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Healthy Chains?

So you're trying to eat healthy but you're on the run and no time to make yourself a healthy meal. Where do you go and what do you order?

I like Baja Fresh's chicken salads and it seems like el pollo locco is a good low carb choice (especially low fat is you tear off the skin). I also find myself ordering salads at Corner Bakery with dressing on the side (their chopped salad is so good).

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  1. Tropical Smoothie has Boar's Head meats and fantastic wraps/sandwiches. Plus a yummy smoothie, a healthful (and very filling!) meal!

    1. Actually, as someone now in the fitness industry, I have looked at all those places with "healthy" menus, read the nutrition info posted on the web or in the restaraunt.

      None of the mentioned above would qualify as "healthy". With the fats and preservatives, as well as mega salt content, you might as well just have a whopper. Smoothies are thought of as healthy, and I guess are better than milkshakes, but not by much. The whopping sugar content, as well as , believe it or not, salt in some of them are criminal. Fruit juice is just sugar, as most of the healthy fiber is removed. And how many of the smoothie joints use full fat ice cream or frozen yogurt, often from a commercial brand that uses trans fats?

      Also, the nutrition industry generally prefers lower, yet healthy multi grain and whole grain carbs to the famed "low carb" food choices, which remove carbohydrates but then replace the flavor with added fat-usually trans fats.

      I would say the healthiest chain is probably the deli or salad bar at your local supermarket chain. Any fast or regular food chain has to get most of their food to the location in a frozen, bulk and easily storable manner. This equals high volume purchasing, and also necessatates additives, preservatives and more. The necessity of having all locations provide consistant flavor calls for artificial and "natural" flavoring. Keep in mind that the basic definition of "natural flavorings" is basically "tastes that are like those found naturally" NOT "flavored by a natural food product".

      Ignore Subway, it really isn't much better than McDonald's, and most people order a foot long over the half sandwich, and then add baked, trans fat high chips and a sugar and sodium blitzing soda.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Diana

        I'm not being contrary - I'm curious: if I go to Jamba Juice and order a low-fat or no fat smoothie made with strawberries and soy powder and I watch them add whole frozen strawberries to the mix (thus keeping the fiber and at least some nutritional value) why is this not a healthy option?

        My understanding from my dietician was that low-fat plain yogurt with soy powder and fruit was a great, healthy option...am I deluded?

        While on tour last fall, Subway was often my only option aside from McDs or BK or Taco Bell. I'd get whole grain roll, double turkey, a cup of veggie soup and water to drink....I thought I was doing fairly well with that, too. I eat organic at home but unfortunately, the options on the road are limited. I'd take every Whole Foods I came upon by storm and try to stock up (until I found out that those damned Luna bars really aren't as good for me as I thought - too high in sugar....grrrrr)

        1. re: krissywats

          The subway veggie soup has tons of sodium and uses a lot of preservatives..not healthy. Are there preservatives in the Turkey? Chicken is leaner (white meat) DOuble turkey means double calories and fats. DO you have oil and vinegar? Mayo? any other dressing? IS the roll made with just whole wheat flour? That's not whole grain. Most Whole wheat rolls are just as bad as white flour bread..you nead a large percentage of whole grains (not, by the way, "made with" whole grains, the legal definition of "made with" is that some of the grains in there are whole, or were originally whole. There could be as small as 5% whole grains in that roll, I think, and the manufacturer can legally say "made with whole grains". How do you think Lucky Charms gets away with it?)

          IS the soy pwder at Jamba Juice low fat? What yogurt do they use? Is it frozen yogurt? Does it have trans fats? Keep in mind, the term "low fat" may mean lower in fat, but not calories, and doesn't say WHAT fats..and if its frozen yogurt, it probably has massive amounts of SUGAR. Its a HEALTHIER option than the regular smoothie (my dietician calls them "shakes", because they pretty much are). Read the calorie content, and all the nutritional info on your smoothie. The Jamba Juice is required by law to have them available for you.

          By the way, energy bars are really just candy bars...tons of calories, fats and worse. They are designed to give super athletes a quick boost, not to keep normal people slim. Avoid ALL of them, you're better off.

          Seriously..in truth NO fast food or chain place is healthy/ Perhaps just "not as really awful for you".

          1. re: Diana

            Thanks Diana. Sodium isn't an issue for me at all so thankfully I don't pay much attention to it. And if I don't have to worry about sodium, then the veggie soup is a better option than the chips!

            The reason I get double meat is because a portion for me (according to my dietician) is 6oz of meat and they do not put on 6oz at subway unless you ask for double. I'm really into organic foods and whole grains so I know of what you speak, I guess for me the issue was that in terms of eating out, and if you have NO other options subway can be a HEALTHIER option but not the healthiest (and no oil and vinegar on subs for me).

            Thanks for bringing up the smoothie issue (I use regular yogurt, not froyo in mine) - I'll check into all that and make sure that if they make me a smoothie it's as good for me as the one I make at home.

