Despite its considerable efforts, people still don’t look to McDonald’s when they want a healthy meal. Its reputation on wellness is mixed, though what people might not know about the international fast food chain is that they’ve made many changes to their menu with nutrition in mind.
Once you look past the obviously unhealthy items like the sugar-spiked milkshakes and burgers piled high with bacon, there are actually plenty of opportunities to make a lighter choice at McDonald’s. We know you’re probably going into your McDonald’s visit with some type of food that you’d like to order in mind. If you’re craving a burger, for instance, you might not be pleased when we tell you to order the salad. And it’s not really fair to compare a vegetable-heavy salad bowl with a bacon-heavy breakfast sandwich anyhow. So we looked into each category of the menu and picked the healthiest options from each.
What makes an item healthy? Well, that’s up for debate. But generally we imagine that, when visiting a fast food joint, you’re looking to limit calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars and maximize the nutrition in the food you’re eating.
McDonald’s lists all of this information online; we consulted their American menu for all nutritional data, so this might vary if you’re looking to eat at McDonald’s around the world. You can look for yourself here or consult our list of the healthiest items on the menu.
If you’re looking for a lighter breakfast, this is it. The Egg White Delight McMuffin is made using extra-lean Canadian bacon and egg whites to shave off some saturated fat, though it’s still served on a classic English muffin with cheese. The whole sandwich is 280 calories and contains 18 grams of protein. The only thing to be wary of with this item is sodium — it contains nearly 30 percent of your daily recommended allowance.
McDonald’s serves certain breakfast items for longer than you think, meaning this better-for-you menu option remains on the menu well into the afternoon and evening. The sausage burrito contains scrambled eggs, sausage, melted cheese, green onions, and a soft tortilla. In total, this menu item contains 300 calories, 16 grams of fat, 12 grams of protein, and 780 milligrams of sodium.
If you must have a cheeseburger, you might want to keep it simple. Unlike McDonald’s more elaborate (and calorically costly) burgers, the standard cheeseburger keeps it light on the toppings, leaving you with just 300 calories and 12 grams of fat. Of course, we’re not going to say that eating a cheeseburger of any kind from McDonald’s is equivalent to eating 300 calories of a home-cooked, nutritious meal. But there’s nothing so abhorrent about eating a cheeseburger for dinner every now and then.
To omit more fat from your fast food, you can always omit the cheese. While cheese could actually add some nutrition to your fast food meal, that all depends on the type of cheese you’re adding. McDonald’s uses a processed slice of American cheese — not the most nutritious option in the world. Also not the tastiest cheese to use on a cheeseburger. A plain hamburger from McDonald’s has 250 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 480 milligrams of sodium. Just make sure you go easy on the condiments — overdoing it could put your blood pressure at risk from all the added sodium.
These classic chicken tenders are tasty enough to have started fistfights — surprisingly, they might be a relatively healthy option, too. There’s some skepticism over what these nuggets are actually made of. But much of this is just sneaking suspicion — they’re made of chicken. And a few other additives, of course. The (only slightly) processed Chicken McNuggets have 180 calories in a 4-piece serving with 11 grams of fat and 340 milligrams of sodium.
It’s a restaurant recommendation as old as time: Keep it healthy! Order the grilled chicken! Now, not every grilled chicken dish McDonald’s offers is as light as this one, but ordering your chicken grilled instead of fried is a surefire way to keep the fat content down without skimping on protein. The Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich does without the fatty, heavy toppings of some other sandwiches, leaving you with 380 calories and only 7 grams of fat. Watch out for the sodium, however. This sandwich has nearly 50 percent of your recommended daily limit — and that’s before you consider your side of salty fries.
So you’re opting for a salad. Chances are, you want to avoid dense, creamy dressings and fried, crispy toppings and focus on the more fibrous facets of a salad. Your best bet is probably the Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad. It’s topped with grilled chicken, corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers, shredded cheese, and lime for an extra kick of zesty flavor. This salad has 350 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 37 grams of protein. These numbers are tallied without the additional pour of dressing, so keep that in mind.
When you get a Happy Meal or a Value Meal from McDonald’s, it comes with your choice of a side. This might come as a shock to you, but ordering their French fries isn’t the choice that will earn you the least calories. Especially if you’re ordering something like a burger or chicken nuggets, the side salad will do the most to contribute to a nutritionally balanced meal. It’s made with a blend of lettuces, shredded carrots, grape tomatoes, and your choice of dressing. McDonald’s carries Newman’s Own brand — to figure out the best choice, consult our guide to the healthiest and unhealthiest salad dressings.
Sorry, McFlurry lovers — those creamy confections can have upwards of 630 calories each and more sugar than eight glazed donuts. If you’re craving something sweet on the side of your meal, the Oatmeal Raisin Cookie is the least sugary and calorie-dense option. One cookie has 140 calories and 12 grams of sugar. However, if you’re eating dessert, it might be healthiest to order something you’ll really enjoy. If you want the McFlurry, get the McFlurry! They say they’re great when dipped with French fries or sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies. Just listen to your cravings and notice if your body’s giving you signs you’re eating too much.
Visiting McDonald’s for a caffeine kick? Avoid the machiattos and frappés if you’re looking to get an energy boost. While these drinks will certainly give you a short-term sugar high, over the long term you might experience a crash. You could always go for plain coffee — it’s got lots of health benefits and can give you the boost you need, and McDonald’s regular drip coffee is famously surprisingly tasty. But let’s say you hate drinking your coffee black (which could actually mean you’re not a psychopath). Add some milk or sweetener to your coffee— no need to resort to Splenda. There are some really healthy sweeteners that still make your coffee taste great!
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