Going Out, Nutrition
The Best and Worst Fast Food Salads

The Best and Worst Fast Food Salads at the Top 4 Chains

Not all salads are created equal… 

So… you find yourself at a fast food joint.

Maybe you need to rush back to work for a post-lunch meeting, you’re on a road trip, or that stoner friend of yours insisted on getting some fast food to ease their insatiable munchies.

You are trying to be “good” today with your eating habits and are debating about WHAT THE HELL you are gonna eat…

Savvy as you are, you go ahead and eliminate anything fried from your choices.

Then go the burgers and chicken sandwiches because the fat levels and salt content are atrocious.

Tacos sounded decent for a minute…until you began to wonder about the slightly mysterious meat content…

…when finally, you are left to pick between some salad options.

It’s salad. It HAS to be healthy, right?

WRONG!

Fast food salads often masquerade as a healthy fast food option, but there are many pitfalls to some of the ingredients dancing on top of the base of nutritious lettuce.

I took it upon myself to grade the salad options available at the most popular fast food places to see how they stack up. There has to be a healthy option SOMEWHERE out there in the world of fast food!

McDonalds

Fast Food Salad Run Down | Nutrition Gone Wild

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McDonalds is definitely not known for their salads, but to combat their poor reputation in the health department, they make a decent effort. I’m not too sure how well their salad sales are currently, but their early attempts at adding salads to the menu sure make for hilarious commercials…

Anyways, currently on their website, they list 5 salad options (one is a side salad), but really it is 2 salads with the option of making it with grilled chicken or crispy (aka fried) chicken. Of course, if you order the salad with grilled chicken you are much better off. Here is the line up:

 

The worst choice: Premium Southwest Salad with Buttermilk Crispy Chicken

  • Calories: 510
  • Fat: 26g
  • Sodium: 790 mg

 

Let’s put that into perspective:

A McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger has 390 calories  (a whole burger at the same place has 120 less calories)!

510 calories is about 5 shots of vodka (given vodka is empty and nutrition-less, but still…).

For 510 calories, you can eat 9.5 cups of sliced strawberries (don’t do that though, that would seriously hurt your stomach).

Eating an entire cup’s worth of avocado has less fat than this salad!

 

The better choice: Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken

  • Calories: 310 calories
  • Fat: 14g
  • Sodium: 1120 mg

 

Let’s put that into perspective:

310 calories is a wayyyyyy more reasonable calories count for a salad (and this one even has BACON). But for the sake of comparison, let’s see what else you can get for 310 calories at McDonalds…

A regular cheese burger will cost you 300 calories and 12g of fat (a little better in the numbers, but there isn’t as much veggie action).

A small fry will cost you 230 calories, but those are basically empty fried calories good for very little.

When it comes down to it however, more shocking is the sodium content of this slightly healthier salad. The daily recommendation for sodium (as set by the USDA) is 1500 mg per day. Weighing in at 1120 mg, this salad is really tipping the scales!

AND IT’S A FUCKING SALAD! WHY IS THERE SO MUCH SODIUM??? Even the fried chicken salad I listed above doesn’t have that much sodium. Just something to consider…

Jack in the Box

Fast Food Salad Run Down | Nutrition Gone Wild

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Everyone has that great story about the time they ended up at the Jack in the Box 24-hour drive-thru at some ungodly hour and ordered 20 orders of those delicious fried tacos that spark the same feelings I would assume smoking crack elicits…

We know those tacos are terrible for you, and that cheesy bacon burgers are not the picture of health either. But, at the least Jack in the Box has a list of things considered “Healthy Dining” and there are more than just salads.

But we are here to talk about fast food salad, so let’s get to it!

Jack in the Box offers 3 salads, which seems like plenty since they also offer some non-salad health options. Like McDonalds, the offerings vary by chicken type (god forbid anyone make a non-chicken salad…)

 

The worst choice: Chicken Club Salad with Crispy Chicken Strips

Calories: 510
Fat: 28g
Sodium: 1220 mg

 

Let’s put that into perspective:

A jumbo jack, their signature burger, will cost you 490 calories, 23g of fat, and 910 mg of sodium. How is there more calories, fat, and sodium in a salad than in a hamburger (mind you this is without cheese)?

Even the grilled chicken version of this salad has about the same amount of sodium as the jumbo jack, this isn’t really a battle of grilled vs. fried chicken.

