With busy practice, school, and work schedules, it is not uncommon for athletes to need to grab a quick meal on-the-go. It can be helpful for athletes to know what the best fast-food options are to support their sports nutrition needs.
Let’s take a look at tips for helping athletes make healthy fast-food choices. Then we will explore a healthy eating out guide to equip athletes with nutritious choices at a variety of dining locations.
Fast Food for Athletes: 5 Tips for Making Healthy Choices
Here are some general tips to help athletes with making healthy choices at fast-food restaurants.
#1 Plan Ahead
When possible, athletes should make time to plan ahead and choose a restaurant where there are healthier options available. An increasing number of fast-food restaurants are now providing more nutritious choices.
Athletes can check out the restaurant’s website or smartphone app ahead of time to review the menu and nutrition facts information. This can help athletes with determining which restaurants offer items that will support their sports nutrition needs.
#2 Limit Fried Foods
At fast-food restaurants, athletes should aim to limit their intake of fried food items. Fried foods tend to be higher in saturated fat and are less healthy choices. Instead, athletes should opt for items that are grilled, baked, steamed or roasted.
For example, a grilled chicken sandwich or single-patty hamburger will generally be a healthier choice than fried chicken, fried fish, or a chicken fried steak.
The same applies to side items. Instead of French fries, tater tots, or onion rings, athletes should choose a healthy side to enjoy with their meal. Many fast-food restaurants now offer side salads, fruit cups, apple slices, steamed veggies, and yogurt parfaits, all of which are great choices.
#3 Choose Whole Grains
When available, athletes should choose whole grain items at fast-food restaurants. For example, select a whole wheat bun for your burger or sandwich and brown rice in your burrito bowl.
By making the switch to whole grains, athletes will add fiber, vitamins, and minerals to their fast-food meal.
#4 Hydrate Right: Select a Healthy Beverage
Hydration is important for an athlete’s health as well as for supporting optimal sports performance. Athletes should opt for water, low-fat milk, 100% fruit juice, or unsweet tea with their fast-food meal. These are healthier choices for athletes instead of soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks.
#5 Be Mindful of Portion Sizes
When eating fast food, athletes should be mindful of portion sizes. Often fast-food restaurants offer customers the option to super-size or value-size their meal. Although inexpensive, the added calories and saturated fat from an extra-large soda and fries are not ideal for fueling an athlete.
It is best to enjoy your meal in moderation and then have a healthy, balanced snack later in the day when you get hungry.
Healthy Eating Out Guide for Athletes
Now that you have some general ideas for making healthy fast-food choices, let’s explore nutritious options for athletes at a variety of fast-food restaurants.
Eating Out Guide: Healthy Fast Food Breakfast Choices for Athletes
When athletes are looking for a quick fast-food breakfast to enjoy following a morning workout or before class, they should look for meals that provide a good source of carbohydrates, lean protein, and that are low in saturated fat.
Carbohydrates provide the body with the energy needed to perform at its best. Protein is important for supporting athletes with building and maintaining lean muscle mass.
Some of my go-to fast-food breakfast options for athletes include:
- Chick-fil-A® Egg White Grill: Breakfast sandwich made with grilled chicken, egg whites, and American cheese, served on an English muffin.
- Panera Bread® Avocado, Egg White, Spinach & Cheese on Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat: Breakfast sandwich provides carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats making it a great breakfast choice for athletes.
- First Watch® Tri-Athlete Omelet: Egg white omelet with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, and green chilis. Enjoy the omelet with a side of whole grain toast and fresh fruit for a great post-workout morning breakfast.
The eating out guide below provides additional healthy fast-food breakfast options for athletes.
Eating Out Guide: Healthy Lunch and Dinner Fast Food Choices for Athletes
It can be helpful for athletes to have ideas for making healthy fast-food choices at a variety of types of restaurants. Let’s explore healthy fast-food choices for athletes at the following locations:
- Sandwich Shop
- Burger / Chicken Restaurant
- Mexican Food
- Asian Food
Eating Out Guide for Athletes: Sandwich Shop or Deli
A sandwich shop or deli can be a great option for athletes looking for a healthy pre-game or post-game meal. When possible, athletes should select whole grain breads for their sandwiches to be prepared on. In addition, they should select lean deli meats, such as: chicken, turkey, ham, or roast beef.
In addition, athletes should top their sandwiches with a variety of fresh vegetables, which will increase the nutrient content of their sandwich.
