When you think of fast food, it’s unlikely that “healthy” comes to mind. However, one registered dietitian suggests that eating a meal from McDonald’s every so often isn’t as bad for your health as you may think. In fact, some options at the beloved fast-food chain can offer some good nutrition—especially to those who have limited options.
For some people, McDonald’s (or a similar establishment), is the closest place to their home where they can go and get a hot meal. In 2009, the USDA estimated that some 23.5 million Americans lived in a food desert, which is described as a low-income area that’s more than one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store. For rural areas, the cutoff is 10 miles.
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Not having a vehicle or reliable transportation, in general, can further complicate someone’s access to affordable, nutritious foods. Fast food options, in some cases, can offer more health benefits than packaged food items you may see at a gas station or convenience store, for example.
According to Sammi Haber Brondo, MS, RD, and author of The Essential Vegetable Cookbook: Simple and Satisfying Ways to Eat More Veggies, everyone’s accessibility to food looks different and fast food establishments often carry a variety of options.
“Chicken nuggets and burgers can both be pretty healthy options,” she says. “They’re both a great way to get protein and the portion sizes are pretty reasonable, too.”
She adds that the fruit and maple oatmeal option at McDonald’s is a healthy breakfast option, as it contains real fruit and offers a good source of both protein and fiber.
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“Even seemingly small things, like getting oatmeal with fruit for breakfast and lettuce and tomato on a burger for dinner add nutrients and can be beneficial,” she says. “Also, try to make your meal as balanced as you can so that it’s filling. For example, French fries and a milkshake don’t offer much protein or fiber, so that combination likely won’t keep you super full.”
Instead, Brondo suggests pairing those French fries with chicken nuggets, as this meal will provide more protein and keep you satiated for longer. Apple slices are another great side option for a McDonald’s meal.
Of course, there is one major deterrent to fast food—menu offerings are seldom not high in sodium. Routinely consuming too much sodium, or more than the suggested 2,300 milligrams per day, may jeopardize your heart health long term, says the American Heart Association. Still, if you’re only eating McDonald’s once or twice a week, Brondo suggests you don’t have to be too concerned.
“Salt helps the food stay fresher longer and is an easy, inexpensive way to add flavor,” she explains. “Unless you’re eating McDonald’s for every single meal, every day though, I wouldn’t stress too much about it. In an overall varied, balanced diet, some higher sodium fast foods items aren’t anything to worry about.”
For more tips, be sure to check out our list of the 7 Healthiest McDonald’s Orders, According to a Dietitian.