For 510 calories, you can down 3.5 bottles of Corona (I suggest drinking better beer than that, but Corona is one of America’s favorite beers…)

Instead of this salad, for 510 calories you could eat 11 cups of watermelon (although a great summer party food and shot chaser, no one wants 11 cups of watermelon.)

 

The better choice: Grilled Chicken Salad

Calories: 250
Fat: 9g
Sodium: 660 mg

 

Let’s put that into perspective:

A much more reasonable calories count, which I can assume comes from having less non-vegetable toppings. So definitely not that exciting of a salad, but if you are trying to be healthier here, this is your best bet.

It is worth mentioning, that this is the lowest calorie option (other than apples with caramel sauce) on their “healthy dining” menu…

What are some other items you can get at Jack in the Box for 250 calories?

A 5-piece chicken nugget will cost you 240 calories, but the whopping 17g of fat makes it not nearly comparable.

One of their classic tacos will cost you 190 calories, but since it comes with two for 99 cents, you should bring a friend to pass it along to.

While they offer a few salads and some things they claim are healthy, Jack in the Box’s nutritional information page is a scary brochure to look over as a nutritionist, which sadly leaves me disappointed that it is one of my favorite guilty pleasure stops.

 

Wendy’s

Fast Food Salad Run Down | Nutrition Gone Wild

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Wendy’s has recently made it a point to celebrate their salad contributions to the fast food world. In the over-saturated market of burgers, Wendy’s is just trying to compete. And they are currently winning the war, greatly

In the over-saturated market of burgers, Wendy’s is just trying to compete. And they are currently winning the war, greatly cutting into McDonald’s market share.

I can’t say whether their salads are the only variable helping them, but I have to say I was quite intrigued to look at their salad options and nutrition.

They have 4 different salads to choose from, which all come with chicken (no shock there). But they do offer a half size option which always makes me happy. However, I will only be evaluating them based on the full-sized portion.

 

The worst choice: Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad

  • Calories: 720
  • Fat: 43g
  • Sodium: 1760mg

I would like to point out here that on their website, they try to distract you from the horrendous fat and sodium content by highlighting the fiber and protein content…BUT 43g OF FAT? That is worse than the worst salad at McDonalds…

I am also perplexed as to how only 13g of that fat is listed as saturated. With only lettuce, tomato, cheese, croutons, chicken, and CREAMY dressing, where is all this unsaturated fat coming from? I mean, chicken has some unsaturated fat, but that is a lot of unaccounted for fat.

And that sodium count is already over the daily recommendation of 1500 mg!

 

But, let’s put this into perspective:

At Wendy’s you can get a single cheeseburger for 550 calories, 34g of fat, and 1180 mg of sodium. To be honest, I would go for that cheeseburger over that terrible salad any day if you have to pick between the two.

What else can you eat for 720 calories?

13 cups of broccoli. Yup.
6 oz of cheese (yes that would be 56g of fat, but hey this salad is 43g…)
5.75 cups of 2% milk (which has 27.6g of fat, still less than the fat in this salad)

I mean, for 720 calories, you could get wasted (like blacked out wasted) on 7 shots of pretty much any liquor…please don’t do that though. Okay?

 

The better choice: Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad

  • Calories: 450
  • Fat: 15g
  • Sodium: 1070 mg

Much more reasonable on the calorie and fat content for this salad choice. And with sundried tomatoes and quinoa, it sure makes for a much more interesting salad. Once again though, sodium is a bit high. But at this point, the other options aren’t much better.

 

Let’s put this into perspective:

You can get Wendy’s Crispy Chicken BLT sandwich for 440 calories, but it will cost you 24g of fat (a bit more than the salad’s fat content) and you do get a bit more fiber in the salad…

Unique to Wendy’s, you can get a large cup of chili (hold the finger, at least that was a hoax) for 250 calories, 7g fat, and 1170 mg of sodium. Not bad considering most fast food sides are high in calories and empty of nutritional value. With the additional bonus of 5g of fiber and 23g of protein, chili is not a bad option either.

Ultimately, Wendy’s offers enough salad choices with enough toppings that you can easily take some cheese and croutons off the top and greatly reduce your overall calorie intake. Also, ordering a half sized salad is not a bad move either. Especially if you are trying to leave some caloric room in your day for a frostee…

Burger King

Fast Food Salad Run Down | Nutrition Gone Wild

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While I can’t think of the last time I was in a Burger King, I chose to evaluate them because they are one of the main fast food joints with a large market share (I mean McDonalds dominates, but apparently Burger King has been giving them a run for their money).

