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A Nutritional Therapist’s Guide to Fast Food

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Lockdown changed hospitality as we know it, so many of us have turned to local food delivery and takeaway offerings to get our foodie fix over the last year. Of course, unhealthy items can be found on fast-food menus, but there are also plenty of smarter options that can be incorporated into a healthy, balanced diet.

To discover these smarter options, we analysed 50 menu items across 10 of the most popular food chains in the UK – including calories, as well as salt, sugar, and saturated fat content for each item. To get some expert advice we also questioned nutritional therapist Kirsten Chick on which options to choose based on the items’ nutritional information. Read on to find out more…

McDonalds

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

Item   Type   Calories (kcal)   Salt (g)   Sugar (g)   Saturated fat (g)   Cost   
Big Mac   Burger   508   2.3   9   9.5   £3.49   
Medium Fries   Fries   337   0.62   0.6   1.5   £1.49   
6 Nuggets   Chicken   259   0.51   0.6   1.7   £3.49   
Flake McFlurry   Ice cream   341   0.29   45   9.4   £1.49   
Medium Coca-Cola Classic   Drink   170   0   42   0   £1.53   

Sources: https://www.mcdonalds.com/gb/en-gb/good-to-know/nutrition-calculator.html

Kirsten delved into the wider menu, and suggested that:

Best: Mayo chicken (319 kcal / 13g fat / 1.6g sat fat / 38g carbs / 4.6g sugars / 1.1g salt / 12g fibre / 24g protein)

  • Why: Slightly more calories and carbs than a hamburger; but lower salt, lower sugar, and higher fibre; also, lower salt, sugar, and calories and higher fibre than a Spicy Veggie Wrap

Worst: Big Tasty with Bacon (850 kcal / 50g fat / 50g carbs / 20g sat fat / 11g sugars / 3.7g salt / 4.3g fibre / 49g protein)

  • Why: The Big Tasty with Bacon is the highest on pretty much all the nutrition levels

Nando’s

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

Item   Type   Calories (kcal)   Salt (g)   Sugar (g)   Saturated fat (g)   Cost   
Grilled Chicken Burger   Burger   424   2.2   3.7   1.3   £6.75   
Chips   Fries   517   0.8   1.4   1.7   £2.60   
1/4 Chicken   Chicken   284   0.8   0.2   3.9   £4.25   
Spicy Rice   Side   246   1.7   1.2   0.5   £2.60   
PERinaise   Dip   159   1.3   5.1   1.1   £0.60   

Sources: https://www.nandos.co.uk/food/menu/index.html

Best: Boneless chicken breast– perhaps with Mixed Green Side Salad (429kcal / 7g sat fat / 0 sugar / 80mg sodium / 23g fat / 0 carbs / 52g protein)

  • Why: Zero carbs, relatively low calories, and saturated fat

Worst: 12 Peri-Peri Wings with PERinaise (851kcal / 9g sat fat / 2g sugar / 893g salt / 39g fat / 2g carbs / 112g protein) or Feta, avo & grains wrap with PERinaise (913kcal / 11g sat fat / 14g sugar / 1390mg sodium / 59g fat / 73g carbs / 23g protein)

  • Why: The wings are almost double the calories for ½ chicken in same sauce (851 compared with 468). However, this is a great example of how the nutritional values don’t always tell the whole story. The feta, avocado, and grains wrap is going to be much more nutrient dense in terms of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, so will be much healthier than the Peri-Peri Wings

KFC

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

Item   Type   Calories (kcal)   Salt (g)   Sugar (g)   Saturated fat (g)   Cost   
Fillet Burger   Burger   475   2.02   5.5   2.3   £5.49   
Regular Fries   Fries   345   0.76   0.3   1.8   £1.59   
3 Piece Original Recipe   Chicken   660   3.75   0.9   3.9   £5.97   
Regular Gravy   Side   195   1.6   0.1   0.1   £1.59   
Regular Popcorn Chicken   Chicken   285   1.54   0.2   1.7   £3.99   

Sources: https://brand-uk.assets.kfc.co.uk/nutrition-allergens.pdf

Kirsten delved into the wider menu, and suggested that:

Best: Regular Popcorn Chicken (285kcal / 16.2g fat / 1.7g sat fat, or 1.4g in salad / 17.6g carbs, 32.5g in salad / 0.2 g sugars, 13.2g in salad / 17.6g protein / 1.54g salt) or Veggie Salad (235kcal / 8.2g fat / 1.4g sat fat / 32.5g carbs / 13.2g sugars / 6.8g protein / 1.08g salt)

