Diabetes is a lifelong condition. Fortunately, managing blood sugar levels is possible through a healthy diet—part of eating healthy means understanding what foods to steer clear of and which to enjoy. One major food group to avoid is fast food. 

Fast food is everywhere — and it’s tempting. After all, why spend time in the kitchen when the drive-through is available? And with ever-present advertising and wallet-friendly prices, ignoring the siren call of fast food is a challenge. Fast food is convenient, but it isn’t good for a person’s health. 

What is fast food?

The U.S. is not the only country obsessed with fast food. Throughout the world, fast food has risen in popularity. Major cities in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia all have a variety of fast food options to choose from. Some fast foods even cater to the local cultural meals. What do all these fast foods have in common? They’re not usually healthy. 

Defining fast food is complicated because most definitions of fast food are ambiguous. In general, fast food is hot food prepared and sold quickly. Consuming an excess of these types of food is bad for people’s health. For people with diabetes, however, fast food can mean the difference between uncontrolled blood sugar and stable blood sugar readings. Too many trips through the drive-through can compromise the well-being of someone who is diabetic.

Hamburger and Fries

Is fast food unhealthy?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each day nearly 37% of Americans consume fast food. Also, studies show the health of Americans has worsened in the last 50 years. Approximately 71% of U.S. residents are overweight or obese. Fast foods are thought to be the primary driver of this rise in obesity and decline in health. Why? Because fast foods are highly processed, high in calories, and relatively low in nutritional value. 

For example, the U.S. National Library of Medicine finds that fast foods are high in:

  • Calories
  • Saturated fats
  • Salt
  • Sugar 

Fast foods often have high levels of white flour products and sweetening agents, which flood the bloodstream with glucose. This influx of glucose causes a spike in blood sugar levels. Therefore, for people with diabetes, fast food is especially problematic. Consumed too often, fast foods can make managing diabetes much more difficult. 

Should people with diabetes avoid fast food entirely?

For many people, cutting out all fast foods is almost an impossibility. Fast foods are convenient, after all, and they are — for the most part — reasonably priced. What’s more, fast foods have become part of the social landscape, so a person will likely find themselves at a fast food restaurant at one point or another. 

People in general (and individuals with diabetes in particular) don’t have to eliminate fast foods from their diet completely. As with all things in life, moderation is key. A visit to a fast food establishment every once in a while won’t impact health as long as there’s a basic understanding of which foods to choose and which to avoid. 

Pointers on What Fast Foods to Order

Most people think of burgers and fries when they hear “fast food.” In reality, fast foods span a broad range of food cultures and establishments. From popular Italian restaurant chains to Chinese food kiosks at shopping mall food courts, fast food comes in a variety of flavors and food genres. The following are a few popular food types and some guidelines on making appropriate food choices for each.

Chinese Food

Many Chinese dishes come with healthy vegetables, and there’s always much to choose from. When opting for Chinese foods, stick with steamed versions. Steamed foods are often the better choice. Chinese fast food is an excellent and delicious option when chosen wisely. 

Avoid Chinese dishes that are deep fried or laden with sauces. For instance, Orange Chicken is typically deep-fried chicken pieces smothered in a sweet citrus sauce. Although it sounds appealing, the oils and sugar used in cooking Orange Chicken can cause blood sugar to spike. 

When deciding on starchy foods, choose brown rice or forgo the starches altogether. Noodles, such as chow fun or lo mein, are high in carbohydrates and laden with salt. Fried rice may seem like a good option, but the dish is typically made with white rice, which raises blood sugar.

Mexican Food

The excellent news about Mexican fast food is that there’s more to it than just tacos and tortillas. These days, many Mexican fast food establishments offer salads, soups, and grilled options. With Mexican food, however, it’s essential to choose items that are not fried or laden with carbohydrates.

As with most foods, grilled is always a better option than fried. Stick to grilled chicken or fish, and choose healthy servings of vegetables and avocado. Also, limit cheeses, rice,  and salty sauces. Beans are typically a good bet, though avoid refried beans if possible. Lastly, keep the tortilla chips to a minimum and stay away from sugar-laden churros and flan. 

Italian Food

When people think of Italian food, they typically think of pasta. Unfortunately, pasta is laden with carbs — especially in highly-processed Italian fast food! There’s more to Italian food than pasta, however, so people with diabetes can still enjoy Italian fast food without risking a sugar spike. 

Thin crust pizza is a reasonably safe choice. In contrast, deep-dish or thick-crust pizza has a high carbohydrate and salt content. Other Italian food options for people with diabetes are meatballs, grilled chicken, and salads. For people longing for a fix of pasta, the whole-grain type is lower in carbohydrates.

American Food

A hamburger or hot dog, fries, and a milkshake or soda is the quintessential American fast food meal — but this meal is not diabetes-friendly. Not only are these choices high in carbohydrates, salt, fat, and processed sugar, but they’re also high in calories. 

Instead, opt for the following American foods:

  • A grilled fish or chicken salad
  • Burgers with lettuce “buns”
  • Steamed vegetables 
  • Low-salt vegetable or bean soups

American food doesn’t need a sugary drink to make it a meal. An ice-cold cup of plain water with a lemon wedge can taste just as refreshing as a soda. 

