Of fast food and health

There's a lot of discussion these days about the right foods to eat and how to appropriately eat during your busy life. So, I decided I'd take a look at some of the fast food chains (the ones with drive-thru service, mostly) and see how they stacked up on default items. Your mileage may vary if you remove or ad items (I'll note when this is significant--like salad dressings).

For starters, here's a list of places that I looked at and direct links to their nutritional information:

Restaurant Nutritional data
McDonald's [McDonald's Nutritional
Wendy's [Wendy's Nutritional
Chick-Fil-A [Chick-Fil-A Nutritional
Burger King [Burger King Nutritional

My methodology will be to look at the data on their web sites, construct my own comparison table and render my analysis based on the differences of the offerings. This is non-scientific, and although my fiancée may have a degree in nutrition, I don't. Now, with that out of the way, let's go to the meat of the issue. What follows is a summary. A comparison chart is available on this site.

Grilled Chicken Sandwich

I've held for some time that Chick-Fil-A has the healthiest grilled chicken sandwiches. However, Wendy's Grilled Chicken sandwich (my second favorite) gives it a strong run for its money and beats it in a number of categories. While the Wendy's sandwich has a bit more calories, and less protein (bigger bun, how ironic given the where's the beef ad), it has less cholesterol, sodium, and fat than the Chick-Fil-A. Given today's penchant for protein and dislike of carbs, though, I'd still have to give the nod to Chick-Fil-A.

Fried Chicken Sandwich

Contrary to a scrap of theory I had in my head for years, the Chick-Fil-A Chicken Sandwich is not lower in calories than any other vendor's non-fried sandwich (McDonald's is basically a tie, and Wendy's gives Chick-Fil-A's grilled sandwiches a run for their money), however, it does come within 2g of beating them out on Carbs and packs more protein than anything except the Chicken Whopper (which has 50% more calories). In the world of the fried sandwich, though, it reigns supreme in the areas of calories, carbs, sugar, and protein. It still comes in with more fat than the Wendy's sandwich (a close second for everything except Carbs), and has a ton more sodium than the McDonald's and Wendy's offerings (30% and 80% more respectively). In the world of the fried, my nod goes to Chick-Fil-A.

Chicken Salads

Here's a category that has been gaining popularity over the last year. Almost everybody has an offering and despite the fact that you can't (safely) eat the salads while driving, they're worth commenting on here.

This category (without dressings first) is a real toss up (no pun intended, really). All of the salads have about the same amount of calories (180-230) and similar cholesterol. But there are some reasons to be choosy. Wendy's salad being quite a bit bigger and would seem to have more filling lettuce. However, be careful because it also is loaded with carbohydrates (almost double the next ones and more than triple the winner in that category). This appears mostly due to an extraordinary amount of sugar.

I'd have to credit Burger King here though for providing the biggest protein bang for the buck. They cram 36g of protein into their salad while only having 5g of carbs.

Now, let's look at the dressings, because most of these can't be eaten raw. It is important to note that in my table I have normalized for a single packet. For Chick-Fil-A, this meant doubling most of the values, because they state that a packet contains 2 servings. It's also important to note that there is no fluid measure for most of the packets, so I haven't compared them in equal volume. As such, we're stuck with a comparison that is what you get if you use a whole packet. If you want to use less or more, adjust accordingly. If you want to keep away from fat, any of the low-fat dressings will work. However, watch for the carbs. Chick-Fil-A packs a whopping 28g of carbs in their fat free dressing, and Wendy's isn't far behind at 17. Compare that to McDonald's at 4 and Burger King at 6 and you are probably seeing the difference in serving sizes.

For low-carb dressings, I looked at the lowest carb dressing that didn't jump the calories by over 100. This means that for Burger King and Wendy's, there are lower carb dressings, but they have substantially more fat for only a marginal carb gain, so I tossed them out. Stick with the Chick-Fil-A Light Italian dressing for the best in everything except sodium. Apparently, that's where the taste comes from. Which reminds me-- I haven't tasted all of these, so don't come crying to me if the low carb or low fat dressings are awful, I'm just talking numbers here.

On balance, it appears that the best offering is from Burger King (Chicken Caesar Salad+Kraft Fat Free dressing) if you care about fat and/or carbs. Of course, this is the only salad I haven't eaten of the bunch, so I cannot comment on the taste.


Well, time is running low, so burgers are just going to have to wait (especially since I nearly never eat them), but no fast food roundup is complete without doing a showing for fries. Now, there is a big discrepancy in the comparison, because I have used the combo size for the table. Why? Because usually you get conned into buying a combo whenever you go through the drive through unless you have a lot of control. So, what looks best? McDonald's gives you the smallest package, which helps a lot. Wendy's appears lowest in fat per gram of fry and Chick-Fil-A has a bunch of cholesterol, which none of the others have. If you are watching carbs, just say no to fries, you're not saving anything on the combo anyway if you didn't want to eat them.