Best Fast Food for Diabetes

Healthy Food Choices on the Go

Family taking a break from hiking, Glacier Express Restaurant, Upper Tram Terminal, Alyeska Resort, Mt. Alyeska, Girdwood, Alaska, USA
 Hagephoto/Getty Images

Managing diabetes means managing multiple meals and snacks throughout the day, ideally by planning ahead and eating as much homemade food as possible in order to control calories, carbs, and sugar. This can be a challenge if you have diabetes, given you must eat regularly in order to keep blood sugar levels under control: Real life simply doesn't allow for every meal and snack to be made from scratch at home.

This means that sometimes, fast food is the only option, but it's not necessarily a bad option despite having the reputation of being heavy on the carbs, saturated fat, and added sugar. If you do your homework and choose wisely, you easily can include these convenient offerings in your overall diabetes eating plan.

Basic Diabetes-diet Guidelines

Unless you've been newly diagnosed with diabetes, chances are you're already incorporating these standard rules for managing what you eat throughout the day in order to control your blood sugar levels and, if you need to, lose weight. If not, they'll help you make smart fast-food choices; if so, they're always worth reviewing.

  • Fill up on fresh, non-starchy vegetables. They're packed with nutrients, are low in fat and calories, and have a low glycemic index—and fresh veggies may not be as hard to find on a fast-food menu as you'd think.
  • Be mindful of portions—especially at fast-food restaurants that encourage super-sizing everything. One way to do this is to use the Plate Method: Divide your plate into three sections, devoting half to non-starchy veggies, a fourth to three-to-four ounces of lean protein, and a quarter to a high-fiber grain or legume (a portion that's around the size of your fist).
  • Maintain carb consistency. This means trying to eat the same amount of carbohydrates at each type of meal from day to day—for example, 45 grams (g) of carb at breakfast and lunch, 15 g for snacks, and 60 g at dinner.
  • Know what to steer clear of altogether. Some foods simply aren't compliant with a diabetes diet: refined, processed carbs (white bread, pasta, sweet or savory baked goods); sugar-sweetened beverages (including fruit juice unless your glucose is low); candy; and other sweets.
  • Be picky about fruit. Fruit does contain natural sugar, but fresh, whole fruits such as berries aren't off-limits as long as you limit servings to two to three per day and are aware of which fruits to avoid, including dried fruits.
  • Know what to order before you hit the drive-through. You can find detailed nutrition information for all items offered at a fast-food restaurant on its website. There also are apps for both Android and iOS devices that list nutritional values of fast food items for specific restaurants.

Fast Foods to Choose

Whether you have a hankering for Tex-Mex take-out, a yen for sushi, are craving a burger, or have no choice but to grab something from the nearest convenience store at snack time, having a sense of the best and worst options can help you stick to your diabetes diet plan, keep your blood sugar levels from zigzagging, and contribute to an overall healthy diet.

Hamburger Restaurants

Supersize burgers, fries, and milkshakes are the mainstays of popular spots like Wendy's, MacDonald's, and Burger King. None are ideal choices if you have diabetes but most fast-food restaurants now also offer items that are healthier and will fit in nicely with a diabetes eating plan.

Order this...

  • Regular or junior-sized burger or grilled chicken sandwich on whole-grain bun (if available)

  • Burger/sandwich add-ons such as vegetables (lettuce, tomato, onion) and condiments including mustard, salsa, hot sauce, ketchup (be aware of added sugar)

  • Side salad (light dressing, no croutons)

  • Diet soda, lightly-sweetened lemonade, unsweetened iced tea, water

  • Main dish salad (greens and other fresh veggies, nuts, beans, grilled chicken, light no-sugar-added dressing)

  • Oatmeal with fruit

  • Yogurt parfait with fruit


Skip this...

