Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD

Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD

Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD, the founder of Milk & Honey Nutrition, is a diabetes dietitian (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist) renowned for combining her knowledge of diabetes and culinary expertise into easy-to-follow recipes and articles!

Overview

Dietitian-Approved Fast Food For Diabetes

Article Overview

fried chicken sandwich fast food for diabetes

Knowing what to order when you go out to eat can be hard, so keep reading for our top dietitian-approved options for fast food for diabetes. 

Ever wonder what the best options for someone with diabetes are at a fast food restaurant? Well, look no further because below we’re detailing what you should order and everything you need to know about fast food for diabetes.

My experience eating out with diabetes

Eating out with diabetes can be overwhelming, but it is possible! As a dietitian living with diabetes myself, I actually rely on fast food or quick restaurant meals often. I’m a working parent just like many other people and I’m thankful there are so many amazing blood sugar friendly options available. This wasn’t always the case though.

“Fast food” has changed dramatically over the last 20 years with more and more healthy high protein fast food options and restaurants. Some of my favorites include: Cava, Chipotle, Starbucks, and Jason’s Deli.

crispy potato wedges fast food for diabetes

10 Specific diabetes friendly fast food tips

It is estimated that over 30% of Americans eat at least one fast food meal every day… so, it’s unrealistic to assume you’ll never eat fast food again when you have diabetes. It’s important to be prepared and have some go-to menu options in mind. In addition to the tips above, keep the following tips about fast food for diabetes in mind as well:

  1. Look up the nutritional information for menu items if you’re able to ahead of time.
  2. Don’t go to a fast food restaurant when you are overly hungry. Wait for a time when you can be most in tune with your hunger and fullness cues. If you’ve skipped a meal that same day, you may not be able to listen to your body to the best of your ability.
  3. Make sure you always include a protein source.
  4. Look for menu items with veggies.
  5. Choose dishes more likely to be higher in fiber.
  6. Steer clear of dishes with trans fat or high amounts of saturated fat. Keep in mind that most fried fast food items are fried twice by the time they make it to your hands. (The first time happens initially before most fast food is frozen at a production center, and again in the restaurant when “cooked.”) This means the amount of fat can be much higher and may result in a delayed glucose spike.
  7. Avoid high sugar beverages.
  8. Eat slowly, and stop when you feel full.
  9. Don’t size up or super size an order.
  10. Don’t assume that salads are the best option. They may be lacking in protein or have more carbohydrates than you think.

Portion sizes of fast food for diabetes

As mentioned above, be aware of your portion sizes. While many fast food restaurants offer large portion sizes that may be more than you’re hungry for, others may be too small. Looking up the nutrition information ahead of time is a great way to know how you could adjust the amount you eat to meet your nutrition goals or targets.

A perfect example of this for me is Chipotle. I LOVE Chipotle! (I describe the meal I usually get below.) Every once in a while I’m hungry enough to eat a whole bowl. Most of the time though, I’m satisfied with half and can save the other half for the next day.

three tacos fast food for diabetes

Best Diabetes Friendly Fast Food Options

Here is a list of the top places and fast food options I’ve found for diabetes. Keep reading for more about each one and the meals I recommend or click on the one you want to learn more about to jump right to that section!

Can people with diabetes eat Mexican food?

Many fast food Mexican food options can come loaded with cheese, sour cream, and other sources of excess saturated fat and sodium. The choices for Mexican fast food for diabetes listed below reflect choosing dishes with lower amounts of saturated fat and sodium and higher amounts of fiber… while still tasting delicious!

Best fast food options for diabetes at Mexican restaurants

1. Chipotle options

Chipotle can be a great choice for people with diabetes because of the customization of every dish. They also have their own nutrition calculator so you can build your meal and know the exact nutritional break down of what you’re ordering.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Burrito bowl or salad: Chipotle’s bowls and salads offer the most opportunity for complex carbohydrates and veggies. Add your meat of choice, fajita veggies, beans, rice, veggie based salsa, and guacamole. And, depending on your carbohydrate goals, you can choose to have a whole portion or a half portion of things like rice and beans. If you want cheese or sour cream, ask for their “light” portion.
  • My go to order is a chicken bowl with a double portion of chicken, fajita veggies, white rice, 1/2 pinto beans, 1/2 black beans, lettuce, corn salsa, and light cheese.
  • If you want to make your own Chipotle-style bowl at home, make sure to check out my Low Carb Burrito Bowl with Guacamole recipe.
low carb burrito bowl in white bowl

Low Carb Burrito Bowl with Guacamole

This low carb burrito bowl is packed with delicious flavors and can be ready in under 30 minutes!
View Recipe

2. Taco Bell options

Taco Bell has dramatically changed their menu options over the last 10 years or so. They still offer the more indulgent classics we all know, but they’ve added some higher fiber and protein options as well!

