Good Fast Food for Diabetics – Is there such a thing?

Supriya Lal

2021 Sep 16

10 min read

We’re here to tell you that fast food for diabetics can actually be good! We all know that ‘Fast food’ is generally known to be high in fat content, high in sodium, high in sugar, is deep fried, or devoid of any kind of nutrition. That means, it’s high in flavor, high in carbs and low on health. However, nutrition and medical science have proven that a number of food groups are safe and healthy for diabetics to consume – even in the form of fast food. 

So all you need is a bit of knowledge on what fast food options are your healthy choice and which ones are bound to send you on a blood sugar spike!

What is Diabetes?

In a nutshell, Diabetes is a condition that results in an abnormally high level of sugar (or glucose) in the blood. The primary reasons for the development of Diabetes are genetics and/or poor lifestyle choices. Both these play a role in affecting insulin levels (a hormone that is responsible for storing away excess glucose in the body) in the blood. While Diabetes can be managed by diet and lifestyle changes, medication may be necessary as prescribed by a registered physician. 

Diet and Diabetes

Studies have shown that a regular, customized diet consisting of specific nutrients and regular exercise can, in many cases, reverse the development of Diabetes, and in particular, Type 2 Diabetes. 

Type 1 vs Type 2 Diabetes: How does diet affect them both 

Type 1 Diabetes: Is a rare genetic condition, affecting about 5-10% of diabetics worldwide. Here, the body’s immune system mistakes insulin producing cells to be invader cells and attacks them. Insulin can no longer be produced in the body and hence, the condition cannot be reversed. 

Type 2 Diabetes: Is the most common type of Diabetes affecting 90-95% of all diabetics worldwide. In this case the immune system functions normally, however the body becomes resistant to the insulin that is produced; in other words, the body cannot use insulin properly, either because of genetics or because of a sedentary lifestyle or unhealthy dietary habits.

Both these conditions are similar when it comes to diet and nutrition. They must be managed carefully with a low sugar, low carbohydrate diet.

What fast food should diabetics avoid?

Despite a strict diet, there are times when you go out with family and friends for a meal. You may have an especially busy week of work, and not have the time to prepare a balanced meal to take to work; you need to know what quick and easy options you have under these circumstances, right?

Diets can be tricky to understand, especially because each individual has different needs, each may be at a different stage of progression, each individual may or may not have other health concerns that can all have a massive impact on the diet they follow. 

We highly recommend that you follow what your physician and dietician recommend to you. But here’s what you should know about an ideal diet for diabetics in general.  

Sugar is the main cause for concern for all diabetics.  

If you’re looking for a one-liner on what foods are bad for diabetics? It’s: 

“Avoid anything with sugar, or food groups that can be broken down into sugars”

Plan to eat or snack every 4 hours at least so low blood sugar levels don’t drain you of energy. If diabetics consume foods that release too much sugar into their bloodstream, it puts them at a high risk of sugar induced shock, predisposes them to heart, kidney or nervous disease conditions and other complications. 

In other words, avoid Carbohydrates! Rice, refined wheat breads, pasta, noodles are all Carbs. Fibers however are good for digestion and do not break down within the body. Proteins and fats do not break down into sugars, so they’re ok to eat. 

Beverages are notorious for being loaded with sugar, and surprisingly so are many salad dressings!

White breads and buns are processed as well as carbohydrates by nature and so should be avoided as much as possible.  

What to look for in a fast food menu?

A balanced diet must contain a healthy mix of Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats, Fiber, Vitamins and Minerals. These are the main food groups that the human body requires. By default, we consume higher quantities of Carbohydrates. Grains or cereals are the best source of carbohydrates. We also find carbohydrates in Beans, legumes, corn and a few fruits. 

It’s interesting to note that each carbohydrate containing food item is processed differently in the body, resulting in more or less glucose when digested. 

Refined foods such as those containing refined wheat or white rice for example, tend to release higher amounts if glucose/sugar than whole grains. Whole wheat is a better alternative to refined wheat, however, whole grains like oats, barley and millets are much healthier. In what way, you ask?

  • Releases glucose slowly and steadily into the blood stream. This is called a low glycemic index
  • Offers the feeling of satiety, so you don’t feel hungry till it’s time for your next meal.
  • Reduces the risk of heart disease, regulates cholesterol levels, and reduces the risk of kidney disease.

Best fast food choices for diabetics

Tip#1

When you’re at a fast food joint, look for choices that are prepared with whole grains or those with a low glycemic index. For example: whole wheat breads vs white bread/buns, brown rice vs white rice, barley breads, oats or millet containing dishes, etc. Refined grains tend to increase the blood sugar levels in the blood suddenly, which is harmful for diabetics.   

If you’re having a burger, take off half the bun to cut down how much white bread you’re eating! You can make up for this by getting a healthy dessert like a fruit bowl with dried fruits and nuts.

