While fast food is certainly not something you should eat every day (even if that fast food claims to be healthy, or would make you think plant-based is nutritious), a nugget fix every now and then certainly isn’t the end of the world — unless the sodium content in those nuggets is staggering.
Fast food restaurants are always on the cutting edge of innovation and invention, constantly releasing new and exciting menu items and limited-time specials. As tempting as fried pickles or mac & cheese may sound, it’s important to pull back the curtain a bit (or in this case, pull back the breadcrumbs and bun) to see which ingredients are really lurking underneath. and whether the nutritional drawbacks are worth the splurge.
The past few months have seen a deluge of dazzling new fast food menu items and seasonal specials, from the highly anticipated Strawberry Frosty to new meat-free burgers. But behind the buzzwords is the fact that many of these newbies are… less than healthy.
To get to the bottom of this new crop of fast food novelties, we consulted registered dietitian Amy Goodson on which of the new items are worth ordering or avoiding — and some healthier alternatives if the cravings still persist.
Per nugget: 45 calories, 3 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 135 mg sodium
It’s always exciting when a restaurant chain revives an old classic (ahem, Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza), which is why there was such a buzz about the highly anticipated return of KFC’s Kentucky Fried Chicken Nuggets.
This summer, for the first time in decades, the crunchy snacks come in 8, 12 and 36 pieces, with a side of dipping sauce. The only major caveat for now is that they are currently only available in one test market: Charlotte, NC. But when you consider how not so great these low-key sodium bombs are, that could actually be good news for you. Sorry, Charlotte.
“While 45 calories and 3 grams of fat may not seem like much, it can add up pretty quickly if you start multiplying that by 8 and 12,” Goodson says. “The 8-count nugget order has 360 calories, 24 grams of fat and 1,080 mg of sodium. The 12-count nugget really starts to climb there with 540 calories, 36 grams of fat and a whopping 1,620 milligrams of sodium, which is half of the per diem. And remember, this is without by-products!”
To keep things healthy, Goodson emphasizes the importance of portion control. “Stick with the 8-piece nugget and pair it with some more nutritious sides like corn on the cob, green beans, or mashed potatoes. Pairing fried nuggets with fresh veggies keeps the sodium and fat content lower for the meal.”
Per bowl: 660-790 calories, 36 g fat, 57 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 2,270 mg sodium
Apparently KFC is feeling nostalgic this summer as the brand also brought back another menu item that has been inactive since 2019. Mac & Cheese, a standout side dish, quickly became a popular appetizer with crispy popcorn chicken. And again, it’s not the best choice for a healthy diet.
Unlike the side dish portion of mac & cheese at KFC, these bowls are a calorie bomb. “While a side of mac and cheese might pair well with a 140-calorie, 6-gram fat meal, the Mac & Cheese Bowl can take your calorie, fat, and sodium count over your meal before a meal,” explains Goodson. “With up to 790 calories, 36 grams of fat and 2,270 milligrams of sodium, this is way more than most people need in a meeting.”
If you still want to scratch that cheesy itch, Goodson recommends sticking with the smaller part that not bowl topped with popcorn chicken. “Instead of indulging in the whole bowl, order a side of macaroni and cheese. Pair it with grilled chicken breast, green beans, and corn on the cob for extra protein and fiber. This meal should have significantly less total fat, sodium, and calories.” then the full Mac and Cheese Bowl.”
Per McFlurry: 640 calories, 21 g fat (14 g saturated fat), 200 mg sodium
America loves a McFlurry moment. Every time McDonald’s releases a new ice cream treat, it turns into a McFrenzy. That’s why there was buzz about a new candy-filled McFlurry flavor being tested in Southern California. Made with vanilla soft-serve and studded with Hershey’s candies, it’s basically a fortified version of the M&M McFlurry. But more candy also means less healthy.
“Everyone should enjoy dessert every now and then, but at 640 calories and 21 grams of fat, the Hershey’s Mix McFlurry might be a bit much,” Goodson says. “Especially if you also had a McDonald’s meal during this drive-thru trip.”
Instead, she suggests keeping things simpler — and less candy-filled — for something sweet. “The McDonald’s Vanilla Cone is only 200 calories and 5 grams of fat. The vanilla cone has only 22 grams of added sugar compared to the 83 grams of added sugar in a McFlurry. And it still gives you something sweet to cool you down!”