  • Chicken or Steak Power Menu Bowls: While these aren’t the lowest carbohydrate option on the menu, they offer a great balance of fat, fiber, and protein when you choose to eat fast food. Each bowl has 41g carbohydrate, 8g fiber and 26g protein.
  • 2 beef soft tacos: You’ll get 18g protein and 6g fiber!

3. Torchy’s Tacos options

If possible, ask for whichever tacos you order on corn tortillas. Each taco will come with two tortillas wrapped around it (which I’ve never really understood), but you only need one. So, I always just save the second one to take home. Choose tacos that don’t have fried fillings and do have veggies and protein.

My top recommendations:

  • Migas on corn tortillas: This is my go-to order. I usually get two. Each migas taco has 17g protein. Remember, take that extra tortilla off or ask for just one tortilla, and you’ll have a delicious blood sugar friendly meal.
  • Chicken fajita taco: A chicken fajita taco on a flour tortilla has 20g carbohydrate and 23g protein. They’re not high in fiber, but will still leave you satisfied.
  • Beef fajita taco: Ask for a beef fajita taco on just one corn tortilla. You’ll get 15g carbohydrate, and 20g protein.
  • Mr. Orange taco: A Mr. Orange taco has a similar nutrition profile to the others we’ve mentioned, but with salmon. It’s one of my favorites!

Can people with diabetes eat Chinese food?

three boxes of takeout chinese food fast food for diabetes

Yes! People with diabetes can eat Chinese food… and options for Chinese fast food for diabetes do exist. For the purposes of this blog post, you can assume I’m referencing the “Americanized” version of Chinese food which we typically see here in the US and is usually higher in sugar (usually in sauces) than traditional Chinese food. The options below reflect choosing dishes with lower sugar sauces and a quality source of protein and veggies!

Top diabetes friendly Chinese food options

1. Pei Wei

For fast food Chinese food and diabetes top picks at Pei Wei, the appetizer section of their menu has a lot fo options. Many of the main entrees and noodle & rice bowls almost all top 80-120g carbohydrates, but there are also some lower to moderate carbohydrate options.

My top picks:

  • Veggie Spring Rolls: I love the crunch of vegetable spring rolls. These have 17g carb and 3g protein in each roll.
  • Edamame: Edamame is a delicious protein rich appetizer! Each order has 23g protein.
  • Chicken Lettuce Wraps: Half an order of chicken lettuce wraps contains ~35g carbohydrate, 17g protein, and 4g fiber.
  • Beef & Broccoli: A full order of beef & broccoli has 50g carbohydrate and 44g protein. This is without rice. I prefer to enjoy half the order with a scoop or rice and that way I get two meals out of it!

2. Panda Express

Panda Express has a category on their menu called “Wok Smart” which designates 300 calories or less and 8g protein or more. I’m not as concerned about the calories, but it’s a good indicator of the dishes that have more protein. The following options are diabetes friendly options that are lower in sodium and moderate in carbohydrates compared to other items on their menu. Pair them with some veggie focused side dishes.

  • Grilled Teriyaki Chicken: I love Teriyaki Chicken! This version has 33g protein and only 14g carbohydrate.
  • Grilled Asian Chicken: Grilled Asian Chicken is another option that’s lower in carbohydrates but higher in protein.
  • Broccoli Beef : I love pretty much any version of Beef & Broccoli. Each serving has 9g protein and 2g fiber.

Can people with diabetes eat fried chicken?

chicken fingers with ketchup fast food for diabetes

Again, yes! People with diabetes can eat fried chicken on occasion… the fried chicken menu options listed below prioritize veggie and fiber sources.

