Cooking your own food at home is always the best choice when you’re living a ketogenic lifestyle.
When you fix your own meals and snacks, you can control the quality of the ingredients and know exactly how many carbohydrate grams, protein grams, and fat grams are in the food you’re eating.
This eliminates hidden sources of carbs, such as:
- white or brown sugar
- high-fructose corn syrup
- dextrose (corn sugar)
- modified starches
- high-carb natural sweeteners
These carby ingredients can really send the carb count soaring.
Making your own food also eliminates the chance of being kicked out of ketosis.
But sometimes, eating at home isn’t practical.
Sometimes, you just need to know how to eat fast food when you’re doing keto.
No matter how much you try to pre-plan and control your life, there will be times when you need to grab a quick bite to eat.
Whether you’re out shopping and don’t have time to cook, forgot to bring your lunch to work, or are out with friends who want to grab something before going to a movie, you don’t have to make unhealthy choices.
You don’t have to segregate yourself from friends and family.
Eating out can be a serious challenge, due to the restrictive nature of a ketogenic low-carb diet, but it is not impossible.
Keto is much lower in carbs than your average low-carb plan, so it will take a bit more pre-thought to stay within your carbohydrate tolerance.
This is especially true when you’re thinking about heading to a fast-food restaurant, rather than an establishment that prepares your food after you order it.
The last thing you want to do when it comes to high-protein low-carb fast food is get yourself kicked out of ketosis, so in this simple guide to eating fast food on keto, we are going to offer you 7 simple tips for trimming the carbs.
We are also going to share additional ideas for getting ketogenic fast food that you might not have thought about before.
1. Know What is Naturally Low in Carbs
This might sound a bit patronizing, but you can’t even begin to trim the carbs if you don’t know where they hide.
Just popping into your favorite fast food place and expecting them to accommodate you isn’t being considerate of the restaurant or even yourself.
While some of the more popular outlets like Subway, McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Chick Fil A do offer a way for ketogenic dieters to get a keto-friendly meal, that doesn’t mean the staff will know what’s low in carbs and what is not.
That is your responsibility.
There are different precautions when it comes to fast food than sitting down at a restaurant or cafe, so try to think about the basics of a Keto diet:
- healthy fats
These are zero to very low in carbs and should make up the majority of your high-protein low-carb fast food meal.
Most of the carbs can be found in the hamburger buns, tortillas, breading, and hidden sugars, so these are what you need to watch out for and avoid.
In today’s food culture, sugar, wheat, barley, corn, and soy are extremely prevalent, so the idea is to avoid them as much as possible. Sometimes, you do have to make a trade off.
2. Keto-Friendly Fast Food Isn’t Always Possible
Many of the fast-food recommendations for Keto dieters are for foods that contain hidden sugars, wheat flour, and starches.
For example, many brands of bacon are cured using sugar, and the marinades and seasonings used on grilled chicken can contain maltodextrin, wheat flour, and various forms of sugar and starches.
But steering clear of the ingredients that will negatively impact your low-carb diet isn’t as easy as just avoiding the ketchup, honey mustard, and onion rings.
The carb count might be low on certain foods, but the hidden sugar and starches are still there.
This is where the trade-off comes in.
Sugars and starches are used to make food look nice, and that’s what a fast food restaurant is using them for — food that looks so nice and tastes so good that you’ll come back more often.
The trick is to know where your personal comfort zone for sugars and starches is ahead of time, before you go out to eat at your favorite fast food restaurant.
Are you willing to eat an order of unbreaded chicken nuggets at Chick Fil A, since they are only 2 carbs, even though the marinade on the chicken contains:
- modified cornstarch
- maltodextrin (from corn)
- cane molasses
- orange juice concentrate
- grape juice concentrate
This is a real concern that needs to be dealt with ahead of time.
Where is your comfort zone when it comes to food?
While a single 2-carb order won’t contain much of the above hidden sugars and starches, if you’re like many other low carbers who order two or three helpings to get the same level of satiety that they get eating at home, you’ll be consuming more sugar and starch than you might realize.
As the serving size goes up, so does the amount of hidden ingredients, so knowledge is power when it comes to eating fast food.
It’s almost impossible to get real keto-friendly food when you don’t cook it yourself.
