Nutritionist Brigid Chunn investigates fast-food outlets and discovers which takeaway choices pass the healthy test – and which fail.
Best: Seared chicken tandoori wrap
Made with a chicken fillet with tomato, cucumber and lettuce topped with a mint yoghurt and tandoori sauce in a warm tortilla wrap, this meets Healthy Food Guide recipe guidelines (which are pretty strict) per serve for energy, fat, saturated fat and sodium.
Other good choices: The Seared Chicken Salad, Seared Chicken Snack Wrap™ and Seared Chicken Sweet Chilli Wrap are all good choices, as are the Weight Watchers options. A McDonald’s Hamburger (without cheese) is also okay, and adding a Garden Salad will boost the fibre and the nutrient content of your meal.
Worst: Double quarter pounder
This burger, available on the night menu, has 3300kJ and more than 1600mg sodium, which is the suggested daily intake of sodium for an adult. It also has more than 50g fat, half of which is saturated – this could easily be a day’s worth. The runner up in this category is The Boss (burger) which has 2950kJ, 44g fat and 1120mg sodium.
Too good to be true: Crispy Chicken Wraps – these have over 1000mg sodium, and the Sweet Chilli and the Caesar choices have over 20g fat each.
This beef patty topped with pickles, ketchup and mustard in a sesame seed bun meets HFG recipe guidelines per serve for energy, fat, and sodium. As there is no vegetable content, adding a side salad would increase the fibre and nutrients.
Other good choices: Cheeseburger without the mayonnaise with a side salad.
Worst: Double Whopper
This has a huge amount of energy per serve at 3768kJ, twice what you might expect in a normal meal before you add any sides. It also has 54g fat (nearly a day’s worth) and more than 1000mg sodium.
Too good to be true: TenderGrill Chicken – while the fat and energy content is acceptable, this sandwich has more than 1400mg sodium per serve.
Subway outlets make sandwiches following customers’ specifications. We looked at their menu serving suggestions.
Best: 6-inch Wheat Bread with Roasted Chicken or Veggie Delite™
If you choose a 6-inch sandwich with roasted chicken, lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, onions and capsicums (or the meat-free version Veggie Delite™) your sandwich will be low in fat, saturated fat and sodium as well as being tasty without needing to add sauces or dressings. If you really want a sauce, the best options are either the Barbecue or Honey Mustard sauce. Both have only 0.2g saturated fat and less than 120mg sodium per serve.
Other good choices: Roast Beef and Turkey 6-inch Subs on Wheat Bread, and the Roast Beef, Turkey, Roasted Chicken and Veggie Delite™ Wraps are also low in fat and sodium. Any of the salads are also good options. But don’t ruin it with a high-fat, high-kilojoule dressing such as Chipotle Southwest Sauce or Ranch Dressing. These both have more than 10g fat and more than 400kJ per serve.
Worst: Spicy Italian 6-inch Sandwich
With five pieces of salami, five pieces of pepperoni, two slices of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, capsicum and cucumber, the energy would be okay at 2060kJ, but it also contains more than 10g saturated fat.
Too good to be true: Turkey and ham salad with ranch dressing – with two slices each of turkey and ham plus lettuce, tomatoes, onions, capsicum and cucumber, this menu item is low in fat; until you add the Ranch Dressing which adds at least another 10g fat and 400kJ.
Best: Grilled Chicken Wrap or Original Recipe Fillet Burger
The new Grilled Chicken Wrap or the Original Recipe Fillet (‘11 secret herbs and spices’-coated chicken breast with lettuce and mayo on a seeded bun) stand out on this menu, with moderate energy (1432-1582kJ), fat (12.6-12.8g) and sodium (714-836mg). More than half the burgers and ‘Twisters’ have more than 20g fat and more than 1000mg sodium and many of the new grilled options are let down by the high sodium content.
Other good choices: Grilled quarter chicken with a mixture of sides such as the Bean Salad, Coleslaw and Potato and Gravy, or the Chicken Fillet Garden Salad or Grilled Chicken Salad.
Worst: Wicked Wings® 3 Pack
Not only is this chicken option high in kilojoules for a ‘snack’ with 1831kJ, it has 32g fat – 13g of which is saturated fat.
Too good to be true: Pepper Mayo Twister – this has more than 30g fat and more than 1000mg sodium.