Top fried chicken options for people with diabetes

1. KFC options

  • Whole Wings (Original Recipe or Extra Crispy): Wings are a great way to portion out exactly how much you want to eat and allow you to enjoy some fried chicken but in smaller servings than a chicken breast or thigh.
  • 3pc chicken tender meal: Choose a non-starchy veggie for your side, like coleslaw or green beans. Ask to sub the biscuit for a second vegetable side.

2. Chick-fil-A options

Chick-fil-A has several meals that would be great for people with diabetes. For side items, choose a small waffle fries, side salad, or kale crunch salad.

For an entree, these are great options:

  • Grilled Chicken Sandwich meal: Chick-fil-A’s grilled chicken sandwich is relatively low in sodium compared to other options, and has 28g protein!
  • Grilled Nuggets: The 8ct or 12ct is a great high protein option that’s lower in saturated fat than their fried counterpart.
  • Market Salad with grilled chicken filet: This is one of my favorite fast food salads! I love the fruit on top! Each salad (as it comes) has 5g fiber, 42g protein, and 34g carbohydrate.

And if you want one of their dipping sauces, the Honey Roasted BBQ sauce would be your best choice.

Can people with diabetes eat pizza? 

veggie pizza fast food for diabetes

Choosing the best pizza fast food for diabetes comes down to what kind of crust you choose and what your toppings are.

Top pizza options for people with diabetes

1. Pizza Hut options

Thin ‘N Crispy crust: Thin crust or hand tossed crust are your best options at Pizza Hut. Make sure to focus on veggies for toppings. And if you need to dose medication or insulin based on how many carbohydrates you eat, make sure to check their website for nutrition info. One slice of a large pizza has a different amount of carbohydrate than one slice of a medium pizza.

2. Papa John’s options

Thin crust: Just like with Pizza Hut, make sure to pay attention to which size pizza your slice comes from and opt for a couple veggie loaded slices of their thin crust. And check out their nutrition calculator as well!

3. Dominos options

Hand-tossed pizza: If you’re really craving a traditional pizza, Domino’s is probably your best option. Choose a hand tossed pizza with your choice of lower sodium toppings like fresh veggies and peppers. Half of a small 8in hand tossed pizza has 42g carbohydrate. And if you prefer thin crust, a small 10inch crust with cheese and veggies is only 30g carb for half of a pizza!

Can people with diabetes eat sandwiches and burgers?

hamburger and french fries fast food for diabetes

I think one of the most annoying things I hear recommended for people with diabetes at fast food restaurants is to “skip the bun”… and while I do sometimes recommend this … if you really enjoy a bun on your burger, you can still have it! These classic fast food for diabetes choices are all about making fast food work for you. I’ve chosen menu items that are lower in sodium, moderate in carbohydrate, and that have more fiber.

Top sandwich and burger options for people with diabetes

1. Subway

I have a few menu hacks at Subway for diabetes.

  • Build your own 6inch sandwich: All of the 6inch bread options at Subway are relatively the same when it comes to carbohydrates, fiber, and protein. So choose the one that you enjoy the most. Top your sandwich with veggies and black forest ham or roasted chicken.
  • Grilled Chicken or Tuna Protein Bowl: You can turn any sandwich into a protein bowl now at Subway too.The grilled chicken and tuna options are lowest in sodium.
  • Salad: To keep sodium low, opt for a meatball marinara, grilled chicken, oven roasted turkey, roast beef, rotisserie style chicken, tuna, veggie delite, or black forest ham salad. Add additional sources of protein and veggies!

2. McDonalds

What can a person with diabetes eat at McDonalds? There’s actually quite a few choices that a person with diabetes can enjoy at McDonald’s… My recommendations are:

  • Original hamburger: An original McDonald’s hamburger actually provides good nutritional balance. 31g carbohydrate, 12g protein, and only 510mg sodium. Order it with a small or medium french fries with water.
  • 6 piece nuggets: Chicken nuggets at McDonalds are actually lower in sodium compared to other items and have 15g carbohydrate and 14g protein in a 6pc order. Pair them with a small french fries and spicy Buffalo Sauce or Creamy Ranch Sauce if desired.

3. Panera Bread

While most of the sandwiches at Panera are quite high in sodium, some of their soups and salads are great options:

4. Jason’s Deli options

Anyone who has ever experienced the salad bar at Jason’s Deli knows how good it is, but if you’re not in the mood for the salad bar, there are other options too!

