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The Best Diabetic-Friendly Fast Food Options

Next time you're in the drive-thru, order these diabetic fast food options that cut back on calories and carbs without sacrificing flavor. From McDonald's to Starbucks, we have the top fast food chains covered with RN-approved options.

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Drive thru fast food restaurant.(motion blur); Shutterstock ID 38753659Kzenon/Shutterstock

Can you really find healthy food in a drive-thru for people with diabetes? It might be tricky at times, but it’s definitely possible to enjoy a tasty, nutritious meal, even at a fast-food restaurant.

According to the American Diabetes Association, there is no one-size-fits-all diet for diabetes. Everyone’s body reacts to food differently, so it’s best to work with your doctor or dietician to find the foods that work for you.

When visiting a fast-food restaurant, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. First, look for as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible. That’s no easy feat in the land of the supersize meal, but you may be surprised at the variety of salads, grilled chicken sandwiches and taco bowls. Next, load up on all the nonstarchy veggies you can find. Ask for extra lettuce on your burger or grab a side salad. Try to limit refined grains like white burger buns and white rice, and enjoy an open-face sandwich or a half-order of rice. The soda fountain will quickly add empty calories and sugar to your meal, so ask for a bottle of water instead. Finally, low-carb, vegetarian and Mediterranean diets are proven to help manage diabetes, so look for foods that fit with those guidelines.

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wendys Southwest Avocado Chicken Saladvia wendys.com

Wendy’s

Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad

Skip the Frosty and treat yourself to one of Wendy’s vibrant and healthy salads. This one packs in the flavor with fresh ingredients like diced tomatoes, avocado and a sprinkle of pepper jack cheese. Try a half order for 310 calories, 22 grams of protein and 21 grams of fat. Need a hot meal? Try a hamburger kids meal with a bottle of water and a side of apple bites or a cup of chili with small fries.

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Subway’s 6-inch Turkey Subvia subway.com

Subway

6-inch Turkey Sub

If you’re visiting America’s largest fast food restaurant, keep it healthy with a fresh turkey sub on whole grain bread. Load up your sammie with your favorite veggies like lettuce, tomato, bell peppers and cucumbers, just to name a few. Subway sandwiches can start out healthy and then become fat bombs with mayo and sugary honey mustard. Skip the condiments or opt for a little oil and seasonings. Then go ahead and add a bag of baked chips; the entire meal is just 510 calories and 22 grams of fat.

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Grilled Chicken Sandwichvia burgerking.com

Burger King

Grilled Chicken Sandwich

Try the King’s grilled chicken for that Whopper experience with less saturated fat. Be sure to order your sandwich with veggies like lettuce and tomato, but hold the mayo. This chicken sandwich will only cost you roughly 450 calories while filling you up with 28 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber.

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Taco Bell’s Fresco-Style Soft Tacosvia taco.com

Taco Bell

Fresco-Style Soft Tacos

This may shock you, but Taco Bell is actually one of the healthiest fast food options out there. Avoid the overflowing nachos and gooey quesadillas, though. An order of two fresco-style tacos with grilled chicken contains 300 calories and 2.5 grams of saturated fat. Fresco-style means they come with fresh tomatoes instead of sour cream and guac. Choose any taco meal and load them up with lettuce, onions, tomato and a scoop of guac for a well-rounded meal.

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Blackened Cajun Salmonvia applebees.com

Applebee’s

Blackened Cajun Salmon

Skip happy hour specials and order this protein-packed salmon, which is bursting with juicy flavor and healthy nutrients. This dish will fill you up for only 240 calories. When you choose your sides, go for the garlicky green beans and steamed broccoli.

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Red Robin’s Red’s Chili Chilivia redrobin.com

Red Robin

Red’s Chili

Well, bottomless steak fries are probably never a good idea, especially if you’re managing diabetes with a healthy diet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your family’s night out at Red Robin. Look at the menu before you go. Their website shows which meals are under 600 calories. Opt for a cup of chili for just 220 calories and a full 15 grams of protein. Craving one of their crazy-indulgent burgers? You’re better off sneaking a bite from someone else or making your own healthy hamburger at home.

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Chick-fil-A’s Grilled Chicken Sandwichvia chickfila.com

Chick-fil-A

Grilled Chicken Sandwich

Chick-fil-A may be known for their crispy fried chicken, but it’s time to give their grilled version a try. The grilled chicken sandwich with a side salad has just 245 calories, 7 grams of fat and 4 grams of carbs. Ask for extra lettuce and tomato on your sandwich or go for a grilled chicken salad. That’s down from the fried meal with 1330 calories and 54 grams of fat. Craving that meal on a Sunday? Make your own with our Chick-fil-A copycat recipes!

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Chipotle’s Veggie Burrito Bowlvia chipotle.com

Chipotle

Veggie Burrito Bowl

This hearty burrito-in-a-bowl combines fresh fajita veggies, protein-packed beans, filling brown rice and even a scoop of guac for just 230 calories and 8 grams of carbs. Hold the cheese and sour cream to keep it a diabetes-friendly option. To cut carbs, ask for a half-order of rice and beans, as well as extra lettuce. Or make your own at home with any of these Chipotle copycat recipes.

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Starbucks Eggs & Cheese Protein Boxvia starbucks.com

Starbucks

Eggs & Cheese Protein Box

Skip the sugary Frappuccino and power up with a protein box at Starbucks. While you’re perusing the menu in line, look down at the refrigerated section, rather than straight ahead at the bakery case. A protein box can be breakfast or lunch on-the-go and fills you up with hard-boiled eggs, white cheddar cheese, sliced apples, grapes, multigrain bread and honey peanut butter. The full meal has about 470 calories and 23 grams of protein.

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Panera's Avocado, Egg White and Spinach Sandwichvia panerabread.com

Panera

Avocado, Egg White and Spinach Sandwich

With its clean ingredients and flavorful salads, it’s natural to think that every dish at Panera is a healthy option. Not so fast, steak panini. It’s still important to have a critical eye when checking out the menu. If you’re up for something new, try a quinoa bowl off of the plant-based menu or upgrade your usual bagel to an avocado, egg white and spinach sandwich. This breakfast is loaded with sprouted grains, lean protein, healthy fats and vitamin-rich veggies.

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Noodles & Company's Zucchini Scampivia noodles.com

Noodles & Company

Zucchini Scampi

We know, the mac ‘n cheese is undeniably scrumptious, but let’s keep our eyes on the prize. Noodles has loaded their menu with diabetes-friendly options. The easiest way to cut carbs from your bowl is by opting for their zoodles or caulifloodles. These tender veggie noodles have all the comfort of pasta without blowing your carb count for the day. Order zucchini scampi for just 350 calories, 25 grams of carbs and 12 grams of sugar.

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McDonald’s Hamburger Happy Mealvia mcdonalds.com

McDonald’s

Hamburger Happy Meal

Take a trip down memory lane with a McDonald’s hamburger happy meal. Keep your portions just right with a small burger and fries (one of the most popular items on the menu) and add a side salad for some fresh veggies. A happy meal contains about 470 calories and 62 grams of carbs, as opposed to a cheeseburger value meal that boasts 1,330 calories and 188 grams of carbs. Happy meals keep the portions right, but if you’re still hungry, try a salad with grilled chicken and a light vinaigrette.

Carrie Madormo, RN
Now a freelance health and food writer, Carrie worked as a nurse for over a decade. When she isn't hunched over her laptop with a baby in hand, you will find her cooking her grandmother’s recipes, lacing up her running shoes or sipping coffee in the bathroom to hide from her three young children.

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