3. Expect to Pay More
When you start to eliminate the ingredients that you don’t want to eat, such as the bun on your burger, and add additional helpings of meat, cheese, eggs, or vegetables to your fast food meals, the amount you pay for the food is going to skyrocket in comparison.
Low-carb foods like guacamole, bacon, and grilled mushrooms are going to cost a lot.
The easiest way to handle the problem is to just expect to pay more for less food than those who are eating with you. If you can do that, you’ll feel less stressed out by the cost.
This is another trade off.
You’re paying more so you can stay ketogenic and not get kicked out of ketosis.
Side dishes cost more.
They are high-cost ingredients, many of which go bad very quickly.
A produce attendant at our local grocery store told me that fresh berries only last two or three days, and that’s why they cost so much more than other produce.
Fast food restaurants have the same problem with avocados, mushrooms, onions, and other perishable ingredients. What you pay helps to recover what the restaurant has to throw away.
4. Check Online for Nutritional Information
Don’t wait until you reach the fast food establishment to discover what that restaurant has for ketogenic dieters.
Once there, you honestly won’t know what is in the food. Some brands of Ranch Dressing can have as much as 5 or 10 carbs per quarter-cup serving!
You need to know that before you walk through the door.
Take the time to visit the website of your favorite fast-food options ahead of time. Take a close look at the nutritional information.
Some sites, such as McDonald’s, Subway, Arby’s, Five Guy’s and Chipotle’s have nutritional calculators or detailed charts that will allow you to subtract or add ingredients to your burger, salad, sandwich, or burrito bowl.
These build-it-yourself calculators and detailed charts enable you to play around with the carbohydrate count until it meets your satisfaction.
On a calculator, you simply uncheck the ingredients, such as the bun or sweet sauces, and the calculator will update the correct carb count for you.
On a detailed chart, you’ll have to do the math yourself.
For example, if you’re thinking about ordering a Double Bacon Smokehouse burger from McDonald’s, that will cost you 63 carbs!
But when you uncheck the bun and sweet sauces, and use mayonnaise or mustard on your burger instead, that drops the carb count down to 4 carbs.
This is a much better deal, but that double burger also comes with 56 grams of high-quality protein, so you’ll need to make sure that you fit that into your protein requirements for the entire day.
This is why these calculators are a good way to make sure that you don’t go over your protein allotment, as well as carbs.
If you’re thinking about going to Five Guy’s, their detailed chart lists the hamburger patty, hot dog, or bacon and tells you exactly what the carb count is for each.
Sauces, grilled mushrooms, grilled onions, condiments, and even the lettuce and tomato have nutritional counts, as well.
This allows you the option of building your own burger or hot dog.
Other sites like Taco Bell or Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) only offer charts with complete carbohydrate counts that include the tortillas, rice and beans in the burrito filling, or breading on the chicken.
There’s no calculator or detailed chart to help you adjust the carbohydrate counts.
All they have available is a basic chart that lists menu items and their nutritional information.
At these places, you’ll have to do the subtraction yourself using an average carb count for the carby ingredients that you remove, such as a large hamburger bun being roughly 50 carbs.
If you choose to do it this way, make sure that you read the ingredients list, available at the website for each menu item, so you can find hidden sources of sugars and starches that need to be taken into consideration when guessing at a carb count.
For example, Taco Bell adds wheat flour to their ground beef taco filling, so their ground beef is not carb free; and Wendy’s grilled chicken patty contains potato starch, maltodextrin, sugar, and dextrose. It’s not carb free either.
Of special note is that most of the items that are acceptable in a pinch for a low-carb diet are not acceptable if you are gluten free. This is because many of the food items contain wheat or barley.
If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance, it can be dangerous to guess at what’s safe and what is not.
Most hamburger places also have a side salad available, so you don’t always have to order double and triple meat, especially if you’re doing Atkins.
The Atkins Diet comes with a maximum protein allowance per meal of 6 ounces. Six ounces is just slightly more than a third of a pound, so a half-a-pound double burger would not be Atkins-friendly.
Flour tortillas are no more Keto-friendly than burger buns are, but if you’re not trying to avoid gluten, you can eat just the filling out of the burrito instead.
Better yet, some establishments offer burrito bowls where they will serve you just the filling without the tortilla.
Make sure that you skip the rice and refried beans.
5. Don’t Trust Salads or Burrito Bowls
Gluten-free individuals tend to do this all the time. If there doesn’t appear to be anything safe to eat, they just opt for a salad or burrito bowl.