  • Although higher calories than the Veggie Salad, Popcorn Chicken is MUCH lower in sugar and carbs – and sugar is a key contributor to inflammation and therefore chronic disease

Worst: Fillet Tower Burger (620kcal / 28g fat / 4.6g sat fat / 58.4g carbs / 10.2g sugars / 33.5g protein / 3.39g salt)

  • Why: The Fillet Tower Burger is the highest on pretty much all the nutrition levels

Dominos

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

Item   Type   Calories (kcal)   Salt (g)   Sugar (g)   Saturated fat (g)   Cost   
Small Original Cheese and Tomato Pizza (Classic crust)   Pizza   922   3.87   14.8   17.6   £10.99   
Small Pepperoni Passion Pizza (Classic crust)   Pizza   1215   6.57   14.8   28.4   £12.99   
Potato Wedges   Side   169   0.92   1.1   0.8   £3.99   
Garlic Pizza Bread   Side   311   0.93   3.8   2.9   £3.99   
Garlic and Herb Dip   Dip   169   0.19   0.4   1.3   £0.45   

Sources: https://corporate.dominos.co.uk/Media/Default/Corporate%20Responsibility/Food/UKNutritionalsRegularMozzarella.pdf?v=298723 and https://corporate.dominos.co.uk/Media/Default/Corporate%20Responsibility/Food/SidesDessertsNutritionals.pdf

Kirsten delved into the wider menu, and suggested that:

Best: Vegan Vegi Supreme (514kcal per portion / 15.3g fat / 9.9g sat fat / 77.9g carbs / 12.5g sugars / 16.2g protein / 1.89g salt)

  • 148kcal per 100g, and packed with different kinds of vegetables for phytonutrients and fibre

Worst: Absolute Banger (495kcal per portion / 23.5g fat / 10.7g sat fat / 50.6g carbs / 9.7g sugars / 20.4g protein / 2.79g salt)

  • Why: 258kcal per 100g, and so much processed meat

Pizza Hut

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

   
Item   
   
Type   
   
Calories (kcal)   
   
Salt (g)   
   
Sugar (g)   
   
Saturated fat (g)   
   
Cost   
   
Small Original Cheese and Tomato Pizza (Pan crust)   
   
Pizza   
   
1038   
   
3.6   
   
5.4   
   
17.4   
   
£9.79   
   
Small Pepperoni Feast Pizza (Pan crust)   
   
Pizza   
   
1092   
   
4.2   
   
4.8   
   
18.6   
   
£11.79   
   
Garlic Bread   
   
Side   
   
511   
   
1.2   
   
3.8   
   
8.7   
   
£4.29   
   
Garlic Bread with Mozzarella   
   
Side   
   
689   
   
2   
   
5   
   
16   
   
£5.29   
   
Garlic Sauce Dip Pot   
   
Dip   
   
89   
   
0.4   
   
1.1   
   
1.4   
   
£0.49   

Sources: https://www.pizzahut.co.uk/restaurants/r/globalassets/1.-rebrand/food/nutritionalinformation/dietary-information-booklet—jan-2021-min.pdf

Kirsten delved into the wider menu, and suggested that:

Best: Veggie (165kcal per slice / 6.4g fat / 2.2g sat fat / 20.3g carbs / 1.4g sugars / 6.1g protein / 0.5g salt)

  • Similar to Dominoes, vegetables mean more phytonutrients and fibre. At Pizza Hut, there is also the option to go for thin crust pizza for lower carbs too

Worst: Pepperoni Feast (182kcal per slice / 8.7g fat / 3.1 sat fat / 19g carbs / 0.8g sugars / 6.7g protein / 0.7g salt)

  • Why: Processed meat links with cancer and other poor health outcomes

Burger King

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

   
Item   
   
Type   
   
Calories (kcal)   
   
Salt (g)   
   
Sugar (g)   
   
Saturated fat (g)   
   
