I know from experience that learning you have diabetes can be scary, but with planning, a little restraint, and some careful tweaking of your menu choices, you can continue to enjoy eating your favorite foods, even in fast food restaurants.
Life is for living, not just surviving. If you’re like me, food and drink bring joy to your existence. Now to work out how to indulge yourself without overindulging, make diabetic-friendly choices with fast food options.
Fast food is a big part of my life. I am a busy mom and grandma running a hectic household and my own business. I spend a lot of time ferrying kids, and sometimes a drive-thru can save the day and my sanity.
However, choosing food wisely is vital for diabetics, so know what’s in your takeout bag before eating it.
Did you know a sweet and sour dip pot from McDonald’s contains 11g Carbs/10g sugar? And fans of fast food breakfasts should think about swapping those Popeye’s grits (80 grams of carbohydrate per serving) for a sausage and gravy biscuit, which has almost half the carbs.
I am living proof that you can manage diabetes AND enjoy fast food- you just need to make educated choices and not be lured by supersize deals which might look good value but will play havoc with your blood glucose (BG).
So, here are my top tips for fast food-loving diabetics.
Ask Your Doctor for Advice.
Most doctors would say to avoid fast food completely. What you need to find out is how many calories and grams of carbohydrates you should aim for per meal. I say per meal rather than per day because it can depend on your medication regime. My specialist advised me to eat most of my carb allowance with breakfast and dinner.
Once you know what to aim for, you can work out how to choose healthy fast food.
Calories vs. Carbs
Interestingly, a high or low-calorie count does not always equate to a high or low carb/sugar count. Take Wendy’s salads, for instance. I was drawn to the apple, cranberry, and chicken salad listed at 421 calories – the lowest available on the salad menu. A quick check of the carb/sugar content shows it contains 38 grams of carbohydrate/34 grams of sugar, probably because of the fruit. Meanwhile, the highest calorie salad, the avocado veggie salad, comes in at 600 cals, according to the nutrition guide, but contains only 7.5 grams of carb/5.2 grams of sugar.
Variations in serving size, ingredients, preparation techniques, supply sources, and regional and seasonal differences can impact the nutritional value of items but shouldn’t make a huge difference.
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Check the Nutritional Information
Whether you are concerned about carbs, sugar, or both (the two are often interlinked), you need to find the menu’s nutritional information to help you choose the most diabetic-friendly food.
The US Food and Drink Administration (FDA) states that legally businesses must provide, upon request, the following written nutrition information for standard menu items: total calories; total fat; saturated fat; trans-fat; cholesterol; sodium; total carbohydrates; sugars; fiber; and protein.
National and global brands, including McDonald's, Popeyes, Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Starbucks, and Dominoes, all have their nutrition information available online for you to check before staring at the menu.
But do local independents or smaller chains offer the same information? I did a trial search of some of the fast-food joints in Seattle and found some had the link to their nutrition information in FAQs, some in teeny tiny print, which took some searching for, and some at the very bottom of the page. One had no information but did have a note on the website stating they were working towards getting it online ASAP.
If you can’t find the information online, contact the brand via social media or pop into your local branch. Remember, nutritional info can change, so it’s worth checking your faves regularly, especially when menus change or when seasonal specials are launched.
Keep Portions Small
Choosing smaller portions of fast food can help keep BG in the ideal range. Swapping milk in drinks out for non-dairy alternatives, ordering the smallest size available, and asking for sugar-free syrups, will help make your beverage order more diabetic-friendly.
Sharing meals can help keep blood sugar on track – I sometimes order a KFC meal deal, which is cost-effective, but I donate the fries to my always-hungry teenager. Of course, you can go large on water, diet sodas, and black coffee if you like.
Which Fast Food Restaurant is Best for Diabetics?
In conclusion, with a little effort, most people can find something they enjoy eating without sending sugars sky-high on pretty much any fast-food menu.
As a rule, avoid or limit refined carbs like white bread, rice and pasta, and noodles. Most places will let you order your burger bunless. You could carry a reusable knife and fork to make eating it easier! Watch out for add-ons (like those dip pots) which can ramp up sugar content more than you might expect.
Opt for grilled chicken rather than battered or breaded. Choose salads, ramen or pho, tandoori meats with veggie side dishes, or stir-fried meat and veg without sugary sauces. Choose a vegetable or salad side rather than fries or onion rings but beware of salad dressings and sides like coleslaw which can contain more sugar or carbs than your main course. If you can’t resist coated chicken, keep portions small – two pieces, not a bucket full! When the need for fries is overwhelming, buy a small serving or share a portion with friends or family.
The key to fast food for diabetics is to know what’s in your meal before it’s on a tray in front of you. If you're looking for a diabetes diet plan, there's an option for you.