Fast food typically contains high levels of carbohydrates. People following a low carb diet may find it difficult to find suitable fast foods. However, by making some modifications, people can find suitable low carb fast food options.
Many fast food meals contain bread, pasta, noodles, rice, or fries, making them unsuitable for a low carb diet. Because these are high carb ingredients, just 1 serving could push someone over their daily carb allowance.
However, it is still possible to enjoy fast food when following a low carb diet. People concerned about their carb intake can modify some fast food options to reduce the amount of carbs they contain.
This article will explain how to source or modify fast food options to suit a low carb diet.
Although there is no set definition, the term fast food typically refers to economical food that someone prepares and serves quickly. Many places — including restaurants, drive-thru establishments, food trucks, and delivery services — serve fast food.
Manufacturers often make fast food using cheaper or lower quality ingredients, such as fatty meats, refined grains, and saturated and trans fats. These foods are also high in salt and, sometimes, sugar.
Why do people choose to eat it?
People eat fast food for a variety of reasons. According to one older 2008 study, adolescents and adults who regularly consume fast food do so for various reasons.
The most frequently reported reasons included:
- the speed of service (92%)
- the convenience of restaurant location (80%)
- the taste (69%)
Other, less frequently reported reasons included:
- socializing with family and friends (33%)
- the nutritious foods available (21%)
- fun and entertainment (12%)
Low carb fast food is fast food that contains low levels of carbs. There is no set definition for what constitutes low carb.
Some sources suggest that in a low carb diet, under 26% of total calories come from carbs. This equates to under 130 grams (g) of carbs daily.
Some popular low carb diets set even lower limits. For example, the ketogenic diet limits carb intake to 5–10% of total calories. For those who consume 2,000 calories per day, this equates to 20–50 g of carbs.
The sections below will look at some popular fast food options and explain how to modify them to make them suitable for a low carb diet.
Ground beef is the main constituent of most burger patties, and it contains as little as 0 g of carbs. Most burgers are low in carbs once a person removes the bun and ketchup. Alternatively, a person could replace the bun with a lettuce wrap.
Some people like to double up on the patty or add low carb toppings to make a more filling meal. Some safe low carb toppings include:
- bacon, which contains 0.27 g of carbs per 16-g serving (guideline amount for a regular sandwich)
- cheese, which contains 1.86 g of carbs per slice
- guacamole, which contains 1.27 g of carbs per tablespoon (tbsp)
- mayonnaise, which contains 0.08 g of carbs per tbsp
- mustard, which contains 0.8 g of carbs per tbsp
- onions, which contain 1.4 g of carbs per slice
- tomato, which contains 0.78 g of carbs per slice
Salads and bowls
A salad or bowl is easily customizable to reduce its carb content. People can choose a bed of greens and add in vegetables and lean meat or chicken.
However, people should be careful when choosing a dressing, as many contain sugar or corn syrup. An olive oil dressing is a safe choice, and some vinaigrette options are also suitable. Or, a person could add some guacamole, tomato salsa, or sour cream to the salad instead.
Avoid croutons and breaded meats, if possible, as these add to the carb load. Just 14.2 g of croutons can contain 9.02 g of carbs. Similarly, a quarter cup of breadcrumbs (31 g) can increase the carb load by 22 g.
When ordering a burrito bowl, people may wish to avoid beans, as these are a source of carbs — albeit a healthy source.
Depending on the establishment, there may be options available specifically for people who follow a low carb diet. These options may include cauliflower rice as a keto-friendly option.
Besides salads, some establishments offer the option of a sub in a bowl. Low carb options include chicken salad, tuna, and cold cuts such as turkey.
Breaded chicken, which is prevalent in fast food outlets, is not suitable for people following a low carb diet, as the breadcrumbs are high in carbs. Instead, a person may wish to opt for grilled chicken, where possible.
Buffalo wings may be another low carb option. However, those made with a sugary barbecue or teriyaki sauce are high in carbs, at 8.21 g per wing. Breaded or battered wings are also high in carbs.
Many fast food establishments also offer breakfast options, but not all of these are suitable for people following a low carb diet. It is best to avoid pancakes, waffles, and anything bread- or potato-based.
A popular low carb breakfast option is a serving of eggs with bacon or sausage.
Other food options
There are many other fast food options available for those following a low carb diet, though many require slight modifications.
At establishments serving Asian cuisine, a person may wish to opt for meals that contain protein and vegetables but skip the rice or noodles and sweet sauces.
When dining at an Italian restaurant, a person may wish to ask for an antipasto salad. This is a platter that typically contains assorted meats, cheeses, vegetables, and olives. They may also wish to avoid any bread or breadsticks that may accompany the meal.
When following a low carb diet, a person should be sure to choose their drinks carefully. Often, the healthiest choice is water. Tea or coffee, without sugar, is another good option.
Adding half-and-half milk, heavy cream, or unsweetened almond milk will not contribute too much to the drink’s carb content. Cream contains around 0.85 g of carbs per fluid ounce (29.8 g), and almond milk contains around 0.83 g per 100 milliliters (ml).
The following tips may help people stick to their low carb diet when eating out:
- Prepare by checking the establishment’s nutritional information online and planning meals accordingly.
- Always consider portion sizes when calculating the carb content. Some menus may give the carb content per 100 g, while the actual portion may be much larger than this.
- Ask for dressings on the side, or choose a drizzle of olive oil instead.
- Replace buns or wraps with lettuce leaves.
- Avoid croutons.
- Fill up at the salad bar first to avoid overeating other foods, such as fries.
A low carb diet restricts carb intake to under 130 g per day. Some versions of the diet limit carb intake even further than this.
Carbs are present in many foods, but they are highest in foods such as bread, pasta, other grains, and starchy vegetables. Sugary foods are also very high in carbs.
Some people may choose to follow a low carb diet to improve their health or to lose weight. Some research suggests that following a low carb diet may increase energy expenditure and contribute to weight loss.
People following a low carb diet eat mostly:
- nonstarchy vegetables
- nuts and seeds
- dairy products
- healthy oils and fats
They limit or avoid:
- grains and grain products, such as wheat, rice, and barley, as well as bread, pasta, and cereal
- starchy vegetables, such as potato and sweet potato
- sugar and corn syrup
- highly processed foods
- diet and low fat products, as these often contain added sugar
- vegetable oils
When calculating the carb content of a meal, it is important to consider serving size.
Also, because of this diet’s restrictive nature, those following it should try to choose high nutrient foods to ensure that they meet their nutritional needs.
Following a low carb diet may have benefits for some people, but it also poses certain risks.
For example, it may cause short-term issues such as nausea, a lack of energy, or headaches.
Long-term risks include nutritional deficiencies and loss of bone density.
A low carb diet is not suitable for everyone, including those with kidney problems. Therefore, it is important that those considering a low carb diet speak with a doctor before making any dietary changes.
People may find eating out while following a low carb diet challenging, especially when it comes to fast food. However, it is possible to create low carb menu options by making a few modifications.
Most of the time, people following a low carb diet should choose high nutrient food options to prevent deficiencies and other diet-related complications.