A heart-healthy diet features whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean protein—an ingredient list that doesn’t read exactly like the contents of a typical fast-food menu. That doesn’t mean you’re out of luck finding heart-healthy options at popular chains, though. In fact, many fast food companies are beginning to recognize the fact that most Americans would like to eat better and that many of them should focus specifically on heart health. (Heck, almost half of us—47 percent—have hypertension, whether we know it or not.)
If you’re tired of staring at the drive-thru menu scratching your head over what to choose, never fear. We’ve rounded up six fast food orders that nutritionists say are actually good for your heart.
“I like Blaze Pizza where you can go down the line and make your own pizza,” says Julie Chudak, RDN, CPT, CLT, of Lifetime Nutrition and Fitness. “There’s no limit to vegetarian toppings (and there are 14 to choose from), and every month there’s a seasonal vegetable option.” When making your pie, consider leafy greens like fresh spinach, which are high in potassium and nitrates. Potassium helps counteract the effects of sodium, while nitrates can help regulate blood pressure.
If you’re not a fan of vegetables on pizza, you can always enjoy them in a salad! “There’s also their ‘Take Two’ option, where you can do a half order of pizza and salad,” Chudak says. Just get the dressing on the side, as some of Blaze’s dressings are high in sugar and saturated fat.
Chipotle may be known for burritos as big as your head, but the Mexican chain offers some less gut-wrenching options. “Lifestyle Bowls, primarily keto, Whole30 and Paleo options, are a great choice for those who want to dine out but make heart-healthy choices,” says Sharon Puello, MA, RD, CDN, CDCES, of FRESH Nutrition. “These meals follow a whole foods approach to eating, which can help reduce systemic inflammation, a known cause of heart plaques.”
According to Puello, Lifestyle Bowls are also a good source of heart-healthy fats. “Having adequate dietary fat intake while minimizing highly processed carbohydrates is key to improving lipid particle size, a measure of heart disease risk,” she says. And the benefits don’t stop there. “The foods included in these dishes (cooked onions, salsa, etc.) contribute heart-healthy nutrients like quercetin and lycopene.”
Need a healthy breakfast on the go? Visit McDonald’s for the fruit and maple nut oatmeal, he says Patricia Kolesa, MS, RDN. “Oatmeal contains fiber, which is good for lowering cholesterol,” she explains. The fresh apple slices at the start of this breakfast add to the fiber content (4 grams total) and provide antioxidants that can help reduce overall inflammation. And with a total of 320 calories, this grab-and-go breakfast cup keeps portion sizes moderate.
It’s DIY for the win once again! Creating your own fast-food entree puts you in control of which heart-healthy ingredients are most important—and which you can leave behind. At Qdoba, consider curating your own taco bowl, offers Amanda Lane, MS, RD, CDCES, of Healthful Lane Nutrition. “Choose lettuce, brown rice, beans and avocados for heart-healthy fiber and unsaturated fats. Try to limit animal protein and cheese sauce, as these are higher in sodium and lower in healthy saturated fat.”
With baby carrots, peas, falafel-style bites, and avocado spread, it’s hard to find fault with this vegan protein box from Starbucks. “These boxes are pretty perfect!” says The Heart Dietitian Veronica Rouse, RD, MAN, who also recommends Starbucks’ Cheese and Fruit Protein Box and the PB & J Protein Box. “They all have fruits and vegetables (which are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants), plus enough cheese, nuts, seeds or legumes, to be considered a good source of heart-healthy proteins. And they usually have other goodies for added fiber to keep you full. Finally, they all contain a reasonable amount of sodium.”
Bet you didn’t expect tacos to make the list again! In recent years, Taco Bell has made a name for itself as a healthier chain with small portions and “al fresco-style” menu options. Among their better heart-healthy options: the Chicken Soft Taco. According to Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LDfrom Sound Bites Nutrition, “Each has only 160 calories, 12 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat and 2.5 grams of saturated fat. Add a side of black beans to increase the fiber content of the meal with only 140 additional milligrams of sodium.”
Sarah Garrone, NDTR
Sarah Garrone, NDTR, is a registered nutrition and dietetics technician and health, nutrition and food writer. Read more about Sarah