Best: Vegetarian kebab
This is served on a pita bread with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, tabouli and hummus. A vegetarian kebab has a low fat and sodium content and high fibre. Just remember to go easy on the sauces.
Other good choices: Kebabs with lean meats and chicken, served with vegetables and rolled in a pita bread – again, go easy on the sauces. Any of the lean meats on rice which are served with salad are nutritious and well balanced. The salad dishes and souvlakis are also great options.
Worst: Any hamburger combination meal
These tend to be light on vegetables and high in salt, sugar and fat, as they often come with a can of fizzy drink and fries. It is best to stick to what these outlets do best – kebabs.
Too good to be true: Falafel kebab – unfortunately, if the falafel has been deep-fried, then the fat content increases. Check when you order to find out how the outlet prepares its falafels.
Best: Sloth and Sinister (vegan)
Both of these pizzas are moderately low in fat, saturated fat and sodium. The key is to only have two slices – any more and they are a less healthy option. For example, three slices of ‘Sinister’ pizza (refried beans, avocado, onions, salsa, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and capsicum topping with no cheese) have over 1050mg sodium despite the energy and fat levels still being acceptable at 2268kJ and 9g respectively. Three slices of ‘Sloth’ pizza (tuna, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic mayo and lemon pepper topping) have acceptable sodium levels at 882mg, but the energy and fat content at 2650kJ and 18g respectively, will be too much for some. Add a side salad (without the dressing) for more nutrients and fibre.
Other good choices: At 890kJ to 1070kJ each slice, most of Hell pizzas are okay – if you only have two slices. Again, add a salad.
Worst: All pasta options
Despite healthy-sounding names like ‘Spinach Fettuccine’, all pasta options are served with kilojoule-laden creamy sauces. The sauces alone have more than 2000kJ per serve and a whopping 45g to 63g fat!
Too good to be true: Grimm – despite an acceptable energy level with 2100kJ for two slices, unfortunately, two slices have more than 10g saturated fat.
Fish & chips
Best: Grilled crumbed fish and potato wedges
Fish and chip shops vary. Some are good and serve grilled rather than battered fish, thicker chips or wedges, use less salt, and use oils recommended by ‘The Chip Group’, an industry body whose focus is to improve the nutritional value and quality of chips. Look out for the ‘best chip’ training certificates. While there are no other vegetables, at least the fish is nutritious and the potato wedges are thick, so lower in fat.
Other good choices: Fish burger and fries. Grilled fish is best with thick, straight fries. Ask for no salt or salt sachets instead, and look to see if chips are shaken and left to drain. Toasted sandwiches are also a good option if you go for steak, tomato, corn or egg and ideally, wholemeal/grain bread.
Worst: Battered sausage
Just one can have more than 1700kJ, nearly 30g fat (almost half saturated) and more than 1400mg sodium. And that’s before you add sauce.
Too good to be true: Anything battered and deep-fried – whether it’s fish, chicken, squid rings, vegetables or fruit, the batter and deep-frying turn it into a high-fat food.
Freshly-made wholemeal/grain sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, carrot, cucumber and ham, tuna or chicken.
Other good choices: Fresh fruit salad and low-fat yoghurt, filled rolls, and pre-packaged sandwiches. Go for wholemeal/grain bread options.
Worst: Sausage rolls, pies
These tend to be high in kilojoules, fat and saturated fat. There may be the odd pea but other than that there are no vegetables. The Heart Foundation Tick pies are an exception – if on offer, choose them. All Tick-approved Metro pies have less than 1500kJ, 15g fat (9g saturated) and 540mg sodium.
Deep-fried doughnuts filled with cream and covered in sugar may be low in sodium, but they pack 2230kJ and 32g fat (15g saturated).
Too good to be true: Muffins and muesli slices may sound healthy but often because of their size they are high in kilojoules. If you’re not careful, you could easily be eating the equivalent of a small meal.
Best: Tandoori chicken with steamed rice and vegetables, dhal or rogan josh with rice
All are lower-fat choices with rice and vegetables for a nutritionally balanced meal.
Other good choices: Any curries with a yoghurt sauce, chicken tikka, dhal, vegetable curry, pea and potato curry, chapatti and cucumber raita. These are all good options as they are quite low in sodium and full of flavour.
Worst: Butter chicken
The name gives it away. It is very high in fat and saturated fat from the ghee (clarified butter).
