April 24, 2024

Managing diabetes means managing multiple meals and snacks throughout the day, ideally by planning ahead and eating as much homemade food as possible to control calories, carbs, and sugar. This can be a challenge if you have diabetes, given that you must eat regularly in order to keep blood sugar levels under control. That said, it may not be possible to prepare every meal and snack from scratch at home.

This means that sometimes fast food is the only option—but it’s not necessarily a bad option despite having the reputation for being heavy on carbs, saturated fat, and added sugar. If you do your homework and choose wisely, you easily can include these convenient offerings in your overall diabetes eating plan.

Basic Diabetes-diet Guidelines

Unless you’ve been newly diagnosed with diabetes, chances are you’re already incorporating these standard rules for managing what you eat throughout the day to control your blood sugar levels and maintain a healthy weight. If not, these guidelines can help you make smart fast food choices:

  • Fill up on fresh, non-starchy vegetables. They’re packed with nutrients, are low in fat and calories, and have a low glycemic index—and fresh veggies may not be as hard to find on a fast food menu as you’d think.
  • Be mindful of portions—especially at fast food restaurants that encourage “supersizing.” One way to do this is to use the Plate Method: Divide your plate into three sections and devote half to non-starchy veggies, a quarter to three to four ounces of lean protein (about the size of the palm of your hand), and a quarter to a high-fiber grain or legume.
  • Maintain carb consistency. Eating a consistent amount of carbs at meals throughout the day can help you avoid blood sugar spikes. For example, you may choose to consume 45 grams (g) of carbs at breakfast and lunch, 15 g for snacks, and 60 g for dinner.
  • Know what to steer clear of. Some foods simply aren’t compliant with a diabetes diet: refined, processed carbs (white bread, pasta, sweet or savory baked goods); sugar-sweetened beverages (including fruit juice, unless your glucose is low); candy and other sweets.
  • Know what to order before you hit the drive-through. You can find detailed nutrition information for all items offered at fast food restaurants on company websites. You can also try apps for Android and iOS devices that list nutritional values of fast food items from specific restaurants.

Fast Foods to Choose

Whether you have a hankering for Tex Mex takeout, a yen for sushi, crave a burger, or are forced to grab something from the nearest convenience store at snack time, having a sense of the best and worst options can help you stick to your diabetes diet plan, keep your blood sugar levels from zigzagging, and contribute to an overall healthy diet.

Hamburger Restaurants

Supersized burgers, fries, and milkshakes are the mainstays of popular spots like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger King. None are ideal choices if you have diabetes, but most fast food chains now offer items that are healthier and will fit nicely into a diabetes eating plan.

Order this…

  • Regular or junior sized burger or grilled chicken sandwich on whole-grain bun (if available)

  • Burger/sandwich add-ons such as vegetables (lettuce, tomato, onion) and condiments including mustard, salsa, hot sauce, ketchup (be aware of added sugar)

  • Side salad (light dressing, no croutons)

  • Diet soda, lightly sweetened lemonade, unsweetened iced tea, water

  • Main dish salad (greens and other fresh veggies, nuts, beans, grilled chicken, light no-sugar-added dressing)

  • Oatmeal with fruit

  • Yogurt parfait with fruit

Skip this…

  • Large or multi-patty burger or crispy chicken sandwich on white bun

  • Cheese, bacon, mayo, special sauces

  • French fries or other fried potato side

  • Milkshake or other frozen dairy beverage or dessert

  • Salad mix-ins such as fried tortilla strips, croutons, cheese, and heavy dressing containing added sugar

  • Macaroni, potato, or other salads containing mayo or dressing

  • Egg sandwiches on English muffin, biscuit, or other bread

Sandwich Restaurants

One advantage with restaurants like Subway and Quiznos is that you have the option to build your own sandwich, making it easier to select ingredients that are diabetes-friendly and to your liking.

Order this…

  • Six-inch grilled chicken, turkey breast, or lean cold cut sub

  • Sandwich add-ons: lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, guacamole

  • Apple or other fresh fruit

  • Diet soda, unsweetened tea, low-sugar lemonade, water

Skip this…

  • Subs featuring cheesesteak, meatballs, or other high-fat protein

  • Mayonnaise, ranch dressing, and rich (potentially sugar-added) sauces

  • Chips and other fried snacks

  • Regular soda, sweet iced tea, sweetened fruit drinks

  • Cookies

Fried Chicken Restaurants

In general, poultry is a smart choice while following a diabetes-friendly diet—except when it’s breaded or dipped in flour and fried. This version adds not just carbs but saturated fat and calories as well to menu items at restaurants like KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) and Popeyes.

Order this…

  • Skinless grilled chicken

  • Green beans

  • Cole slaw

American Chinese Restaurants

White rice is a staple of Asian cuisines, but it’s a heavy source of carbs. When visiting American Chinese establishments such as Panda Express, focus on vegetables and non-breaded proteins.

Order this..

  • Stir fries featuring lean, unbreaded protein and vegetables

  • Steamed broccoli

  • Brown rice (small portion)

Tex-Mex Restaurants

Tex-Mex fast food has a reputation for featuring deep-fried tortillas with cheesy, greasy ingredients. However, the two most popular restaurants in this category, Taco Bell and Chipotle, offer plenty of diabetes-friendly alternatives. One option: Bowls containing ingredients that would otherwise be folded into a tortilla.

Order this…

  • Corn or whole-grain tortillas

  • Grilled beef, pork, chicken, or fish

  • Cooked whole beans

  • Brown rice

  • Guacamole/avocado

  • Lettuce, tomato, fresh salsa or pico de gallo

Skip this…

  • Deep-fried taco shells or double taco shells

  • Fried meat, poultry, or fish fillings

  • Refried beans

  • White rice

  • Cheese or cheesy sauces

Coffee and Pastry Shops

Starbucks, Dunkin’, and an array of similar coffee and pastry chains serve a range of items that don’t sync up with eating (or drinking) well for those with diabetes: sugary coffee drinks and carb-laden pastries abound. But most also offer options that are safe for people watching their carbs and fat intake.

Order this…

  • Regular or decaf coffee, hot or iced, unsweetened or flavored with spices or low-sugar syrup

  • Breakfast sandwich in a whole-wheat wrap

  • Sous vide egg bites

  • “Protein” boxes

Skip this…

  • Coffee and tea drinks made with sugar or flavored syrup

  • Bagels

  • Breakfast sandwiches with biscuits, English muffins, or other bread

  • Doughnuts and other pastries


This popular lunch and breakfast spot is unique in the breadth of its breakfast and lunch menus—not to mention its bakery items—that are generally off-limits for people with diabetes. But Panera also offers plenty of diabetes-appropriate options.

Eat This…

  • Mediterranean egg white wrap

  • Ten vegetable soup, chicken noodle soup

  • Seasonal greens salad

  • Mediterranean veggie sandwich (half; remove top slice of bread to reduce carbs further)

  • Lentil quinoa broth bowl

Don’t Eat This…

  • Spinach and bacon egg souffle

  • New England clam chowder, broccoli cheddar soup

  • Toasted Tuscan grilled chicken sandwich

  • Soba noodle broth bowls


If you have diabetes, there are ways you can make healthy food choices on the go. If you decide to grab fast food, be mindful of portion sizes and focus on ordering vegetables and lean protein options, like grilled chicken or beans. Also, plan ahead. Look over the restaurant’s online menu ahead of time so you can make healthy choices in advance.

By Elizabeth Woolley

Elizabeth Woolley is a patient advocate and writer who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.


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