Essential Tips for Making Healthy Fast Food Choices

Whether it’s American, Italian, or Chinese fast food, the following are a few universally applicable guidelines to keep in mind when going out to eat. 

Know Where to Go

Preparedness takes much of the stress and guesswork away from eating out. Get to know the type of food options there will be before going. Most fast food establishments have calorie counts and nutritional menus on their websites. Many fast restaurants even have calorie counts listed on their front counter or drive-through menus. Learn which food choices are healthy and which fast food restaurants are most likely to have good options. 

Don’t Go When Hungry

Sometimes the stomach can take over good sense, especially when very hungry. Avoid going to fast food restaurants when overly hungry to keep from making impulsive decisions. Furthermore, eating while excessively hungry may lead to overeating and unhealthy choices. Instead, have a small healthy snack before going out to eat. 

Be Careful When Choosing Salads

Not all salads are created equal. What’s more, not all salads are healthy! For example, some salads contain handfuls of cheese, deep-fried toppings, and fatty or sugary dressings that make them unhealthy. 

For a healthy salad, choose grilled chicken and say “no” to croutons, deep-fried taco shells, and heavy dressings. Use cheese sparingly if you must, and choose a light salad dressing on the side. In short, avoid turning a healthy salad into an unhealthy one. 

Add More Protein and Fiber

The carbohydrates in fast foods like bread, french fries, and sugary drinks raise blood sugar, so concentrate on proteins and fiber instead. Ask the restaurant workers to remove carbohydrates like tater tots and replace them with protein like grilled chicken or beans. Inquire about whole-grain substitutions to help stabilize post-prandial blood sugars.

Choose Water Over Sugary Drinks

The all-you-can-drink soda dispenser at a fast food restaurant seems like a great deal, but the only thing that’s healthy from that machine is the water. For instance, a 16-ounce soda has about 48 grams of sugar. With the high sugar content, consuming these drinks can cause blood sugar to spike dramatically. Choose to drink water instead. 

Rethink That Value Meal

Although a meal with a large drink, burger,  and fries will save you a dollar or two, it’s not always the healthiest choice. A salad or sandwich with water might cost the same as the value meal and be more beneficial for you. Instead of immediately succumbing to the draw of a value meal, consider healthier options on the menu. 

Order Off the Kids Menu

Ordering food from the kids’ menu is a great way to control portion sizes. Adult portions at fast food establishments are typically large, while the kids menu offers just enough to quell hunger without going overboard. If possible, order food off of the kid’s menu. You might even get a free toy! 

Take Your Time When Eating

Chewing slowly and eating slowly gives the brain time to determine that the stomach is full, reducing the risk of overeating. A 2021 study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that eating a meal slowly helps prevent obesity and weight gain. The study determined that chewing slowly increased awareness of stimuli like flavors and texture, which led people to eat less and gain less weight.

Say “No” to Super-Sizing

Workers at fast food chains encourage customers to “super size” their meals. While upping an order size is tempting, it’s better to refuse. A super-sized fast food meal only offers excess calories and very little nutritional value. Save on money and calories by refusing offers to super-size fast food meals. 

Ask to Separate Dressings and Condiments

It’s usually not the salad that’s unhealthy, it’s the dressing that it gets smothered with. Most fast food salad dressings are full of sugar and fat. Instead of letting the restaurant pour the salad dressing on the salad greens, ask for the dressing on the side. Also, condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise are also full of sugars and fat. Ask for them separately to allow for more control over the food. 

Don’t Frequent Fast Food Chains Often

Too much fast food is unhealthy for anyone, especially for people who are diabetic. Research into frequent fast food consumption shows that eating fast food two or more times a week increases the risk of developing diabetes. A group of scientists found that eating fast food more than twice a week increases weight gain by about 4.5 kg. If possible, keep visits to fast food establishments to a minimum and a rare treat.  

Ask About Healthier Options on the Menu

When ordering fast food at a restaurant — or any restaurant for that matter — don’t be shy about asking the staff about their healthier options. More often than not, workers will know which foods are healthier. The following are a few questions to ask when ordering food:

  • Where can I find the nutritional information? 
  • What substitutions do you suggest for a healthier meal? For example, can the burger buns be replaced with lettuce?
  • Do you have suggestions for low-calorie choices?

Having a conversation with fast food workers about what’s available for people on a restricted diet can open doors to healthier food choices for everyone. 

Can people with diabetes eat fast food?

A study published in the journal Critical Public Health found that the U.S. has approximately 7.52 fast-food restaurants for every 100,000 residents. At some point in their lives, most people will find themselves eating at a fast food establishment. People who have diabetes can absolutely eat fast food — within reason. 

Being diabetic doesn’t mean living a life without eating out. The key is understanding which food options are diabetes-friendly and are least likely to jeopardize blood sugar.  With a little assertiveness and a lot of knowledge, eating fast food can be a healthy experience. 

Resources:

Science Daily

https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/fast_food.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db322.htm

National Library of Medicine: American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6146358/

MedlinePlus

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000887.htm

National Library of Medicine: Scientific Reports

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8660770/#__ffn_sectitle

National Library of Medicine: Health Promotion Perspective

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4772793/#:~:text=Consumption%20of%20fast%20food%20?,CI%3D%201.18%2D2.06)

Critical Public Health 

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09581596.2011.619964