Is Vegetarian Fast Food Actually Healthy? Here’s What to Know
Is your faux-meat burger a nutritional winner? Experts reveal the truth about plant-based and vegetarian fast food, plus, tips to make healthier choices.
The rise of vegetarian fast food
No doubt, you’ve seen plant-based and vegetarian offerings on more than one fast food menu by now.
From vegetarian “meat” options to the growing array of plant-based milks and oils, there are more options than ever. No surprise. The plant-based food market is expected to grow to an estimated $74.2 billion by 2027, according to a report by research firm Meticulous Market Research.
“Timing is everything in life,” says Joan Salge Blake, RDN, a nutrition professor at Boston University and host of the podcast Spot On! “In 2012, McDonald’s introduced the McVeggie with little success. But the McVegan, which was introduced in 2017, was more successful. Now, McDonald’s is going to launch McPlant in 2021, working with Beyond Meat. The third time is the charm.”
(These are the best plant-based protein sources.)
When we talk about plant-based diets, we generally mean eating mostly (but not necessarily always) foods like fruit, veggies, grains, nuts, legumes and more. The emphasis is generally on eating whole or minimally processed, plant-based foods for health reasons, rather than just avoiding meat or animal-derived products.
That means that while something may be labeled vegetarian or vegan, it may not necessarily fit a plant-based lifestyle that’s geared for healthy eating.
That said, when it comes to fast food options that might fit with a plant-based or vegetarian diet, there’s more than just Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers. You’ll also find breakfast sandwiches made with plant-based sausage at Dunkin’ Donuts, spicy tofu sofritas at Chipotle, vegan pizzas at Mellow Mushroom, and a green veggie side dish at Panda Express.
However, it may take some work to figure out which options might be considered healthy.
Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images
Why are people eating plant-based fast food?
Here’s a fact: Most people—65 percent—choose to eat plant-based because of the perceived health benefits, according to a survey by innovation consultancy firm Mattson.
But meat-free fast food orders don’t always come with a side of health.
“Overall, I believe the rise in plant-based food consumption is beneficial for our bodies and for the planet,” says Elizabeth Gunner, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York City. “However, I urge consumers who have chronic health conditions and strong desires to lead healthier lives to think critically and gain awareness around the health halo that some fast food chains may cast over their plant-based menu items.”
And, of course, it’s likely that some people ordering meat-free options are using these picks as a rationale to order an extra-large side of fries or a milkshake—or both.
(Here’s how to start a plant-based diet.)
What can go wrong with ordering
Are plant-based or vegetarian fast food options healthy? It depends on your choices.
“You need to read the nutrition facts on these eatery websites to get the real deal,” says Salge Blake. “Some of these meatless meals can be very high in heart-unhealthy saturated fat because they’re made with coconut oil. The sodium can also be hefty.” (Try these plant-based swaps.)
Dunkin’ Donuts Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich
The issue, too, is that some plant-based patties don’t come with veggies—and they do come with additional saturated fat in the form of cheese.
Take, for instance, the Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich at Dunkin’ Donuts. The calories aren’t too bad: 510 per ‘wich. But the saturated fat lands at 10 grams, half or more of the daily value. (The daily value is 20 mg for a 2,000-calorie diet, so if you need fewer calories you should consume even less saturated fat.) The sodium is high, too, at 820 milligrams, or 36 percent of the daily value.
At most fast food restaurants, you can request the addition of veggies like lettuce, tomato, and onion to add additional nutrients and hydration. That can help counter the sodium effects. But that isn’t an option at Dunkin’ Donuts. For this particular pick, you do thankfully get 26 grams of vegetarian protein, as well as notable amounts of vitamin D, calcium, and iron.
Mellow Mushroom Tempeh Hoagie and Greek Salad
Of course, options abound these days. “One of the most interesting ones is from the Mellow Mushroom pizza chain,” says Talia Hauser, RD, a registered dietitian in The Colony, Texas. “The menu boasts an entire vegan section, which is rare for a pizza chain.”