Their salad options are abysmal in number, but I must push on and compare their TWO salads…I also must mention that listed under “salads and veggies,” they put their information about their veggie burger. Last time I checked, veggie burgers are not a salad…nor a veggie. But the U.S. government once stated that pizza was a vegetable, so who really makes the rules here?

 

The worst choice: Bacon Cheddar Ranch Crispy Chicken Salad

  • Calories: 720
  • Fat: 50g
  • Sodium: 1960 mg

OMG, OMG, OMG! This is a salad, right? I mean I understand that when you add fried chicken to a salad everything goes to shit, but 50g of fat??????? That number of question marks was completely necessary.

I am perplexed as to how you get that much fat into a salad.

Since we kind of already talked earlier about what you can get for 720 calories, let’s just focus on the fat here. ALL 50 GRAMS.

 

Let’s put this in perspective:

About 20-35% of your daily calorie intake should come from fat (9 calories per gram of fat), so this means that if you are on a 2,000 calories diet you should get somewhere between 44-78 g of fat per day. Imagine that you eat this salad and now you have eaten more than half, if not all, of the fat you are allowed to have that day. FOR. A. SALAD.

I mean, if I’m going to eat that much fat in one meal (which is absolutely terrible for you) at least it could be a truly enjoyable cheat meal like a burger, pizza, or burrito right?

BK’s regular whopper hamburger has 630 calories, 38g of fat, and 810 mg of sodium. You honestly may be better off ordering that instead…

What else can you eat that has 50g of fat (for now we will look at this without considering the type of fat)?

2.5 cups of avocado (which still has less calories than this salad)
¾ cup of almonds (also less calories than this salad)
2 oz of extra virgin olive oil

Just don’t order this salad PLEASE.

 

The better option: Garden Grilled Chicken Salad

  • Calories: 320
  • Fat: 14g
  • Sodium: 650 mg

Okay, so this grilled chicken salad is much less of a nutritional offender than the other salad option. The calorie and sodium count is reasonable for a salad.

 

Let’s put this into perspective:

There is pretty much nothing else you can get at Burger King with less than 320 calories.

You can get a 6-piece chicken nugget for 260 calories and 16g of fat, but I am pretty sure their nuggets are also a product of pink slime…

If you have to order something, get this salad and don’t look back. Unless there is a healthier restaurant right behind you. In that case, stop ordering, exit Burger King, and go there.

 

So how ‘bout them salads?

Fast Food Salads | Nutrition Gone Wild

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So when I embarked on researching fast food salads, I wasn’t really expecting much good to be found, and I would say I was about 90% right in my assumptions. But, there is a silver lining here, and that is the fact that you can easily alter your salad choices at these establishments to make them less terrible.

Here are some easy modifications to improve these fast food salads:

  1. Go grilled if there is chicken (skip the fried stuff)
  2. Creamy dressings are full of fat, go for a vinaigrette or just good ol’ oil and vinegar if they have it
  3. Take off the cheese!
  4. Croutons are dumb (too much fat and carbs, and absolutely no nutrition)

Any of these modifications can save you anywhere from 50-200 calories if you can handle bargaining with yourself that you don’t need those things. I KNOW IT CAN BE HARD…

The lesson here is to remember that you sometimes can’t easily judge the health of a food by looking at it or what category it falls under. Salads are tricky, and their reputation for always being healthy is hurting your ability to make good judgments. Let’s be smarter about our salad picking!

Don’t let them fool you.

You really can ruin some healthy lettuce (in more than a few ways).

I am sure there are other fast food places offering some salads with a bit more merit. If you have a favorite salad from a fast food place or any restaurant for that matter, please tweet me about it or tag me in your lunch photo on Instagram. I must continue my fast food salad research, so if I missed anything or you want me to review any other fast food chains, get in contact. I’d love to hear from you. 

And remember, if you learned something, don’t keep it to yourself:

 

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About Kaitlin Cushman


Welcome to Nutrition Gone Wild. I'm Kaitlin, I have 2 degrees in nutrition, and I want to make a promise to you: I'm going to offer advice that is easy, beneficial, and applicable to your everyday life. This advice is meant to empower you to make these small changes that ultimately will benefit your overall health without taking the fun out of your daily schedule. Join me on this journey to living health(ier), wild and free!

Being healthy doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good cocktail…

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Half the calories, all the fun.