PER SANDWICH: 410-450 calories
After a maelstrom of drama, lawsuits and declining sales, Subway desperately needed a makeover. And that’s literally exactly what it did with a complete menu overhaul as part of its Eat Fresh Refresh campaign. This summer, the chain removed the tweaks to its famously customizable menu (Brave Move) and instead sold 12 sandwiches that they could order. But just because things have been “redesigned” doesn’t automatically mean they’re the beacon of health, especially since some of those sandwiches are cheesesteaks and meat bombs.
Given the wide array of new sandwiches, from “The Boss” (meatball marinara) to “The Monster” (a meaty monstrosity with steak, bacon, and Monterey cheddar), each has wildly different nutrition facts, fat, calories, and sodium count. “When it comes to subs, what you put in between breads can make or break the nutritional value,” Goodson says. “While Subway offers many subs, here are some key moves to keep the calories and fat down.”
For starters, she suggests going with a 6-inch sub instead of a footlong. “Choose whole wheat bread or a wrap for more nutrients. Remember that more bread and those with cheese have more calories. If you really want to cut back on the calories, try a wrap.”
For meats, Goodson suggests choosing lean meats such as turkey, chicken, ham, and even roast beef. “Other meats like meatballs, pastrami, salami, pepperoni and more tend to be higher in fat, calories and sodium.”
And when it comes to spice, restraint is the name of the game. Sauces and spreads like ranch, mayo, and other creamy dressings pile up on the calories. Try Subway’s new mashed avocado spread or mustard to lean out of your sub. If you like the creamy option, go for it and use less .”
Per Impossible King Sandwich: 552.2 calories, 21.7 g fat (11.2 g saturated fat, 0.2 g trans fat), 34.6 mg cholesterol, 1,998.9 mg sodium, 56.6 g carbohydrate (5.1 g fiber, 10.3 g sugar), 29 egg whites
Per Impossible Southwest Bacon Burger: 795.7 calories, 42.3 g fat (14.7 g saturated fat, 0.2 g trans fat), 36.9 mg cholesterol, 1,604.3 mg sodium, 73.3 g carbohydrate (7.2 g fiber, 12.2 g sugar), 37.4 g protein
Burger King rolled out two new plant-based sandwiches this summer: the Impossible King and the Impossible Southwest Bacon Whopper. But don’t let the meat-free patty fool you: Just because something has no meat doesn’t automatically make it healthy.
“While it may seem like a meat alternative might be better for you, the truth is that the Whopper Jr. and good old cheeseburger each have less than 350 calories,” Goodson notes. “If you’re looking for a healthier option for a meat alternative, the Impossible King and Impossible Whopper have less fat and calories than the Impossible Southwest Bacon Burger. In addition, the Impossible Whopper has added tomatoes, lettuce, and onions, providing additional nutritional benefits and less sodium than the impossible king.”
Goodson also suggests omitting the mayonnaise to reduce the total fat and calories. “Another way to cut back on the calories is to go without a bun and wrap the patty in lettuce.”
Per portion: 800 calories, 62 g fat (9 g saturated fat), 15 mg cholesterol, 3,200 mg sodium, 54 g carbohydrates (4 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 7 g protein
Chicken fingers aren’t the only things fried at Zaxby’s. The Southern chain, best known for its crispy chicken, crinkle chips and signature sauce, decided there just wasn’t enough fried foods on the menu and opted not only to bring back the limited-time Fried Pickles, but to make them a regular. menu item.
Made with slices of dill pickle covered in cornmeal batter, deep-fried, and served with buttermilk and herb farm sauce, they’re the pinnacle of Southern comfort—and they’re pretty awful for you, too.
“If you want to try this favorite menu item, consider sharing the plate with a larger group and pay attention to portion size,” Goodson says. “A few bites can satisfy your cravings without blowing your calorie bank.”
Another shareable option she recommends is the Zaxby’s Crinkle Fries. “A large order is 530 calories, 23 grams of fat and 930 mg of sodium, which has significantly fewer calories, fat and sodium than the pickles, and is still a great snack to share. Divide this among three people and you have a side dish something tasty, but in a better calorie range. And if you’re going to eat French fries, try it with a chicken salad. It’s another way to balance your plate and enjoy your favorites!”