Many sandwich shops are now offering bowl options, which can be a great way for athletes to enjoy whole grains, lean protein, and vegetables.
Several ideas for healthy choices at popular sandwich restaurants include:
The eating out guide below provides additional healthy fast-food options for athletes at sandwich shops.
Eating Out Guide for Athletes: Burger / Chicken Restaurant
When eating at a fast-food restaurant that serves burgers or chicken, athletes should opt for items that are grilled, baked, or roasted over fried items. A single-patty burger or grilled chicken sandwich will be a leaner option than fried entrees.
When available, athletes should also select healthy side items, such as apple slices or a side salad, to enjoy with their meal. In addition, athletes should be mindful of portion sizes and avoid the urge to super-size their meal.
Healthy options for athletes at popular burger/chicken restaurants include:
- Whataburger®: The single patty Whataburger® or grilled chicken sandwich are both good options for athletes to meet their protein and carbohydrate needs. Make sure to add extra veggie toppings to the burger/sandwich and request apple slices as your side with the meal.
- Chick-fil-A® Grilled Chicken Sandwich on a Multi-Grain Bun: Great option for athletes, providing both lean protein and carbohydrates. Athletes can consider ordering a cup of fresh fruit or a salad to round out the meal.
Eating Out Guide for Athletes: Healthy Pizza Options
When it comes to pizza, the key to building a more nutritious option is in the toppings. Athletes should focus on including lean pizza toppings, such as grilled chicken, ham, Canadian bacon, and turkey sausage. Italian sausage, pepperoni, bacon, and hamburger pizza toppings all tend to be higher in saturated fat and are less healthy choices.
Athletes can also top their pizza with a variety of veggies, as well as pineapple. On the side, choose a garden salad, carrots and celery, or breadsticks, which are healthier options than cheesy bread, pizza rolls, or fried chicken wings.
MOD Pizza® is a great option for athletes looking for a quick, healthy pizza. MOD Pizza offers a variety of lean protein and fresh veggie toppings, allowing athletes to build a personal pizza specific to their tastes and nutrition needs.
The eating out guide below provides additional healthy fast-food options for athletes at restaurants serving burgers, chicken, and pizza.
Eating Out Guide for Athletes: Mexican Food
There are a variety of ways athletes can enjoy a carbohydrate-rich meal with lean protein and healthy fats at a Mexican food restaurant.
Athletes should limit the quantity of tortilla chips eaten prior to their meal. Instead, they should save room for the entrée, which can provide the nutrients needed to support their sports nutrition meal plan.
In addition, athletes should limit entrees with heavy cheese sauces (queso) or that are fried. Instead, they can opt for grilled meats, such as chicken or steak fajitas.
Athletes can support their sports nutrition needs by choosing a healthy side option. Items such as charro beans, black beans, Spanish rice, and guacamole salad can all be nutritious additions to an athlete’s meal.
Good options for athletes at Mexican food restaurants include:
- High-Protein Chipotle® Bowl: Chicken or steak burrito bowl with brown rice, black beans, fajita veggies, guacamole, and a variety of fresh salsa.
- Taco Cabana® Chicken Fajitas: Provides a lean source of protein, as well as carbohydrates. To further boost the nutrient content of your fajita, top it with lettuce, tomato, pico de gallo, guacamole, and salsa.
Eating Out Guide for Athletes: Asian Food
Similar to other fast-food restaurants, athletes want to limit their selection of fried entrees and side items at Asian food restaurants.
Items such as sesame chicken, orange chicken, and lemon chicken are typically breaded and fried. Thus, they are less healthy choices than entrees such as teriyaki chicken, chicken with vegetables, or beef and broccoli.
In addition, athletes should choose brown rice or steamed white rice over fried rice when possible. Edamame, spring rolls (wrapped in rice paper), and steamed dumplings are healthier appetizer options than fried wontons or egg rolls.
At Panda Express® the grilled teriyaki chicken or black pepper angus steak with brown steamed rice are healthy options, providing both lean protein and carbohydrates.
The eating out guide below provides additional healthy fast-food options for athletes at Mexican and Asian food restaurants.
Fast Food for Athletes: Healthy Eating Out Guide
You are now set with a variety of ideas to help athletes make healthy fast-food choices. Remember, when possible, athletes should plan ahead and be prepared to make the best menu choices to support their sports nutrition needs.
For additional sports nutrition tips for athletes, check out my blog: Grab-and-Go Lunch Ideas for Athletes.
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Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy has experience working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.