  • Large or multi-patty burger or crispy chicken sandwich on white bun

  • Cheese, bacon, mayo, special sauces

  • French fries or other fried-potato side

  • Milkshake or other frozen dairy beverage or dessert

  • Salad mix-ins such as fried tortilla strips, croutons, cheese, and heavy dressing containing added sugar

  • Macaroni, potato, or other salads with mayo or dressing

  • Egg sandwiches on English muffin, biscuit, or other type of bread

Sandwich Restaurants

One plus with restaurants like Subway and Quiznos is they allow you to build your own sandwich, making it easy to select ingredients that are diabetes-friendly and to your liking.

Order this...

  • 6-inch grilled chicken, turkey breast, or lean cold cut sub

  • Sandwich add-ons: Lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, guacamole

  • Apple or fresh fruit

  • Diet soda, unsweetened tea, low-sugar lemonade, water

Skip this...

  • Subs featuring cheesesteak, meatballs, other high-fat protein

  • Mayonnaise, ranch dressing, and rich, potentially sugary sauces

  • Chips and other fried snacks

  • Regular soda, sweet iced tea, sweetened fruit drinks

  • Cookies

Fried Chicken Restaurants

In general, poultry is a smart choice while following a diabetes-friendly diet—except when it's breaded or dipped in flour and then fried. This adds not just carbs but saturated fat and calories as well to the offerings at restaurants like KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) and Popeyes.

Order this...

  • Skinless grilled chicken

  • Green beans

  • Cole slaw

Skip this...

  • Fried chicken

  • Mashed potatoes, mac and cheese

  • Biscuits

Chinese Restaurants

White rice is a staple of Asian cuisines, but it's a rich source of carbs. When driving through an establishment such as Panda Express, focus on vegetables and non-breaded proteins.

Order this..

  • Stir-fries featuring lean, unbreaded protein and vegetables

  • Steamed broccoli

  • Brown rice (small portion)

Skip this...

  • Deep-fried meats

  • Egg rolls, fried wontons, dumplings

  • White rice

  • Noodles

Mexican Restaurants

Tex-Mex fast food has a reputation for relying on a formula of filling deep-fried tortillas with cheesy, greasy ingredients. In fact, the two most popular restaurants in this category, Taco Bell and Chipotle, offer plenty of diabetes-friendly alternatives. One option: Bowls containing ingredients that would otherwise be folded into a tortilla.

Order this...

  • Corn or whole-grain tortillas

  • Grilled beef, pork, chicken, or fish

  • Cooked whole beans

  • Brown rice

  • Guacamole/avocado

  • Lettuce, tomato, fresh salsa or pico de gallo


Skip this...

  • Deep-fried taco shells or double taco shells

  • Fried meat, poultry, or fish fillings

  • Refried beans

  • White rice

  • Cheese or cheesy sauces

Coffee and Doughnut Shops

Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and any of the array of knock-off shops serve up an array of items that don't sync up with eating (or drinking) well with diabetes—from sugary coffee drinks to carb-laden pastries. But most stock options that are safe.

Order this...

  • Regular or decaf coffee, hot or iced, unsweetened or flavored with spices or low-sugar syrup

  • Breakfast sandwich using a whole-wheat wrap

  • Sous vide egg bites

  • "Protein" boxes


Skip this...

  • Coffee and tea drinks made with sugar or flavored syrup

  • Bagels

  • Breakfast sandwiches with biscuits, English muffins, or other bread

  • Doughnuts and other pastries

Panera

This popular lunch and breakfast spot is unique in the breadth of its breakfast and lunch menus, not to mention its bakery items that are generally off-limits. But Panera offers plenty of diabetes-appropriate options.

Eat This...

  • Mediterranean egg white wrap


  • Ten vegetable soup, chicken noodle soup

  • Seasonal greens salad

  • Mediterranean veggie sandwich (half; remove top slice of bread to reduce carbs further)

  • Lentil quinoa broth bowl

Don't Eat This...

  • Spinach and bacon egg souffle

  • New England clam chowder, broccoli cheddar soup

  • Toasted Tuscan grilled chicken sandwich

  • Soba noodle broth bowls

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