Most items here are going to be once-in-awhile orders only. You can go with half a tempeh hoagie for 600 calories, 8 grams saturated fat (40 percent of the daily value), and 1,330 milligrams sodium (58 percent of the daily value). Not great. The Greek Salad, at 300 calories, would be a safer order, save for the sodium content of 1,770 milligrams—or 77 percent of the daily value. Plus, it’s closer to the plant-based ideal of eating unprocessed foods.
Modify your order
“Unfortunately, most fast food options are still fast food nutritionally,” says Hauser. Ultimately, they’re absolutely okay to include in your diet as “sometimes” options—and part of an overall healthy, balanced diet. But they’re not everyday options.
Also, if you’re vegan and ordering meat-free options, you may need to make modifications. For instance, ask to skip the cheese, eggs, sour cream, or mayo that’s paired with your vegan patty.
(Thinking of going vegan? Here are some vegan diet health benefits.)
What’s good about plant-based fast food
Taco Bell Veggie Power Menu Bowl
Plant-based fast food gone right, like Taco Bell’s Veggie Power Menu Bowl, will be loaded up with lots of veggies and plant protein. This pick contains 430 calories, 12 grams protein, 5 grams saturated fat (a quarter of the daily value), and 810 milligrams sodium (35 percent of the daily value). These more virtuous plant-based picks will help folks continue eating plant-based diets while enjoying the convenience and enjoyment of fast food.
And, of course, there’s the environment to remember. “While some plant-based food options are not necessarily healthier for our bodies, all are healthier for the planet,” says Gunner. “By selecting plant-based fast food options, consumers are choosing to lower greenhouse gas emissions and supporting a more sustainable environment.”
How to make healthy choices
The No. 1 thing you can do to place a healthy fast food order? Don’t place your order on the fly.
“Luckily, fast food restaurants with more than 20 eateries in the chain must provide the nutrition information of their menu on their website,” says Salge Blake. “My advice is to peruse their website before you place your order. The name of item on the menu may be misleading when it comes to being healthy.”
Oftentimes, plant-based entrees that don’t come with fake meat will be your healthier options. Yup, you’re much more likely to get a balanced meal from a plant-based salad or even a bean-loaded burrito bowl than a burger or sandwich packed with faux meat. (Try this high protein vegan recipe with tofu.)
Chipotle plant-based food hack
“I’m a fan of Chipotle, as it is very easy to get a balanced meal if you know how to order,” says Hauser. “I recommend a salad with beans, brown rice, fajita veggies, your salsa of choice, and guacamole. This is a really balanced meal: You get protein from the beans, high-fiber carbohydrates from the brown rice, healthy fat from guacamole, and veggies from the fajita mix and salsa.”
Another quick option? A vegetable submarine sandwich from a sub shop. “Load up on as many veggies as you can, top it off with hummus or avocado spread, and be on your way,” says Hauser.
(These are the benefits of avocado you never knew.)
The last word
Plant-based or vegetarian fast food can be healthy if you know what you’re ordering in advance. Be mindful that plant-based doesn’t always translate to healthier if you’re pairing it with a large side of fries and a sugary drink.
And remember to add a side of fruit or veggies whenever possible. This could be apple slices at McDonald’s or a side salad at Burger King. Also, drink ample water throughout the day if your order is high in sodium.
Next, here are the best vegan protein sources.)
- Meticulous Market Research: "Plant Based Food Market by Product Type (Dairy Alternatives, Meat Substitute, Plant-Based Eggs, Confectionery), Source (Soy Protein, Wheat Protein), and Distribution Channel (Business to Business and Business to Customers) - Global Forecast to 2027"
- Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, nutrition professor at Boston University and host of the podcast Spot On!
- FoodNavigator-USA: "SHIFT20: How are consumers thinking about plant-based eating? Mattson unveils new survey data"
- Elizabeth Gunner, RDN, a dietitian in New York City
- Talia Hauser, RD, a dietitian in The Colony, Texas
- Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, a registered dietitian in Rancho Palos Verdes, California