Are Plant-Based Options at Fast Food Restaurants a Healthier Choice?

When you’re on the go with a growling stomach, you may find yourself in a fast food restaurant where healthy food choices are hard to find. Could one of many new, plant-based options – whether it’s Burger King’s Impossible Whopper or Subway’s Meatless Meatball Marinara – be the answer?

Melissa Keeney, RDN, a registered dietitian at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, dives into the world of plant-based fast food.

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Meat or not, fast food is fast food

Many plant-based options may leave you feeling mentally good about your choice, but the nutrients may not reflect the same goodness.

“In general, fast food does not offer much nutrition. Most foods at fast food restaurants are high in sodium and saturated fat and low in fiber,” notes Melissa Keeney, RDN, a registered dietitian at St. Vincent’s Medical Center.  “Nutritionally, plant-based burgers are not too different from hamburgers.”

The nutritional breakdown

The problem is introducing plant-based products into fast food kitchens. Plant-based burgers and meat at McDonald’s and Burger King have comparable levels of saturated fat and protein. The kicker? The plant-based burgers actually have higher levels of sodium.

“For reference, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily and an ideal limit of less than 1,500 mg per day for most adults. All of the burgers listed had more than 1,000 mg of sodium, with some almost at the ideal limit for the entire day,” she says.

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Plant-based “meat” has changed in the past few years

Many fast food restaurants added plant-based products to their menus in 2020 and 2021. These newer products – many produced by plant-based brands like Impossible or Beyond – are a major evolution from the original veggie burgers.

“These new plant-based burgers are different from the veggie burgers made with vegetables, grains and beans that have been around for a while. They were created to look, smell and taste like a regular burger. They even ‘bleed’ like real beef!” she notes.

But wait – a plant-based diet could still be a good choice

It’s not time to totally write off your dreams of a plant-based diet.

Typically, Keeney says research indicates that eating more plant-based meals decreases risk of:

“Eating more plant-based meals may improve sleep, quality of life, immune function and digestive health,” she says.

Developing a healthy relationship with food

Grabbing plant-based fast food – or any fast food – occasionally isn’t going to ruin your attempts at living a healthy lifestyle, Keeney says.

“Being healthy is not just about eating healthy foods; it is also about having a healthy relationship with food. No single food or meal is going to make or break your diet. If you are having the fast food occasionally, go ahead and eat it,” she says.

To reap the benefits of plant-based nutrition, start with making plants the star of your meal a few times per week. Add nuts or seeds to a salad instead of meat or fish, swap a deli sandwich for a veggie and hummus wrap, or make vegetarian chili with beans or lentils.

If you are interested in adding more plant-based foods to your diet, talk with a registered dietitian.