to plain grilled chicken or salads either—there's room for a burger with fries too! To help you navigate the drive-thru with diabetes, we're sharing dietitian-approved menu recommendations for each of the most popular chains, plus expert ordering tips to help you find a meal that will fill you up without sabotaging your blood sugar. The next time you're faced with a fast-food menu, you'll be prepared to make a smart choice to fit your lifestyle, satisfy cravings and support your individual dietary needs.

Get the info you need to get creative

If you're craving a burger, order a junior-size patty and toss half the bun to spare some carbs. (Ask for a knife and fork to make an open-face burger less messy). Curious how many carbs you'd spare by ditching the bun? Most fast-food restaurants have very user-friendly online menus that allow you to build customized creations and view nutrition info for your entire meal in real time, or to search for items based on specific criteria, like "under 500 calories," "at least 10 grams protein" or "sodium less than 800 mg," etc.

Check the condiments and dressings

Watching sodium intake? Carefully consider the condiments, which are often hidden sources of sodium, sugar and carbs (for example, a Burger King ketchup packet has 125 mg of the salty stuff). And be aware that low-calorie and/or low-fat salad dressing typically relies on added sugar for flavor, so be sure to check the label before pouring it over your salad. Drizzle—don't dump—to save sugar and carbs, or stash a healthier dressing option in your bag to use instead.

Don't supersize it—but don't overly restrict yourself either

It's a no-brainer that you should stay away from supersized portions, sugary sodas and desserts when dining at a fast-food restaurant. But you don't have to restrict yourself to iceberg lettuce and grilled chicken, either. If you keep a too-tight rein on your cravings, it can often lead to overeating or binge-eating later. It's better to honor your craving mindfully, tuning in to hunger cues and fully enjoying every bite of your treat.

Best fast-food options for people with diabetes

What to order at Taco Bell:

Taco Bell Veggie Bowl

Photo: Taco Bell

2 Fresco-Style Soft Tacos with Fire-Grilled Chicken (not shredded)
Add tomatoes, lettuce, onions, pico de gallo. If you add the optional hot sauce, it adds 90 mg sodium. Adding guacamole adds 70 calories, 210 mg sodium, 6 g fat and 3 g carbs.

TOTAL (2 tacos): 300 cals, 8 g fat, 2.5 g sat fat, 910 mg sodium, 36 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 22 g protein

2 Fresco-Style Crunchy Beef Tacos
Hold the cheese, but add lettuce, tomato, pico de gallo and onion. Add an order of black beans for 5 grams of filling fiber, 80 calories, 1.5 grams fat, 12 grams carbs, 200 mg sodium and 3 grams protein.

TOTAL (2 tacos): 310 cals, 15 g fat, 4.5 g sat fat, 610 mg sodium, 32 g carbs, 9 g fiber, 13 g protein

Power Menu Bowl – Veggie

TOTAL: 480 cals, 19 g fat, 5 g sat fat, 940 mg sodium, 65 g carbs, 13 g fiber, 14 g protein

Vegetarian Double Tostada

TOTAL: 270 cals, 11 g fat, 4 g sat fat, 660 mg sodium, 32 g carbs, 8 g fiber, 12 g protein

Boost nutrition at Taco Bell:

  • Ask to make your meal "fresco style" and you'll receive fresh pico de gallo instead of higher-calorie sauces, cheese or guacamole (although, of all those options, guacamole adds beneficial healthy fats). All items on the "Fresco Menu" are less than 350 calories and 10 grams of fat—just remember they still have a lot of sodium.
  • If you're craving chips, choose the chips with pico de gallo for a total of 170 calories, 8 g fat, 0.5 g sat fat, 170 mg sodium, 22 g carbs, 3 g fiber and 2 g protein.
  • Add a side of black beans to boost the fiber content of your meal (black beans add 80 calories, 1.5 g fat, 12 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 200 mg sodium, 3 g protein).
  • Choose lower-sodium fresh pico de gallo over the various salsas.
  • Choose guacamole over cheese or sour cream to get heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.
  • Increase the heat without raising sodium levels too high with a packet of hot sauce (35 mg sodium) versus jalapeños, which add a whopping 240 mg of sodium.
  • Items labeled "XXL" or "Double Stacked" likely won't fit into any healthful diet—so skip those when skimming the menu.
  • Cinnabon Delights (served as a 2-pack) are a sweet treat that won't totally derail your diabetes goals, especially if you share them with a friend: 160 cals, 9 g fat, 2 g sat fat, 80 mg sodium, 17 g carbs, 10 g sugars, 2 g protein).

