Fast food and Diabetes: Tips and Options for Eating Out

To manage diabetes effectively, people need to follow a healthful diet. Fast food has a bad reputation for being unhealthy and highly processed.

Like junk food, fast food should be avoided most of the time. However, with a bit of know-how, people with diabetes can eat fast food in moderation without putting their health and wellness at risk.

Tips for eating fast food out and about

It is important for people with diabetes to approach fast food options with some caution, and when possible, be prepared for what might be on offer.

Before going to a favorite fast food restaurant, people with diabetes should consider some of these tips:

[young woman on her laptop in the kitchen ]
Menus and calorie counts can often be found online, which can help people with diabetes make sure there is a meal option for them.
  • Do not go when overly hungry. Starting any meal on an empty stomach can cause even those with the best intentions to overeat and make less healthy choices. When possible, people with diabetes should plan to eat a fast food meal after having a healthful snack, such as an apple, to avoid overeating.
  • Know before going. Due to popular demand, many fast food restaurants have calorie counts on their menus and nutrition information on their websites. In other cases, independent websites might offer reviews and food facts. No matter the source, it is a good idea for people to look at the menu options and have a meal planned out ahead of the trip, whenever possible, to limit impulse orders.
  • Drink water, not soda. People with diabetes should avoid soda due to the high sugar content and the risk of causing a spike in blood sugar levels. Swapping soda for water can help avoid unnecessary calories and blood sugar spikes, and help reduce the feeling of hunger.
  • Eat slowly. It takes the brain at least 15 minutes to register that the stomach is satisfied. Eating slowly helps the brain catch up with what the stomach is feeling. This technique can help a person avoid too large a meal.
  • Limit the number of visits. Most health and wellness professionals recommend limiting the number of times anyone, including people with diabetes, eats fast food. It is best to keep visits rare, no more than once to twice a month, for best health.
  • Keep it small. When the counter clerk asks about upping the order size, it is generally a good idea to say “no.” There will still be plenty of calories in the smaller meal, but the smaller portion is at least less than what the super-size or large size has to offer.
  • Beware of the value meal options. A fast food venue is not going to push a person to buy a single burger because it is far more cost-effective to bundle and sell a more expensive option. It is better to eat the sandwich with a side salad and bottle of water instead of a pre-packaged burger, fries, and fountain drink meal.
  • Watch the salads. Salads can be worse than the value meal, so people should use caution when ordering. People should avoid salads that contain deep-fried taco shells, fried chicken, fatty dressings, cheese, and croutons that can add calories and affect blood sugar levels. Instead, people should look for salads with light dressings, grilled chicken, limited or no cheese, and no croutons.
  • Fried is bad. It is best to avoid deep-fried foods, such as chicken strips, fries, and taco shells.
  • Swap the sides. When available, people should choose side salads, fruits, vegetables, or other sides that are more healthful than fries.

Tips on what to order

Fast food has branched out considerably from some of the original burger, fries, and milkshake options of years ago. Now, it is possible to find fast food from many different cultural backgrounds. This can make it harder for people with diabetes to know what is and is not a good choice for them.

The following are some popular fast food types and some general suggestions of what to look for in each.

[meatballs with basil in a wooden bowl]
Meatballs without the pasta will help people keep within their carbohydrate goals.

Italian

Fast food pizza places often offer a small variety of Italian dishes.

When Italian is the option available, people with diabetes should steer clear of deep-dish pizza and pasta, with its high carbohydrate count.

Instead, choices such as meatballs, salads, and grilled chicken offer better options for people with diabetes to choose from.

Chinese

When ordering Chinese, the healthiest choices are often the steamed ones.

People should choose steamed broccoli and chicken with sauce on the side over brown rice, instead of chicken over white rice.

Most Chinese noodle dishes, such as lo mein, should also be avoided due to their high carb count.

American

Brothy vegetable or bean soups, salads with grilled fish, tofu or chicken, lettuce wrapped burgers, and sides of steamed or roasted vegetables will beat a typical fast food cheeseburger, fries, and soda meal any day.

Mexican

[grilled chicken salad with radishes and avocado]
Salad with grilled chicken and healthful fats such as avocado is a good replacement for Mexican dishes high in carbohydrates.

Mexican fast food venues typically offer tacos, burritos, and tortilla chips. Similar to many of the burger fast food spots, they have started to offer salads and other seemingly healthful options.

A grilled chicken salad with beans, avocado and salsa as dressing and served without a deep-fried shell is a good option.

Grilled chicken tacos on soft corn tortillas with limited or no cheese, avocado and grilled vegetables can typically still be ordered while staying within carbohydrate meal goals.

Beware of fried taco shells that are low fiber, yet high fat and high calorie.

Questions to ask staff

When in doubt, people with diabetes should not be afraid to ask the staff questions about their dietary needs.

Here are some questions that may help people with diabetes to make healthful choices when eating out:

  • Are there any lighter calorie options available?
  • Are there special menu items for people on restricted diets?
  • Can I see the nutritional information?
  • Are there substitutions that are more healthful, such as veggie sticks over fries?
  • Can I order a burger without a bun (as I want to avoid simple carbohydrates)?

Summary

Fast foods are not the best option for people with diabetes, as they offer a number of foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. Even healthier options are often still highly processed. People should check their blood sugar 2 hours after a fast food meal to see how it has affected them. This can help guide food choices in the future.

Although they should be avoided except on rare occasion, it is still possible to visit a fast food restaurant and order options that will have minimal impact on overall diet and health.

When eaten in moderation and with some planning, fast food can be a tasty treat or make do as a quick meal if needed.