            And yes, I'm aware of the energy bar issue....ARGH!!!....my dietician pointed that out too (except there is one doctor prescribed brand that is supposed to be OK - I can't think of the brand name right now, but they are very expensive but supposed to be a good alternative).

        2. re: Diana

          I think you can do okay at Subway if you forgo the chips, soda, and cookie. Try to order your (small) sandwich on whole wheat bread, and order a lean meat, like turkey, and ask them to hold the mayo and oil. Eat one half of your sub for lunch and put the other half away for tomorrow or for dinner or split the sandwich with a friend.

          McDonald's fruit & walnut salad is a reasonably healthy choice for breakfast, lunch or snack on the go. It's just a sliced apple, a dollop of low-fat yogurt, and a small portion of candied walnuts.

          If you're with a group, a pizza place is okay. A single slice of thin crust cheese or veggie pizza is fine on occasion, especially if you combine it with a big green salad. Take care to avoid the high fat extras, salad dressings, grated cheese, etc. In fact, if you travel a lot, you might even consider carrying your own salad dressing.

          I've also heard Taco Bell's plain bean burrito is a reasonable choice if you're on the go and desperate, though, I've never tried it.

          Most convenience stores --7-11's, gas stations like SuperAmerica, etc.--carry nuts, string cheese, yogurt, milk, and fruit and sometimes hard boiled eggs. These are okay choices for snacks on the go as long as you control your portions of the cheese and nuts.


          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            When my fiance was wrestling in college, his nutritionist said that a bean burrito from Taco Bell was the best option if he was going to eat fast food. I pity the poor fool that had to wrestle him though!! ;-)

        3. Two options that I think are pretty good and quite tasty for fast food:

          Chipotle's salads if you get beans, guac (high in good fat), grilled veggies, tomato and corn salsa and no meat/cheese/cream, etc. Don't even need the vinegrette cause the other stuff has so much flavor. Prob is pretty high in salt, but personally I don't worry that much about salt (don't eat tons of processed food).

          Wendy's chili: gives you some beans, some meat, some veggies (maybe) all in a tasty low-cal (and cheap!) package. Just avoid their hot sauce which is disgusting. And they'll give you sour cream if you want more flavor (and need more fat in that meal).

          Krissywat--I think Diana's point is that most of the smoothie chain's use a "base" that is high in sugar without a lot of fibor/nutrition. So when you order it with yogurt and soy powder that is added to their normal sugary base. When I make smoothies at home I just use fruit as the base with some milk if necessary. Adding low-fat milk or yogurt with fruit is definitely a health option.

          Diana, I have to disagree with you a little. My sense is that there is no evidence that trans fats are worse than saturated fat (even though they "seem worse" to me too).

          1. My healthy choices from restaurants (considering everything is relative).

            Five Guys: Small hamburger with tomato, lettuce, mustard, onion and pickles.

            Penn Station: lite size veggie sub...mushrooms, onions, green peppers, banana peppers, provolone (skip the provolone is trying to be REAL healthy), lettuce, tomato ,spices and vinegar (no oil)

            Chipolte: Vegetarian burrito bowl with lettuce, black beans, salsa and guacamole.

            Wendy's: Junior hamburger, side salad with FF dressing

            McDonald's: grilled chicken Caesar salad with low fat Italian dressing or the new Oriental chicken salad (grilled)

            1. Folks, a reminder please.

              "Healthy" is a relative term. If you want to debate the spectrum of meanings behind that description, please do so on our Not About Food board, where nutrition and diet discussions are appropriate.

              Please bring us back to the question of which chain restaurants serve (relatively speaking) "healthy" foods.

              1. One place that really saved me from the typical fast food chains for lunch was Panera Bread.


                A very recent discovery, kind of like a cross between Chipotle and Baja Fresh is Moe's Southwestern Grill. They actually have tofu tacos.


                Whenever I travel, I find any Whole Foods, Wild Oats, or similar stores at my destination, or along my route.

                When driving, I always take a cooler full of drinks, with maybe a vegetable salad, cubed cheese, nuts, and a large container of water. Anything to keep me from having to eat the worst chain food for lack of time.

                7 Replies
                1. re: johnseberg

                  Have you checked the nutritional information for Panera (it's on their website)? I was shocked that my favorite turkey sandwich is much higher in calories than a BigMac.

                  1. re: Janet from Richmond

                    Yes, it is sad... don't look! Panera has always been my favorite go-to chain, and I always "felt" healthier eating there, but the nutritional information is really off the charts unbelievable!

                  2. re: johnseberg

                    I used to think Panera and Atlanta Bread Co. were interchangeable, because my town had two so close to each other.

                    However, while all the sandwiches at ABC are made to order, the paninis at Panera are shipped frozen and already assembled -- I discovered this when I asked them to hold the onions, and they couldn't accommodate my request.

                    I love their asian chicken salad, though. But for sandwiches like that, I hit ABC. I like their portabella sandwich, though I'm sure with the oil and cheese it's not quite as healthy as it could be.

