A few weekends ago, on the drive back from my long weekend camping trip (a cold one at that!), I was presented with a familiar situation: hungry as all hell, but still hours away from home or a decent place to eat. Along the highway we were seeing McDonalds, Tim Hortons, Wendy’s… not very fitting for paleo oriented food tastes. I’m guessing that I’m not the only one confronted with this when on the road. Now, being able to skip meals is a great benefit of intermittent fasting, but there comes a time when you just have to pull a munch.
We ended up stopping for a coffee and gas, and I noticed a KFC in the plaza corner. Heck, why not stop in and see what they had to offer? After all, I hadn’t been in ages, and they eliminated trans fats so it must be safe to eat now (sarcasm). More on what ensued below.
Inspired by this moment, I decided to write a bit of a roundup on some potential choices available at the major fast food chains that litter the highways pretty much everywhere. Given that menu choices can vary significantly from country to country, I should be clear that this applies only to Canada. I’m sure things would play out similarly if I were to use info from other countries, and up here were quite used to being lumped in with Americans for everything imaginable, but for now I guess this one goes out to Canadian readers! The four chains looked at are perceived to be the most successful ones in the country. Of course others such as Burger King, Taco Bell, etc. deserve honorable mention. (I doubt they offer much different and besides, they just aren’t as common.)
It’s funny that the most reviews/guides about making healthier choices at fast food restaurants compare mostly the fat content of each selection, calories at best, but not carbohydrates. A plain cheese pizza slice at half the fat of a meat lovers is a much better choice right (sarcasm again)? Clearly theres a need for a real look at what might be not so brutal menu items.
There are some other considerations you might want to make depending on your situation. Cost was left out. And I haven’t considered nutritional details such as sodium content (you can bet its high in all of them so why bother?). Or maybe you are trying to really limit calories (weight loss) or maximize calories (mass gain) and in that case your choices might differ from mine.
I was so hungry that I considered just going for a big cheat (bucket of fried chicken?). But they did have a few salad options, other than their trademark triad of “traditional salads”. Their grilled chicken caesar salad looked simple enough. A bed of romaine lettuce with unbreaded grilled chicken strips on top. Croutons and dressing on the side. Its always a good idea to be weary of salad dressings and the huge dose of vegetable oils (omega 6s like crazy) they usually pack. Can’t express how pleased I was to see their caesar dressing ingredients (going from memory here):
Of course I’d prefer olive oil to canola, but I don’t think canola is something to be too afraid of the odd time, having a decent o-3 to o-6 ratio compared to other vegetable oils. Although Scott points out some of the reasons to stay away from it in his recent Ten Oils and How to Use Them post.
Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad: Pro: 40g Fat: 11g Carbs: 7g
On to the most successful fast food chain in the world: McDonald’s. Right off the bat I have to give the Canadian website credit for having a great food calculator that gives detailed ingredient lists with a nutrient breakdown for each item.
The two salad choices here are between a caesar and garden. Unfortunately both use iceberg lettuce as the base and with some romaine, a bit of a letdown. The difference between the two is the caesar has parmesan cheese and bacon, as well as croutons. Given the plethora of additives in these extra items, as well as the tomato and red onion on the garden salad, tips the scale in its favor.
The 10g carbs likely comes partially from the veggies but also from the mega additives in the chicken!
Then there is the ranch versus caesar dressing. I’d choose the caesar, although it has more ingredients (more additives), because it has less carbs (4g vs 9g), a bit of olive oil, and “anchovy extract” in there. Also has 0.1 g more trans fats than the ranch, but heck, choose your poison.
NEWMAN’S OWN® Caesar Dressing: Pro: 2g Fat: 18g Carbs: 4g
I had to include Timmys in here. By far the most common road pit stop in the country. But is there anything on their menu that won’t add a notch to your diabetes belt?
New “yogurt with berries”? Don’t get excited, they’re “low fat” and have about 30g carbs per serving! I’m not even going near their new breakfast sandwiches. What’s left, aside from their baked goods, is their soups and chili. I went through each of their soups and no surprises here- they are all low fat, low protein, high carb. Might fit right in with the government food pyramid, but not fit for a real meal. Last chance is the chili.
Tim Hortons Chili: kCal: 300 Protein: 26g Fat: 19g Carbs: 17 g
So you can see you at least get a moderate protein serving, and there is slightly more fat than carbs. And the carbs are at least from a more complex source (likely the beans and tomato paste). Again, the detailed ingredients are not provided so they lose points there. Plus, it comes with a useless bun that you have to feel guilty about not eating. But I don’t think its much of a contender anyway.
Having navigated a few fast food menus already and knowing what to expect, I’ll skip right to their chicken salad options. They have five salads with chicken options. Three have either corn kernels, noodles, or taco chips in them. Remaining is the Chicken Caesar and the Chicken BLT. I would go with the BLT version because, on top of the Caesar ingredients (romaine, grape tomatoes, cheese), it has a spring greens mix, cucumber, and bacon which accounts for nearly 10 more grams protein. It breaks down like this: Chicken BLT Salad: Pro: 34g Fat: 18g Carbs:10g (assuming we leave out the croutons)
Pretty consistent with our other results. Now if you avoid the Honey Mustard Dressing that comes with the salad and ask for the Creamy Ranch instead, you can get less than half the carbs:
Verdict: Coupled with the fact that they don’t provide ingredient lists, and their macronutrient ratios are inferior to the other options, I don’t think Wendys has an edge over the competition.
And the Winner is…
KFC’s Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad with Mighty Caesar Dressing
KFC takes it for a few reasons: - most protein, lowest carbs out of the four options - uses romaine lettuce - dressing has some pretty good ingredients (relative) - lots of fat available in the dressing if you need calories, use less if desired - the chicken is probably no better than at McDonald’s, but thats just the best you’re going to do at a fast food joint
There you have it, a look at some of the lesser fast food evils, and an option that I wouldn’t feel too guilty about stopping for in the absence of a better destination.