However, trusting that a salad or burrito bowl is low in carbs is setting yourself up to be kicked out of ketosis!
Salad dressings or the marinade used on the meat that comes in the salad can cause the carb count to go up rather quickly.
McDonald’s Bacon Ranch Grilled Chicken Salad has 9 carbs because of the rice starch, sugar, and honey used in preparing the chicken.
While McDonald’s Ranch Dressing is only 2 carbs per serving, if you don’t know what’s in the salad dressing, or how many carbs are in the dressing, using salsa, mayonnaise, or guacamole for the dressing is a much safer option.
However, sometimes the higher carb count is due to the extra vegetables.
At Chipotle’s Mexican Grill, it’s really easy to go overboard with all of the keto-friendly options available to go into your burrito bowl, so you’ll have to play around with the nutrition until you can get that salad or burrito bowl dialed into the carb count you need.
Subway’s new chopped salads are a whopping 15 carbs even though their Ranch Dressing only takes up 2 of those carbs. The carbs are from the amount of vegetables in the salad.
And the same thing goes for burrito bowls.
If you eliminate the rice and beans at Chipotle’s, and then add all of the low-carb ingredients that are available, such as:
- sour cream
- shredded lettuce
- chopped tomatoes
- fajita-style vegetables
- and guacamole
You can end up with a 22-net carb meal super fast, due to the carb count in the vegetables and guacamole.
Guacamole adds 8 carbs to your meal, salsa is 4, and sour cream adds another 2. According to Chipotle’s website, their fajita vegetables are 5 carbs per serving, so when it comes to Chipotle’s, you’ll have pick what you add to your burrito bowl very wisely.
Tweak it to fit your carbohydrate tolerance, as well as your likes and desires.
This is why it’s extremely important to have the carb counts of your favorite foods memorized, so you won’t overeat.
6. Build Your Own Meal
When you know what’s naturally low in carbs, you can build your own meal using a variety of side dishes instead of trying to deconstruct what the menu offers.
For example, original Buffalo-style hot wings are made using hot-pepper sauce, vinegar, and no breading at all.
They are simply deep fried and then tossed in a very low-carb pepper sauce.
Coupled with a side salad and Ranch Dressing for a dip, this can be a very low-carb, yet filling meal.
But be very careful when it comes to ordering hot wings.
You do have to ask how they are going to be cooked. Many restaurants use chicken wings that come already breaded or dusted with wheat flour.
You need to know that before you start to chow down and not after you’ve already paid for them.
In addition to looking over the side-dish menu for options, fast food restaurants can often grill you a chicken breast, upon request, especially those that serve grilled chicken sandwiches.
Just be aware that some places, such as KFC, add wheat flour and soy sauce to the marinade used on the chicken, so make sure they’re grilling up a plain chicken breast.
Top that plain grilled chicken breast with some bacon, fried onions, and grilled mushrooms and it will be tasty, as well as a fast meal.
Don’t be shy.
Speak up and ask what that fast food restaurant is capable of doing for you.
7. Fast Food is Always Risky
Even when you take the time to research the nutritional information of the food you eat, you can still get accidentally kicked out of ketosis due to hidden carbs or overeating.
As long as you aren’t abusing the ability to eat fast food on Keto, making a mistake isn’t that big of a deal.
Pick yourself up and just go on. Even if you get kicked out of ketosis, it will be fine.
You might have to clean out a bit of glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates, by cutting back on carbs for a couple of days and increasing your activity level before the body gets back to burning fatty acids for energy, but it will go back if you get right back on plan.
Try to keep ketosis uppermost in your mind.
That will help with any feelings of deprivation or thoughts of going off plan for even a single meal.
Also, ketogenic diets tend to be only 20- to 30-net carbs a day, so you don’t want to spend more than half of those carbs on a single fast-food meal.
Spending all of your carbs at one time can leave you feeling deprived later in the day.
While that single or double-double 11-carb Animal-Style cheeseburger from In-and-Out may make you feel great when you are eating it, if you’re staring down at a plate of meat and eggs for dinner because your carb allowance is shot, it might not feel so fun anymore.
The same thing goes for one of Subway’s 15-gram chopped salads. Make sure you only use the amount of carbs you can afford to spend on a single meal.
You can always eat half of the salad or burrito bowl and save the rest for later on.
