People with diabetes need to follow a healthful diet to manage their blood sugar levels. Fast food is often highly processed, and this can have a negative impact on health.

Research has shown that, around the world, as fast food has gained popularity, the number of people with diabetes has risen. There is concern that there may be a link between the two.

Like junk food, people should avoid fast food most of the time. Many of the options are highly processed, contain little fiber, and have a high salt, sugar, or fat content. All of these factors can make fast food harmful for a person with diabetes.

However, with a bit of know-how, people with diabetes can eat fast food in moderation without putting their health and wellness at risk.

It is important for people with diabetes to approach fast food options with some caution. Knowing about the nutritional content of food before setting out can help a person to make wise choices.

Before going to a favorite fast food restaurant, people with diabetes should consider some of these tips:

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Information about menus and calorie counts is often available online.
  • Do not go when overly hungry. Starting any meal on an empty stomach can lead to overeating and unhealthful choices. When possible, people with diabetes should plan to eat a fast food meal after having a healthful snack, such as an apple, to avoid overeating.
  • Know before going. Many fast food restaurants have calorie counts on their menus and nutrition information on their websites. Some independent websites also offer reviews and food facts. Whatever the source, it is a good idea to look at the menu options and plan a meal in advance, whenever possible. This can help limit impulse orders.
  • Drink water, not soda. People with diabetes should avoid soda due to the high sugar content and the risk of causing a spike in blood sugar levels. Swapping soda for water can help prevent unnecessary calories and blood sugar spikes and help reduce the feeling of hunger.
  • Eat slowly. The brain takes at least 15 minutes to register that the stomach is satisfied. Eating slowly helps the brain catch up with what the stomach is feeling. This technique can help a person avoid too large a meal.
  • Limit the number of visits. Research has linked a high fast food intake with poor dietary habits. Many health and wellness professionals recommend limiting the number of times anyone, including people with diabetes, eats fast food. It is best to keep visits rare, no more than once to twice a month, for best health.
  • Keep it small. When the counter clerk asks about upping the order size, it is generally a good idea to say "no." There will still be plenty of calories in the smaller meal, but fewer than in the super-size or large size.
  • Beware of the value meal options. "Value" combinations may appear better value, but they are not always healthful. It is better to purchase a sandwich with a side salad and bottle of water instead of a pre-packaged burger, fries, and fountain drink meal.
  • Watch the salads. Salads are not always healthful or low in calories. Salads that contain deep-fried taco shells, fried chicken, fatty dressings, cheese, and croutons can add calories and affect blood sugar levels. Instead, opt for salads with lighter dressings, grilled chicken, limited or no cheese, and no croutons.
  • Fried is bad. It is best to avoid deep-fried foods, such as chicken strips, fries, and taco shells.
  • Swap the sides. When available, people should choose side salads, fruits, vegetables, or other sides that are more healthful than fries.

The American Diabetes Association provides information to help people make a healthful choice.

Fast food no longer means only burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Now, it is possible to find fast food from many different cultural backgrounds. This means there is a wider variety to choose from, but it can make it harder for people with diabetes to know what is and is not a good choice for them.

The following are some popular fast food types and some general suggestions of what to look for in each.

Italian

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Meatballs without the pasta will help people keep within their carbohydrate goals.

Fast food pizza places often offer a small variety of Italian dishes.

When Italian is the option available, people with diabetes should steer clear of deep-dish pizza and pasta, as they have a high carbohydrate count.

More healthful options include:

  • meatballs
  • salads
  • grilled chicken

Some pasta options are more healthful than others. Click here to find out more.

Chinese

When ordering Chinese, steamed foods are often the most healthful.

Steamed broccoli and chicken with sauce on the side over brown rice is more healthful than chicken or pork over white rice.

Most Chinese noodle dishes, such as lo mein, have a high carb count. People with diabetes should avoid these.

American

Instead of a cheeseburger, fries, and soda, look out for

  • brothy vegetable or bean soups
  • salads with grilled fish, tofu or chicken
  • lettuce-wrapped burgers
  • sides of steamed or roasted vegetables

Mexican

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A salad with grilled chicken and avocado is a good Mexican food option.

Mexican fast food venues typically offer tacos, burritos, and tortilla chips, but many now also offer salads, beans, brothy soups, and other seemingly healthful options.

A grilled chicken salad with beans, avocado, and salsa as dressing and served without a deep-fried shell is a good option.

A person can usually choose grilled chicken tacos on soft corn tortillas with limited or no cheese, avocado, and grilled vegetables and stay within their dietary targets.

Combining sides of beans with vegetables and avocado can also make a healthful and balanced, low-carb meal.

Beware of fried taco shells that are low fiber, yet high in fat and calories.

People with diabetes should not be afraid to ask the restaurant staff questions about food to check that it matches their dietary needs.

Here are some questions that may help people with diabetes to make healthful choices when eating out:

  • Are there any lighter calorie options available?
  • Are there special menu items for people on restricted diets?
  • Can I see the nutritional information?
  • Are there substitutions that are more healthful, such as veggie sticks instead of fries?
  • Can I order a burger without a bun, as I want to avoid simple carbohydrates?

Fast foods are not the best option for people with diabetes, as they offer a number of foods high in sugar, salt, and fat.

Even healthier options are often still highly processed. People should check their blood sugar 2 hours after a fast food meal to see how it has affected them. This can help guide food choices in the future.

Although people should avoid fast food except on rare occasions, it is still possible to visit a fast food restaurant and order options that will have a minimal impact on overall diet and health.

When a person eats fast food in moderation and with some planning, it can make a tasty treat or a convenient quick meal.

What to know more about how fast food affects the body? Click here to see our dedicated article.

Q:

I sometimes hear that fast food contains chemicals that make it addictive. Is this true?

A:

Manufacturers process fast food in a way to hyper-stimulate the palate and make it more enticing and pleasurable.

Food scientists aim to engineer foods to reach the “bliss-point.” The bliss point is the point at which food is highly pleasurable but is not so overstimulating that the brain reduces the desire for that food.

Fast food is also highly palatable, meaning it breaks down very quickly in the mouth with little effort from manual chewing.

This combination of high sugar, salt, and fatty foods, the bliss point and high palatability can make foods more difficult to refuse or avoid and may lead to addiction.

Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, ACSM EP-C Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.