Good Fast Food for People With Diabetes – Is There Such a Thing?

Supriya Lal

2021 Sep 16

10 min read

We’re here to tell you that fast food for people with diabetes 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, deep fried, or devoid of any kind of nutrition. That means it’s high in flavor and carbs. However, nutrition and medical science have proven that a number of food groups are safe and healthy for diabetes patients 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, minimize the development of diabetes, particularly 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 people 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; hence, the condition cannot be reversed. 

Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, affecting 90-95% of people worldwide. In this case the immune system functions normally, however, the body becomes resistant to the insulin that is produced; in other words, either due to genetics, a sedentary lifestyle, or unhealthy eating habits, the body is unable to utilize insulin properly.

Both these conditions are similar in diet and nutrition and must be managed carefully with low sugar and low carbohydrate diets.

What Fast Food Should People With Diabetes 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, mainly because each individual has different needs, each may be at a different stage of progression, and 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. But here’s what you should know about an ideal diabetes diet.  

Sugar is the main cause of concern for all people with diabetes.  

Are you looking for a one-liner on what foods are bad for people with diabetes? 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 those with diabetes consume foods that release too much sugar into their bloodstream, it puts them at a high risk of sugar-induced shock and predisposes them to heart, kidney, or nervous disease conditions and other complications. 

In other words, avoid carbohydrates! Rice, refined wheat bread, pasta, and 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; surprisingly, so are many salad dressings!

White bread and buns should be avoided as much as possible because they are naturally processed and high in carbohydrates.

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 sources of carbohydrates. We also find carbohydrates in beans, legumes, corn, and a few fruits. 

Interestingly, 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 of 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 bloodstream. 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 People With Diabetes

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 bread vs. white bread/buns, brown rice vs. white rice, barley bread, oats or millet-containing dishes, etc. Refined grains tend to increase blood sugar levels in the blood suddenly, which is harmful to anyone with diabetes.   

If you’re having a burger, take half off 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 people with diabetes 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 comprise healthy fats, which is okey for people with diabetes.

Tip #3

We’ve talked about carbs and calories, so it’s time we deal with the obvious culprit – sugar. 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 at a place where sugar-free, fat-free, or low sodium salad dressings are unavailable, 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 list 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 have been deep fried at least once, and it’s not uncommon for a burger patty to be deep fried twice, i.e., once at a 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 some extra tomatoes and lettuce to 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 tiny 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 are high in saturated or unhealthy fats. So, in general, opt for white meat. But you can still occasionally have small quantities of very lean red meats, 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, sausages, and salami are not freshly prepared, may lose some nutritional value, and contain a lot of sodium and fat. 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 can always ask for processed meats without fillers at some restaurants.

Tip #7

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

So, in effect, you can eat healthy fast food! For those with diabetes, 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 healthily, but also enjoy yourself while you take care of yourself! 

What Fast Food Restaurants Are Good for People With Diabetes?

America has around 200,000 fast food outlets! These quick-service restaurants are not only about comfort food and convenience without 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, the FDA regulations that apply to all fast food restaurants mandate that they prominently display and make online-available 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 provide you with a great meal.

So, we’re not partial to particular fast food joints. Each of them has its own unique style. With health consciousness on the rise, especially since the pandemic, fast food restaurants have not been slow to hear that customers also want healthy fast food options. Just keep our tips in mind and next time you’re dining out, choose the best diabetes-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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