What to order at Burger King:

Burger King Whopper Junior

Photo: Burger King

Comes with pickles, ketchup and mustard. If you want cheese on your hamburger, ordering a cheeseburger will add 40 calories, 3 g fat, 2.5 g sat fat, 180 mg sodium, 2 g carbs and 2 g protein.

TOTAL: 460 cals, 19 g fat, 5 g sat fat, 720 mg sodium, 57 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 15 g protein

Whopper Jr.
Ask for no cheese or mayo on your burger.

TOTAL: 240 cals, 10 g fat, 3.5 g sat fat, 330 mg sodium, 27 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 13 g protein

MorningStar Farms Veggie Burger
Ask to hold the mayo. This sandwich is a great source of plant-based protein and provides a decent amount of fiber, but it's not always on the main menu so you might have to ask for it.

TOTAL: 310 cals, 8 g fat, 1 g sat fat, 910 mg sodium, 41 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 21 g protein

Tips for dining at Burger King:

  • Order a Side Garden Salad. It comes with shredded cheese that adds 45 calories, 4 g fat and 85 mg sodium. Skip the crouton packet and use half a packet of Lite Honey Balsamic Vinaigrette (half of the package contains 60 calories, 4 g fat, 110 mg sodium and 7 g carbs).
  • Craving fries or onion rings? Choose a side from the "Value Size" menu, as these items are the most modestly portioned (and priced!), even compared to a "small" order. For example, a value-size order of onion rings is 150 calories, 8 g fat, 1.5 g sat fat and 400 mg sodium. A value-size order of (unsalted) french fries is 220 calories, 9 g fat, 1.5 g sat fat, 210 mg sodium, 34 g carbs and 2 g protein.
  • Hidden source of sodium? Ketchup! One packet or serving adds 125 mg sodium and 3 g carbs, so be conservative with that and any other condiments.

What to order at Chipotle:

Chipotle Salad

Photo: Chipotle

Salad Bowl with Chicken
Have the black beans, double fajita veggies, extra lettuce and tomatillo green-chili salsa. This is a low-calorie, high-protein, high-fiber meal—what's not to love?

Ask for a half portion of guacamole (115 calories, 11 g fat, 2 g sat fat, 4 g carbs, 3 g fiber and 185 mg sodium), which adds flavor and provides heart-healthy monounsaturated fats to better aid in nutrient absorption. It also makes it easy to skip caloric dressings—simply top your salad with the salsa and guacamole and give it a stir for a creamy, delicious alternative to salad dressing.

TOTAL (without guacamole): 370 cals, 8.5 g fat, 3 g sat fat, 1,080 mg sodium, 37 g carbs, 10 g fiber, 42 g protein

Make It a Veggie Bowl
If you're a vegetarian, order the Salad Bowl with Chicken, but simply ask for a double portion of black beans instead of chicken.

Make the most out of eating at Chipotle:

  • The great part about Chipotle's made-to-order menu is that you can ask for a half portion of any starchy carbs, like rice or beans, or omit them altogether. It's a simple request that makes fitting a few chips into your meal much more reasonable.
  • Go with Tomatillo Green-Chili Salsa over the tomato-based salsa options , which are twice as high in sodium (260 mg per serving compared to around 500 mg respectively).
  • Craving something crunchy? Instead of the easy-to-overeat portion of chips, ask for a single crunchy taco shell. It's the perfect size for crushing over your salad or using to scoop some of that guac. The shell only adds 67 calories, 10 g carbs, 3 g fat and no sodium compared to a full order of chips, with more than 500 calories and upwards of 350 mg sodium. There's also a smaller portion of chips available on the kids' menu (140 cals, 6 g fat, 1 g sat fat, 95 mg sodium, 18 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 2 g protein), as well as the option of swapping seasonal fruit (like blueberries or a mandarin orange) for the chips.

