More and more of our lives are lived on the road, whether running between errands or work meetings, dropping the kids off at school or daycare, or grabbing a meal out after finishing a late-night workout at the gym, eating fast food seems to be an inevitable part of modern-day life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that on any given day, nearly 37% of Americans eat fast food. Unfortunately, for people living with diabetes, fast food can sometimes be a nightmare filled with unhealthy meals, excess sugar, and carbohydrates, resulting in high blood sugars and feeling generally crummy afterward.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to make fast food healthier, especially if you live with diabetes.

This article will outline the top tips for ordering diabetes-friendly fast food when on-the-go.

Diabetes-friendly salad from fast food restaurant

Can you eat fast food with diabetes?

When you’re constantly on the run and pressed for time, sometimes it’s all that’s available, and sometimes you want a special treat. There is indeed room for fast food in a healthy diet for someone with diabetes.

Make sure to always check your blood sugar before you eat and at least two hours after you eat, to make sure any fast food you’re having is not wreaking havoc on your blood sugars. Since most fast food is higher in fat and carbohydrates, you may require extra insulin, so be diligent to dose appropriately.

Ways to order healthier fast food

Check the nutrition information before you go or while you are at the fast-food restaurant. Most chain restaurants have nutritional information available if you ask.

It is also important to make sure you plan your order ahead of time when you can, before even getting to the restaurant. You’ll be better prepared and will also know how to bolus appropriately for the meal.

Here are some of the other best recommendations to make sure that you’re ordering the healthiest option possible that won’t ruin your blood sugars if and when you choose to indulge in some fast food.

Always choose water

You may be indulging in a burger and fries, but the real carbohydrate bomb is drinking soda with any fast food meal. A 16-ounce soda has nearly 48 grams of sugar! It is easier for your blood sugars and your waistline if you always opt for water with any fast food meal.

If you don’t like the taste of water, choose seltzer water with a squeeze of lime, or a diet soda will always work in a pinch.

Hint: you can actually use your glucometer to test your drink to make sure it’s in fact diet. If it’s not, the reading will be extremely high! Make sure to always check before drinking.

Focus on protein

Fast food meals that include lots of bread, french fries, or sweets will inevitably raise your blood sugar a lot, but if you decide to focus on protein sources, such as a grilled chicken sandwich, caesar salad, or turkey wrap, your meal will be much healthier and have fewer carbohydrates.

You can even ask if the restaurant can put your sandwich meat on a bed of spinach, or if they have lettuce wraps instead of a sandwich bun. Sometimes this is called ordering your sandwich “naked”.

You can also see if the restaurant offers any whole-grain slices of bread instead of white flour bread. This has more fiber and will spike your blood sugar more gradually.

Instead of having an all-or-nothing mentality, focus on getting a lot of protein with your meal, and you’ll have easier post-prandial blood sugars as a result.

Some popular choices that contain a lot of protein include:

  • McDonald’s: Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad
  • Starbucks: Chicken, Quinoa, and Protein Bowl with Black Beans and Greens
  • Burger King: Veggie Burger
  • Taco Bell: Chicken Soft Taco with a side of Pintos n Cheese
  • Wendys: Large or Small Chili and a Garden Side Salad without croutons
  • Chick-fil-A: Grilled Nuggets with Zesty Buffalo Sauce plus a Small Superfood Salad
  • Panera Bread: Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl with Egg

When possible, order your protein source baked, roasted, or grilled, and not fried, battered, or breaded to avoid unhealthy fats and extra carbohydrates.

Order off the kids’ menu

Do we think fast food is childish? No way. Do we know that portion sizes at American fast food establishments are usually out of control? Yes. In 1955, when McDonald’s first opened, their serving sizes were much smaller than what they are today. Here are a few examples:

  • Hamburger. Starting size in 1955: 3.7 oz. Current Size: 9.2 oz.
  • French Fries. Starting size in 1955: 2.4 oz. Current Size: 5.9 oz.
  • Soda. Starting size in 1955: 7 fl oz. Current Size: 30 fl oz.

Ordering off of the kids’ menu will let you seamlessly control your portion sizes without even thinking. Many of the kids’ meals at fast-food establishments are naturally smaller, but will still leave you feeling full.

For example, a double McDonald’s cheeseburger with a medium fry comes in at 757 calories, whereas a full kids’ meal, which includes a hamburger, side of fries, apple slices, yogurt or salad, and a drink is only about 400 calories per meal.

Kids’ meals have fewer carbohydrates too, making insulin dosing at mealtime a lot easier.

Order all dressings and condiments on the side

Zesty salad dressings, creamy mayonnaise, and tangy ketchup can make anything taste better, and do you want to know why? Because most dressings and condiments are full of fat and sugar, which is what our bodies crave.

When ordering a sandwich, wrap, salad, or even fries, ask for all dressings and condiments to be put on the side, so you can better portion out a smaller serving. Better yet, opt for healthier versions of condiments, such as mustards, salsas, or hot sauces that are lower in carbohydrates and calories but big in taste.

Cutting down on the number of creamy sauces and sugary dressings you add to your fast food meals will also lessen its caloric and carbohydrate load, making it better for both your diabetes control and overall health.

Opt for plant-based

If you can, fill your plate with as many fruits and vegetables as possible. The high water and fiber content of these foods will make you fuller faster without all of the calories and carbohydrates. Some great examples of plant-based options are:

  • Taco Bell: Taco salad with lettuce, tomato, light cheese, pinto or black beans, avocado, and olives, with no sour cream or chips, and with salsa or pico de gallo instead of creamy dressing
  • Pizza Hut: Thin crust veggie pizza with extra tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, and any other vegetable toppings
  • Subway: Veggie Delite Salad with cheese, vegetables, guacamole, and Subway vinaigrette

If you can order alternative sides, ask if the restaurant has any steamed or raw vegetables or even a side salad instead of french fries that you can enjoy.

Finally, instead of ordering a milkshake or ice-cream sundae for dessert, opt for natural sweetness with a fruit cup, sliced apples, or a banana.

While going out for fast-food can be a diabetes mealtime nightmare, it doesn’t have to be! Try out these concrete ways to make your next fast-food meal healthier for both your diabetes management and overall health!