  • Garden Fresh Salad Bar: Focus on leafy greens, lean proteins, veggies, beans, nuts, hummus, and more.
  • Wild Salmon-wich: This is my favorite sandwich Jason’s Deli offers. It’s packed with 32g protein and low amounts of saturated fat.

Fresh fruit or veggies are a great side option as is their hummus!

Best fast food breakfast for people with diabetes

english muffin egg sandwich fast food for diabetes breakfast

Fast food breakfast options tend to offer higher amounts of protein sources and there are some great choices for breakfast fast food for diabetes out there!

Top fast food breakfast options for people with diabetes

Below are some of my favorite high protein fast food breakfast options.

1. Dunkin Donuts breakfast

Dunkin Donuts may have some of the worst fast food for diabetes with some of their high sugar beverages (some have 60g or more!)… but, they also have some amazing blood sugar friendly options too!

For your coffee, try:

  • Medium latte made with almond milk or whole milk provides low amounts of added sugar and the caffeine boost you’re looking for.
  • Cold brew coffee with cream is the perfect way to enjoy cold brew without a lot of extra sugar.

For breakfast, try:

2. Starbucks breakfast

While Starbucks does have some pretty sugar-laden drinks, classics like a latte with almond milk or an iced coffee with cream are great choices.

For a hot breakfast, try the:

(Have you tried my copycat Starbucks egg bite recipe yet?)

3. Panera Bread breakfast

Panera offers some great savory breakfast options with balanced amounts of fat, fiber, and protein like the:

fast food for diabetes kids meal mcdonalds chicken nuggets with apple slices and milk

Best kids meals for diabetes

But, what about fast food for kids with diabetes? What are the best kids meal choices?

Dietitian approved kids meal options for kids with diabetes

1. McDonald’s

4pc chicken nugget meal with small french fry, apple slices, and 1% milk or water

2. Chick-fil-A

Chicken Strips meal or Grilled Nuggets meal with apple sauce, french fries, or fruit cup, and milk or water.

3. Panera Bread

Kids roasted turkey & avocado BLT with yogurt, or Kids cream of chicken and wild rice soup with yogurt

Other fast food for diabetes options

hummus chicken plate zoes kitchen fast food for diabetes

We’ve covered almost every fast food for diabetes recommendation except one remaining restaurant that didn’t quite fit into a category. And it’s actually one of my favorites!

Top healthier fast food options for people with diabetes

1. Cava

Cava is one of my favorite fresher fast food type places, so I didn’t want to leave it out! These are some of my favorite balanced meals they offer: Lemon Chicken Bowl, Tahini Cesar Bowl, Greek Salad Bowl and their Chicken + RightRice bowl. (For those that don’t know, Cava bought out Zoe’s Kitchen which I used to love as well! They had a salmon bowl that was so delicious. I have a homemade version of their cauliflower rice bowl with salmon you can try at home too.)

And for those days when you do have time to cook up an easy and tasty meal, make sure to check out my cookbook The Easy Diabetes Cookbook!

This post was updated from it’s original publish date in February 2021.

how to order the easy diabetes cookbook

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11 Responses

  1. Thank you for the tips. I am someone in the minority in that I am trying to gain weight (currently 5’10” and 135lbs). What do you recommend?

  2. I’m your intro about Mexican food, you make it seem like cheese and sour cream are a bad thing and to order “light” versions. I thought cheese and other dairy products were a good source of protein and fat for diabetics?

  3. Thanks for this great information.
    I just hit age 70 and diagnosed with T2D. You didn’t mention Wendy’s chili. I wonder if this would be a good choice. I drive and am always having to eat out on my job. Thanks ? again!

  4. 61 and just diagnosed. Struggling with food choices. This has been an excellent resource. I was beginning to think I was just going to have to be hungry the rest of my life ! Thank you so much, you give me hope !!

  5. I’m surprise the hearty, blueberry oatmeal from Starbucks is on here I am considered safe for diabetics. I love it! But it’s super sweet. What makes it safe?

  6. Hi, i know the list is based on what works for you and everyone is different. Can i ask tho if you are on any BS meds like metformin or insulin? I’m type 2 but diet controlled besides some supplements like berberine, b12 and D3. I also use a SF fiber drink every day and put fiber, healthy fats and protein above carbs. I have been reluctant to try fast foods again but would love to incorperate some back in.

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