Get more tips for how to order healthy at Chipotle.

What to order at Starbucks:

Starbucks Protein Box

Photo: Starbucks

Tomato & Mozzarella Panini
It's hard to beat the combination of fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil—especially when it's served warm on toasted focaccia and has less than 400 calories. Pair it with the Seasonal Fruit Blend cup for extra antioxidants and fiber.

TOTAL: 350 cals, 13 g fat, 5 g sat fat, 580 mg sodium, 42 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 15 g protein

Eggs + Cheese Protein Box
Cage-free hard-boiled eggs, sliced tart apples, grapes and white Cheddar cheese with multigrain muesli bread and honey peanut butter combine to make this a perfect grab-and-go option.

TOTAL: 470 cals, 25 f fat, 7 g sat fat, 540 mg sodium, 40 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 21 g sugar, 23 g protein

Chicken & Quinoa Protein Bowl with Black Beans and Greens
This bowl is full of wholesome ingredients, plus enough protein and fiber to satisfy your hunger for hours. Use half the dressing to lower the sodium content or skip it entirely and buy the "Avocado Spread" for a creamy, heart-healthy dressing with 90 calories, 8 g fat, 5 g carbs, 4 g fiber and 210 mg sodium.

TOTAL: 420 cals, 17 g fat, 3 g sat fat, 1,030 mg sodium, 42 g carbs, 9 g fiber, 27 g protein

Make your next Starbucks run a little healthier:

  • Skip the sugary pastries and packaged snacks lining the shelves. Instead, focus on the refrigerated case of fresh food for the best grab-and-go options.
  • Use the website's nutrition calculator to sort items via "Health and Wellness Options," including fat (10 grams or less), fiber (at least 3 grams), protein (at least 10 grams), and sodium (600 mg or less).

Get more tips for ordering healthy at Starbucks.

What to order at McDonald's

McDonalds Filet-o-fish

Photo: McDonald's

Filet-O-Fish
The Filet-O-Fish is lower in sodium than other sandwiches and provides 17 satiating grams of protein. If you leave off the tartar sauce, you'll spare 90 calories and 10 grams of fat—but personally we think the tartar sauce makes the sandwich. If you decide to keep the tartar sauce on the sandwich, just account for those calories and fat grams somewhere else.

TOTAL: 390 cals, 19 g fat, 4 g sat fat, 560 mg sodium, 38 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 17 g protein

Classic Cheeseburger
If you're craving a burger, choose the cheeseburger over more elaborate options with over-the-top add-ons like bacon, barbecue sauce or fried onion rings.

TOTAL: 300 cals, 12 g fat, 6 g sat fat, 680 mg sodium, 33 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 15 g protein

Make it a more diabetes-friendly meal:

  • Add a side salad for extra veggies, but go easy on the dressing if you're trying to follow low-sodium recommendations. Most of McDonald's dressing packets have more than 400 mg sodium per serving. The best choice for calories, carbs and sodium is Newman's Own Low-Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette (35 cals, 4 g carbs, 400 mg sodium) or get creative and ask for a packet of Honey Mustard Sauce, which has 50 calories and only 95 mg sodium.
  • If you want to add fries, choose the Kids Fries—at only 110 calories, 5 g fat, 80 mg sodium and 15 g carbs, they fit within these meal guidelines.

What to order at Panera:

Panera sandwich

Photo: Panera

Pick Two: Half Sandwich and Half Salad
This combo is fabulous in that it gives you a taste of a few items without going overboard on calories, carbs or sodium. Stick to a simple sandwich versus the more elaborate paninis (these are often premade with rich sauces and extra meat or cheese) and pair it with either half salad below. And don't be fooled: While soup might seem like a healthy option, a closer look reveals that nearly all of Panera's soups are full of unnecessary salt.

The following sandwiches fall within the nutrition criteria and, when paired with one of the recommended salads, keep totals under 500 calories, 50 g carbs and 700 mg sodium.

Turkey on Whole Grain
This is your best choice overall; ask for no mayo to lower calories and fat. Add 1-2 slices of fresh avocado if desired.