                    1. re: Covert Ops

                      I find it difficult to believe that sandwiches are pre-made and shipped frozen at Panera. The bread dough may be shipped frozen but is baked on site. I have never had a problem when asking for a substitution in my sandwich at Panera and everything has always tasted fresh.

                      1. re: LikestoEatout

                        Well, this was about four years ago at a (then) new Panera location in Melbourne, Fla. After my request was denied (because they're "pre-made," the girl behind the counter told me) I saw them open a freezer (or it could have been a fridge) behind the counter, extract a sandwich, unwrap it and put it on the grill press.

                        Four years is a long time, though, and I haven't really been back to a Panera since, at least not for sandwiches. I will concede that in the time since, it's possible they've changed that practice, or that it was unique to that particular store. If I've misinformed anyone I'm sorry, but I stick by what I saw at the time.

                        (Keep in mind I'm only talking about the paninis, such as the Frontega Chicken or Turkey Artichoke. If you order, say, "tuna salad on your favorite sandwich bread," as the menu puts it, of course that is made to order.)

                        1. re: Covert Ops

                          This is still the case, but only for the panini. The regular sandwiches are made in the store; the panini are premade and frozen. I was unable to customise a panini for my wife one day and so she got a regular sandwich instead.

                          This was the Studio City, California store, about three months ago, by the way.

                      2. re: Covert Ops

                        Panera does not actually ship their paninis frozen. They are assembled in the morning so that when people order them, it does not take extra time to put the sandwich together and THEN cook it on top of that. Plus, after they are put together they are placed in a walk-in oven until grilled for the customer, so that the flavor is able to seep through the entire sandwich for a period of time. The sandwiches are at this point divided by wax paper to separate layers. They are pre-made daily with fresh ingredients but not pre-frozen. I know this because I have worked at one for the last 4 years, and assembled them myself!...This information is true as of today, as is 4 years ago when I began working there.

                    2. i've found the nyc chain better burger to have some tasty, healthy options. i particularly like their soy burger.

                      1. As a member of Weight Watchers, I have looked up a lot of the fast-food places on their site or on related ones (members will know the drill). They just give you "points," arrived at by a combination of fat, calories and fiber but that's a fine start. (Sodium is not figured in at all, and if that is an issue for you you may be in trouble with any kind of fast food.)

                        Among Mexican ff joints, La Salsa is quite good provided you avoid tacos with "Baja" in the name. The menu varies, but last time I went to one they had a taco with fish that was not deep-fried and had none of the Baja sauce.

                        Wendy's chili is also respectable, but chili at other places is ridiculously salty and fatty, so watch out. Items at places like Panera and Corner Bakery are hit or miss with some being not bad at all and some being awful, in my opinion. (Overall I look for something with lowish WW points and enough protien-- like sodium, not figured into points count-- to get me to the next meal.)

                        Delis and salad bars are what you make of them. You've still got issues with sodium and with working some protein into the meal, unless that is not an issue for you. (This is very individual but for me, a salad with only token amounts of protein, or protein in the form of something like cheddar cheese, does not provide long-term fuel. Better to grab a carton of plain yogurt.)

                        1. In a word, no. There are no truly healthy chains. Unless they serve fruit (probably not organic, though, so that's another issue) there's nothing on the menu that could be deemed healthy from a whole foods nutritionist's perspective.

                          The problem with most dieticians advice is that they are working off the Food Pyramid, which IMO is entirely useless. Low fat doesn't mean squat if the product is heavily processed. Sugar free you say? Well, that probably means the sugar has been substituted with a non-nutritious/potentially toxic sugar replacement like Splenda or Nutrisweet.
                          And, the new hoopla surrounding soy is dangerous, especially for people who have underlying digestive or thyroid issues. Keep in mind that soy is not and has never been used as a supplement in any culture - it's used mainly as a condiment and is typically fermented.
                          So, if you have to eat at a chain on a frequent basis I'd say, no, there really isn't too much by way of healthy offerings. Unless you're talking organic salads sans dressing, but for most people that isn't very filling.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: isadorasmama

                            Your views on healthy food seem very, well, healthy. But obviously this says to me you don't eat out often, or if so only at specific places that serve organic foods prepared in very basic ways. And more power to you for that. :-)

                            However, this is a dining-out thread, and I think the original poster is looking for a healthIER alternative to, say, McDonald's, when they are trying to eat out. Nearly nothing is as healthy as what one would prepare at home with fresh ingredients, but the OP stated they didn't have time for that.

                            If there are chains you patronize, we'd like to know, as you seem like a very discerning person. Also, if there's a special way you order things (prepare it this way, put this on the side) we'd like to know, so we can do the same and try to minimize the damage to our bodies -- while maximizing deliciousness, of course! :-)

                          2. It's certainly not a major chain (4 locations, looking to build more), but O'Naturals mission is "healthy fast food". The food is fine (but not better than that), the atmosphere is nice.


                            1. I didn't see anyone mention Jack in the Box chicken fajita pita. Its good and I think either 7 or 9 grams of fat. Would have to look it up to be sure.