Other Keto Fast Food Options
There are lots of keto-friendly options available, in addition to the popular fast-food options of burgers, grilled chicken breast, and burrito bowls.
Here are a few that you might not have thought about before:
1. Pizza Toppings
The carbs hide in the crust and in the pizza sauce, but you don’t have to avoid pizza.
Scrape off the toppings and just eat the toppings.
If you order a pizza with double meat, double cheese, and lots of toppings, you can pair the toppings with a side salad and walk away completely satisfied! All-you-can-eat pizza bars are a great way to do this.
2. Grocery Store Deli
When time is of the essence, why not visit your local grocery store and grab a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken or dry-rub rack of ribs?
Even WalMart has ready-made pre-packed salads and sub sandwiches in a refrigerator case that you can grab, pay for, and go.
Just toss the bread and eat the high-protein sandwich filling by itself. You can also grab a package of high-quality lunch meat and sliced cheese and just do it yourself.
3. Gas Station Convenience Stores
Most gas-station convenience stores sell dried beef jerky, small bags of nuts, cheese sticks, and pre-cooked all-beef hot dogs.
You can also get bags of spicy pork rinds and bottled water.
Costco sells rotisserie chickens and sometimes, ribs, for less than what you’d pay in the grocery store, but they also have a fast-food area near the check out.
There, you can get quarter-pound all-beef hot dogs and slices of pizza. Just toss the buns and pizza crust.
5. Local Cafe
Get to know the people who run your local cafe. Many will let you order ahead and just pick it up to go.
This is where side dishes really come in handy.
You can order a grilled chicken breast, pork chop, or bunless burger and have them top it with bacon, grilled mushrooms, and onions.
Many times, the vegetable of the day is also Keto-friendly, as well. You don’t always have to have salad when you’re in a hurry.
6. Hispanic Grocery Store
Many Hispanic grocery stores have an area where they fix fast food.
You can easily get a burrito bowl, fillings for tacos, and soups that are fast to order because it’s similar to Chipotle’s.
You just build your own.
7. Small Mexican Restaurants
These establishments keep the taco and burrito fillings already prepared, so it’s quick to order a huge burrito with just meat, cheese, salsa, avocado, and peppers.
If you’re not eating gluten free for medical reasons, you can eat the filling out of the burrito or just ask them to place the filling in a to-go box.
If the burrito is on the small side, you can substitute shredded lettuce for the beans and rice, and mix it all together.
8. Golden Corral
Take advantage of all-you-can-eat buffets.
While you do sit down inside to eat at these places, many people eat fast food inside too. The convenience is that you don’t have to wait for them to cook the food and they are very Keto-friendly.
You can get steak, grilled chicken, baked fish, ham, and a wide assortment of vegetables!
There are several salads and all the fixings. Plus, fresh berries when they are in season.
9. Golden Corral for Breakfast
The breakfast options are just as plentiful as lunch and dinner.
Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, grilled pork chops, mushrooms, onions and peppers, salads, and berries when in season. Breakfast is only half the cost of lunch and dinner.
If you can spare the carbs, cheese sauce is nice served over the eggs. They even have a section where you can get an freshly made omelet.
10. Salad Bars
Many salad bars serve more than just salads.
There is taco-seasoned ground beef, chopped ham, keto-friendly soups, fresh berries, and cottage cheese. Some even serve hot wings and slices of pizza that you can scrape the toppings off.
Many grocery stores also offer salad bars where ingredients are weighed by the pound.
11. Boston Market
This is another fast food establishment because the food is already cooked.
You can get roasted chicken, along with a variety of vegetables, such as green beans with bacon, creamed spinach, freshly steamed vegetables, or a side salad.
Sometimes, they also have turkey breast or a nice slice of prime rib.
Keto-friendly options are plentiful within the fast food industry, but discovering what works for you is often a trial-and-error process.
Knowing what to look for, what to avoid, and what to ask is essential to having a successful fast-food experience.
Try not to feel intimidated.
Expect to not only pay more for a high-protein low-carb fast-food meal, but to also make a few mistakes along the way.
Eating out is always risky. Safe options are not always easy to see.
Think about what you typically eat on your low-carb diet and try to mimic that as closely as you can.
Also, try not to rely on fast food too much.
Use it for what it was originally designed for: grabbing a quick meal when you don’t have time to cook.