Tip#2

Look for a low calorie count. Go low fat. Calories are not too great for diabetics either. So try to avoid dishes that are high in calories. But that does not mean that you don’t get to satisfy cravings!

Avoid cheese and mayonnaise, instead choose guacamole – which incidentally has a lot of calories. But the calories are comprised of healthy fats, which is ok for diabetics.

Tip#3

We’ve talked about Carbs and Calories, so it’s time we deal with the obvious culprit – sugar itself. Quite often we don’t consider the sugar content in a diet soda, a fat-free coffee, a light tea or even our toppings and dressings. So, when you’re at a fast food place, go for unsweetened beverages and take salad dressings on the side. If you planned to eat out at a place where sugar-free, fat-free or low sodium salad dressings are not available, you could even carry a fat-free, sugar-free dressing with you, so that you don’t miss out on a good salad dressing.

Toppings and condiments can contain tons of salt (sodium content), especially if it’s fat-free, so check the ingredients listed before you add sauces to your dish.      

Tip#4

How is the food cooked? Most fast food dishes or at least parts of the dish has been deep fried at least once and it’s not uncommon for a burger patty to be deep fried twice, i.e. once at an food manufacturing plant, when it’s prepped to be frozen and distributed to the fast food outlets, and a second time when it’s prepared to be served to you! 

Your best choice is a grilled dish. Grilling is a method of cooking that uses almost no oil and the process tends to remove fat by melting it. Baked, broiled, roasted and steamed options are great choices too, just make sure you go easy on oils and fats.  

Tip#5

Include lots of fresh veggies! Salads are always recommended. But make sure you only Add on some extra tomatoes and lettuce in your burger or sandwich. If you’re ordering a pizza, get a thin crust veggie pizza, with added grilled chicken for protein. Use beans, olives, mushrooms, guacamole, jalapenos, peppers and other healthier options to spice up your salads without the extra unhealthy fats or sodium content. 

Choose a fruit salad for dessert, maybe a small scoop of fat-free ice-cream if you really want to indulge!

Tip#6

Choose good meat options like chicken, turkey or fish. These white meats are lower in unsaturated fats and are a good source of protein. Red meats like beef, veal, lamb or pork provide good proteins that you don’t get in white meats, but – they are high in saturated or unhealthy fats. So in general opt for white meat. But you can still have small quantities of very lean red meats occasionally, just to break the monotony. 

Red meat options include: Fat trimmed beef ribs, sirloin, flank, T-bone steak, porterhouse, Roast lamb, Lamb chops or leg of lamb. When it comes to pork, the fat content is very high so try to steer clear of pork/ham. Processed meats like pepperoni or sausages or salami, are not freshly prepared and potentially lose their nutrient value, while sodium and fat content is high. These kinds of meats tend to have a high percentage of filler content, so you don’t actually get as much chicken or meat content as you think you’re getting. At some restaurants you can always ask for these processed meats without fillers.

Tip#7

Eat slowly. Savor your meal and stop when you’re full. That’s the key to satisfying your cravings and also ensuring that you’re not tempted to binge-eat a whole lot of fast food later on.

So, in effect you can eat healthy fast food! For diabetics, it’s all about arming yourself with the right knowledge and striking the right balance between what you want and what you actually eat. Eat healthy, but also enjoy yourself, while you take care of yourself! 

What fast food restaurants are good for diabetics?

America has around 200,000 Fast food outlets! These quick service restaurants are not only all about the comfort food and convenience without a care for nutritional value! They have top of the line safety and health standards that have to be followed. And that’s not all, today all fast food restaurants are governed by regulations (FDA) that require that they clearly display and make accessible online, the nutritional information for each of their dishes. And as we all know, standardized consistency adds to these restaurants’ popularity.

So, if you’re at a McDonald’s or Starbucks or Taco Bell, your menu shows you how many calories, sodium content, sugar, protein, carbohydrate and other nutrient content information etc. each dish contains. If you have some time to plan your visit to a fast food restaurant, you can even use one of the many nutrition calculator apps that give you the nutrition breakup of each item in a popular restaurant, you can compare dishes, mix and match the toppings, and customize your order to give you a great meal.

So, we’re not partial to particular fast food joints, each of them have their own unique style. With health consciousness on the rise, especially since the pandemic, fast food restaurants have not been slow to hear that customers want healthy fast food options too. Just keep our tips in mind and next time you’re dining out, choose the best diabetic-friendly menu items you can find!

Written by

Supriya Lal

Supriya Lal is a Registered Dietitian based in New York City. She completed her training at Duke University Hospital System and has specific interests in personalised nutrition therapy, nutritional counseling, and sustainability related to food and nutrition. She is currently completing her Master's in Public Health at New York University.

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