TOTAL (1/2 sandwich): 270 cals, 8 g fat, 1.5 gg sat fat, 590 mg sodium, 32 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 18 g protein

Napa Almond Chicken Salad on Country Rustic

TOTAL (1/2 sandwich): 310 cals, 16 g fat, 2.5 g sat fat, 340 mg sodium, 30 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 11 g protein

Steak & Arugula on Sourdough

TOTAL (1/2 sandwich): 240 cals, 8 g fat, 3.5 g sat fat, 440 mg sodium, 25 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 16 g protein

These half-salads are a great choice to pair with the half-and-half deal.

Asian Sesame with Chicken Salad

TOTAL (1/2 salad): 210 cals, 11 g fat, 1.5 g sat fat, 270 mg sodium, 13 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 16 g protein

Seasonal Greens Salad

TOTAL (1/2 salad): 90 cals, 6 g fat, 1 g sat fat, 75 mg sodium, 10 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 2 g protein

These dressings are your best choice (serving size is a half portion, or 1 1/2 tablespoons).

Asian Sesame Vinaigrette (45 cals, 4 g fat, 0.5 g sat fat, 100 mg sodium, 2 g carbs)

Chili Lime Rojo Ranch (40 cals, 3 g fat, 0.5 g sat fat, 1 g carbs, 60 mg sodium)

Green Goddess (60 cals, 5 g fat, 1 g sat fat, 70 mg sodium, 1 g carbs)

Thai Chili Vinaigrette (25 cals, 1 g fat, 0 g sat fat, 95 mg sodium, 5 g carbs)

What to Order at Wendy's:

Wendy's Grilled Chicken Wrap

Photo: Wendy's

Grilled Chicken Wrap
With hearty grilled chicken strips, Cheddar cheese, lettuce and smoky honey mustard sauce on a flour tortilla, this sandwich is similar to the classic Grilled Chicken Sandwich, except that the flour tortilla is lower in carbs than a bun—even with the addition of smoky honey mustard sauce. For a nutritious side and a fiber boost, get the vitamin-C-packed Apple Bites. If you simply can't resist fries or a Frosty, order the Junior size, which is the smallest portion available.

TOTAL: 300 cals, 13 g fat, 4 g sat fat, 720 mg sodium, 26 g carbs, 2 g fiber

Jr. Cheeseburger

TOTAL: 280 cals, 13 g fat, 6 g sat fat, 26 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 16 g protein

What to Order at Subway:

Rotisserie Chicken Sandwich Subway

Photo: Subway

Eating at Subway? Look to the "Fresh Fit" menu, with eight sandwiches that each provide 24 grams of whole grains and two servings of vegetables for less than 400 calories. While Subway offers numerous bread choices, the 9-Grain Wheat and Multigrain Flatbread have the lowest sodium, highest fiber and most whole grains.

6-Inch Rotisserie-Style Chicken on 9-Grain Wheat
Our top pick for a sandwich is the 6-inch Rotisserie Chicken on 9-Grain Wheat with the standard vegetables (tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, red onion, cucumbers and green peppers). The hearty rotisserie chicken feels more substantial than deli meat, yet it's only 310 calories, Make it more filling by asking for double veggies, and steer clear of the pickles, jalapeños, banana peppers and especially sauerkraut, all of which will add 100-200 mg of sodium to your sandwich. The condiments with the lowest sugar content include tangy red-wine vinegar or lite mayo.

TOTAL: 310 cals, 6 g fat, 2.5 g sat fat, 560 mg sodium, 40 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 20 g protein

Choose healthier toppings:
For a sweet-tasting sauce that won't send blood sugars skyrocketing, try the Fat-Free Honey Mustard Sauce (30 cals, 120 mg sodium, 7 grams carbs, 6 grams sugars; availability varies by location). Instead of cheese, add avocado for good-for-you-fat that promotes nutrient absorption. Apple slices are a great alternative to salty potato chips, but if you're craving that crunch, pick the Baked Lay's.

Menu items and nutrition facts are up-to-date as of May 31, 2019. Check online and in-store menus for current availability and nutrition.