Cost   
   
Whopper   
   
Burger   
   
635   
   
0.8   
   
11.9   
   
9.5   
   
£4.79   
   
Regular Fries   
   
Fries   
   
282   
   
0.5   
   
0.2   
   
5   
   
£1.59   
   
6 Nuggets   
   
Chicken   
   
257   
   
1.5   
   
0.5   
   
1.8   
   
£3.19   
   
Chicken Royale   
   
Burger   
   
596   
   
3.1   
   
6.6   
   
4.3   
   
£4.79   
   
Regular Coca-Cola   
   
Drink   
   
190   
   
0   
   
48.2   
   
0   
   
£1.82   

Sources: https://www.burgerking.co.uk/nutrition-explorer

Kirsten delved into the wider menu, and suggested that:

Best: Vegan Bean Burger (532.2kcal / 21.4g fat / 2g sat fat / 68.5g carbs / 11.7g sugars / 12.9g protein / 1g salt)

  • Still quite high in calories compared to other outlets, but better than other items on menu. Not bad on the fat and salt, and contains more fibre than other options

Worst: Bacon Double XL burger (918.2kcal / 53.3g fat / 24.5g sat fat / 44.4g carbs / 8.7g sugars / 64g protein / 1.7g salt)

  • Why: Almost double the calories of the beanburger, and more than twice the fat

Greggs

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

   
Item   
   
Type   
   
Calories (kcal)   
   
Salt (g)   
   
Sugar (g)   
   
Saturated fat (g)   
   
Cost   
   
Sausage Roll   
   
Bakes   
   
329   
   
1.6   
   
0   
   
12   
   
£1.20   
   
Steak Bake   
   
Bakes   
   
408   
   
1.4   
   
0   
   
13   
   
£1.90   
   
Festive Bake   
   
Bakes   
   
453   
   
1.7   
   
4.2   
   
14   
   
£1.90   
   
Vegan Sausage Roll   
   
Bakes   
   
309   
   
1.9   
   
1   
   
8.7   
   
£1.20   
   
Sausage, Bean and Cheese Melt   
   
Bakes   
   
304   
   
1.7   
   
3   
   
15   
   
£1.90   

Sources: https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/greggs-prod-cms/public/PDF/e5c6933e05/Nutritional-Info-Dec-2020.pdf

Kirsten delved into the wider menu, and suggested that:

Best: Tomato Soup (216kcal / 9g fat / 1.8g sat fat / 27g carbs / 21g sugars / 6g protein / 1.6g salt) or Vegan Sausage roll (309kcal / 18g fat / 8.7g sat fat / 23g carbs / 1g sugars / 11g protein / 1.9g salt)

  • I’d probably go for the Tomato Soup, however as much less processed and only 219kcal – but just a warning about the 21g of sugars, which will largely be from the tomatoes, I suspect, rather than added sugar. However, their Vegan Sausage roll deserves a mention – although ultra-processed, it does have a very low sugar content (1g of 23g total carbs) and only 309kcal

Worst: Southern Fried Chicken Baguette (602kcal / 14g fat / 6.4g sat fat / 91g carbs / 14g sugars / 26g protein / 2.3g salt)

  • Why: Considerably more calories, carbs, and sugars even than the Sausage, Bean and Cheese Melt and the Margherita Pizza

Subway

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

   
Item   
   
Type   
   
Calories (kcal)   
   
Salt (g)   
   
Sugar (g)   
   
Saturated fat (g)   
   
Cost   
   
Chicken and Bacon (6″)   
   
Sandwich   
   
383   
   
2   
   
7.7   
   
4.3   
   
£3.49   
   
Meatball Marinara Sub (6″)   
   
Sandwich   
   
492   
   
2   
   
13   
   
8.8   
   
£3.49   
   
Meatless Meatball Marinara Sub (6″)   
   
Sandwich   
   
400   
   
2.1   
   
12   
   
3.2   
   
£3.49   
   
Italian BMT Sub (6″)   
   
Sandwich   
   
396   
   
2.5   
   
6.1   
   
5.5   
   
£3.49   
   
Rainbow Candy Chip Cookie   
   
Bakes   
   
215   
   
0.28   
   
17   
   
5.1   
   
£0.60   

Sources: https://www.subway.com/en-gb/menunutrition/nutrition

Kirsten delved into the wider menu, and suggested that:

Best: Roast Chicken Breast Salad (123kcal / 1.7g fat / 0.5g sat fat / 8.2g carbs / 6.8g sugars / 18g protein / 0.89g salt)

  • Lower calories, fat and sat fats, carbs and sugars, and salt than the Plant Patty Salad, and more protein

Worst: Mega Meat sandwich (612kcal / 29g fat / 11g sat fat / 54g carbs / 13g sugars / 32g protein / 3.3g salt)

  • Why: High in all departments, including the processed meat

Five Guys

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

   
Item   
   
Type   
   
Calories (kcal)   
   
Salt (g)   
   
Sugar (g)   
   
Saturated fat (g)   
   
Cost   
   
Hamburger   
   
Burger   
   
628   
   
0.75   
   
12.6   
   
13.75   
   
£7.95   
   
Regular Fries   
   
Fries   
   
1019   
   
1.62   
   
1.7   
   
8.27   
   
£5.00   
   
Cheeseburger   
   
Burger   
   
756   
   
2.27   
   
14.2   
   
20.21   
   
£9.25   
   
Bacon Cheeseburger   
   
Burger   
   
834   
   
3.19   
   
14.2   
   
22.45   
   
£9.95   
   
Chocolate Milkshake   
   
Drink   
   
915   
   
0.85   
   
109   
   
25.59   
   
£4.75   

Sources: https://fiveguys.co.uk/download/uk/nutrition.pdf

Kirsten delved into the wider menu, and suggested that:

Best: Veggie Sandwich

  • I can’t find nutritional info on this on their site, but I’m guessing it’ll be the healthier option compared to the other items

Worst: Bacon Cheese Dog

  • Why: Burger has slightly more kcal than the hot dog (195kcal vs 192kcal) – but the dog has more carbs/sugar, fats/sat fat, and considerably more salt, as well as probably being more processed. Add in the bacon and cheese and you have your highest calorie, highest fat and most processed option on the menu

Starbucks

We analysed the nutritional information for 5 popular items on the menu:

   
Item   
   
Type   
   
Calories (kcal)   
   
Salt (g)   
   
Sugar (g)   
   
Saturated fat (g)   
   
Cost   
   
Tall Vanilla Latte (Semi-skimmed Milk)   
   
Drink   
   
196   
   
0.26   
   
26.4   
   
2.9   
   
£3.25   
   
Tall Classic Hot Chocolate (Semi-skimmed Milk)   
   
Drink   
   
234   
   
0.22   
   
22.7   
   
8   
   
£2.50   
   
Tall Cappuccino (Semi-skimmed Milk)   
   
Drink   
   
93   
   
0.24   
   
11.9   
   
0   
   
£2.25   
   
Short Flat White (Semi-skimmed Milk)   
   
Drink   
   
86   
   
0.15   
   
7.3   
   
1.7   
   
£2.50   
   
Tall Coffee Frappuccino (Semi-skimmed Milk)   
   
Drink   
   
210   
   
0.38   
   
25.3   
   
7.3   
   
£2.75   

Sources: https://www.starbucks.co.uk/sites/starbucks-uk/files/2020-12/624193_WIN21_UK_AllergenBook_CORE_BEVERAGE_v07.pdf and https://www.starbucks.co.uk/sites/starbucks-uk/files/2020-12/624193_WIN21_UK_AllergenBook_PROMO_v05.pdf

Kirsten delved into the wider food menu from the Hot Sandwiches counter, and suggested that:

Best: No Chick’n & BBQ Bean Hot Wrap (382 kcal / 8.6g fat / 3g sat fat / 58g carbs / 8.6g sugars / 15g protein / 1.7g salt)

  • It’s a close-run thing between this and the Cheese Alternative & Marmite Mini Ciabatta, but there is more veg and natural ingredients in this one

Worst: Ham & Cheese Croissant (463kcal / 25g fat / 14g sat fat / 36g carbs / 5.5g sugars / 21g protein / 1.7g salt)

  • Why: Higher calories, fat and sat fats and sugars, and less fibre, than the Beyond Meat Breakfast Sandwich. Lower calories than the Roast chicken Sandwich, but higher fat/sat fats, sugars, and salt

Other Popular Takeaways

If you prefer an Indian takeaway, then Kirsten suggests:

Best: Vegetarian curry with boiled rice

  • Most non-veggie options are meat and carbs with very little vegetables – and as rice is usually white, this means very low in fibre and phytonutrients, which are anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and generally health-protective. Opting for boiled rice means you know the rice won’t be fried

Worst: Lamb tikka masala

  • Why: High fat meat + cream – often plus sugar too.

If you prefer a Chinese takeaway, then Kirsten suggests:

Best: Vegetarian options with boiled rice

  • Similar to Indian takeaways, most non-veggie options are meat and carbs with very little vegetables – opt for brown rice if possible, and maybe a black bean sauce or with some steamed dumplings

Worst: Sweet and sour chicken with fried rice and deep-fried spring rolls

  • Why: More likely to be laden with sugar and salt, and lower in vegetables – as well as lots of greasy fried foods here

 If you prefer fish and chips, then Kirsten suggests:

Best: Catch of the day

  • Whichever fish is in season is going to be freshest. If you want to be super healthy, discard the batter – the fish inside will actually be low-fat, as the batter will have sealed it and protected it from the fat. Add some mushy peas instead of chips (especially if you can pinch a couple from someone else)!

Worst: Deep-fried saveloy and chips

  • Why: Highly processed meat in batter, lots of deep frying going on here too

Item Comparisons

Of the 50 items we analysed across 10 of the most popular fast-food and takeaway chains, there were some interesting like-for-like item comparisons worth noting, including burger, chicken and fries options.

These included:

  • Burger
    • Lowest calories – Nando’s (Grilled Chicken Burger)
    • Lowest salt – Five Guys (Hamburger)
    • Lowest sugar – Nando’s (Grilled Chicken Burger)
    • Lowest saturated fat – Nando’s (Grilled Chicken Burger)
    • Lowest cost – McDonalds (Big Mac)
  • Chicken
    • Lowest calories – Burger King (6 Nuggets)
    • Lowest salt – McDonalds (6 Nuggets)
    • Lowest sugar – Nando’s (1/4 Chicken) or KFC (Regular Popcorn Chicken)
    • Lowest saturated fat – McDonalds (6 Nuggets) or KFC (Regular Popcorn Chicken)
    • Lowest cost – Burger King (6 Nuggets)
  • Fries
    • Lowest calories – Burger King (Regular Fries)
    • Lowest salt – Burger King (Regular Fries)
    • Lowest sugar – Burger King (Regular Fries)
    • Lowest saturated fat – McDonalds (Medium Fries)
    • Lowest cost – McDonalds (Medium Fries) or Burger King (Regular Fries)

Expert Insight

We also spoke to nutritional therapist Caroline Peyton about how excessive sugar, salt, and fat consumption impacts health.

Caroline explained that “Western diets typically contain far too much sugar, salt and processed damaged fats. These contribute to excessive amounts of inflammation in the body. At the same time diets that have higher amounts of these types of foods usually have far fewer natural wholefoods like vegetables, fish, nuts, and seeds. These foods have an anti-inflammatory action in the body. So, with an imbalanced diet it sets the scene for underlying chronic inflammation which is the cause of most diseases we face today.

“Sugar (including those found in refined carbohydrates) leads to higher amounts of “bad” cholesterol versus the “good” type. Excess amounts of sugar in the bloodstream are converted to fat causing fat storage especially around the abdomen. Fat stored in this area is more conducive to cardiovascular disease. Over the course of a 15-year study published in 2014, people who got 17% to 21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared with those who consumed 8% of their calories as added sugar. Sugar feeds pathogenic gut bacteria and suppresses the beneficial bacteria creating dysbiosis. Imbalanced gut bacteria has far reaching impacts to our health as we now know so much how bacterial species contribute to disease including autoimmunity, obesity, and mental health. And of course, too much sugar is a major driver of insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes.

“Processed fats and cheaper vegetable oils used in cooking tend to be damaged easily by heat, processing, and exposure to light. This means that they create harmful free radicals in the body (liken this to a piece of apple that quickly turns brown in the light) that damage our cells and our arteries and increase inflammation. It’s important to differentiate between these types of fats and the essential fats found in oily fish, nuts and seed and the good fats found in avocados and olive oil. Even a little bit of saturated fat from animal products is significantly better for you than any processed fats or those from cheap vegetable oils.

“Salt is one of our electrolytes which is important to body function (such as muscle function and nerve impulses), however too much may contribute to high blood pressure which increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease – processed foods tend to have higher levels of salt (sodium chloride)”.

If you’re looking to treat yourself to a takeaway but are concerned about the nutritional information of your favourite order, we hope the advice in the article provides you with some useful insight into some of the smarter alternatives you could choose.

Disclaimer: The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. Virginia Hayward are not liable or responsible for the accuracy of the advice provided by third party experts, nor for the content or operation of any third-party websites, webpages, or resources which have been linked to within this article.

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