Too good to be true: Any deep-fried entrées such as samosas, bhaji and pakoras. Even though they may be vegetables, they are high in fat.
Best: The ‘Good Choice’ range Chicken, Tomato & Oregano Ciabatta Pizza
This chicken, mushroom, onion, fresh tomato, mozzarella, capsicum and oregano topped pizza for one has only 1532kJ, 8.2g fat and 752mg sodium.
Other good choices: The other pizza options from the ‘Good Choice’ range, as they all come as a single serve and are low in energy with less than 1650kJ. All are low in fat – under 10g – with acceptable levels of sodium (the highest at 885mg per serve). Within the ‘Value Pizza’ range, ‘Margarita’ (Classic Crust or Thin ‘n’ Crispy) are also good options with three slices providing less than 1600kJ.
Worst meal: Oven Baked Sandwiches – ‘Beef & Rasher Bacon’
This sandwich has an enormous 2930kJ, with 33g fat (16g saturated) and 2210mg sodium.
Worst pasta: Pasta Prawn Marinara
The 2300kJ per serve would be fine if it wasn’t so high in fat (32g) and saturated fat (19g).
Worst pizza: 7 Meats Edge Pizza
With so many contenders, this was a marginal category winner. Three slices have 2970kJ, 28g fat (12g saturated fat) and 2130mg sodium.
Too good to be true: Oven Baked Sandwiches. These sound like they should be a healthy option but bar the vegetarian option, all of them have too much sodium per serve, ranging from 1060mg to 2210mg sodium. With the exception of the Chicken Delight and Vegetarian options, they are high in fat and saturated fat – with fat content ranging from 13g to 34g per serve.
Best: Sushi and sashimi
These choices are low in fat and served in small portions with a variety of healthy fillings such as salmon and tuna, which are high in omega-3. The seaweed is a good source of iodine and fibre, but don’t drown the meal in soy sauce: just 1 teaspoon can contain 370mg sodium. As sushi can be short on vegetables, add edamame or a seaweed salad.
Other good choices: Udon noodle soups, teppanyaki grilled meats and vegetables.
Worst: Anything tempura
Sadly, veges and seafood become high-fat foods when they are deep-fried. Also, beware of thick sugary and salty teriyaki and yakitori dipping sauces.
Too good to be true: Sushi ‘train’. This can be a health trap because you don’t see everything together on one plate. Before you know it, you have easily eaten twice as much as you need.
Best: Steamed whole fish with steamed rice and vegetables
This is a nutritionally balanced option.
Other good options: Any of the steamed seafoods and plain rice, dumplings, stir-fried vegetables with prawns, chicken and beef, won ton soup and hot and sour soup.
Worst: Traditional sweet and sour pork
This is battered and deep-fried; it’s high in fat, sodium and sugar.
Too good to be true: Chicken chow mein. Noodles, vegetables and chicken sound healthy but in reality the noodles are deep-fried, vegetables are minimal, the sauces can be high in sodium and the chicken can be fatty. Best to keep away from the fried noodles and deep-fried options.
On the side
Best: Edamame (salted soy beans)
This is a popular Japanese side dish. Pop the bean from their pods with your hand rather than from your mouth to reduce the sodium count. Japanese seaweed salad is another great choice and any side salad or steamed vegetables without sauce or dressing is also good.
Other good choices
Garden or grilled chicken salads with no or low-fat dressing are all good options at burger and Subway outlets. When given a bread option, choose the wholemeal/grain roll.
Worst: Onion rings and thin or crinkle-cut French fries
They are high in fat and sodium. The thick-cut, chunky chips or wedges which have been well drained and shaken are a better option.
Too good to be true: Dressed salads
Dressings are usually high in kilojoules. Check the salads as some contain generous serves of ingredients (such as feta) which are fine in small amounts but are high in sodium so portions should be small. Stick to simple salads and ask for dressing on the side to be in charge of the energy intake.
Kids’ takeaway options
Best: Sushi rolls (without soy sauce)
This is a healthy low-sodium meal, that is easy for small hands to hold.
Other good options: Everything we have recommended for adults is also suitable for kids – simply ask for entrée-sized serves, an additional plate for sharing or ask for their meal to be prepared in bite-sized pieces.
Worst: Hot dogs, mini pizzas and chicken nuggets
These should be seen as ‘occasional’ foods reserved for special occasions.
Too good to be true: McDonald’s Happy Meals – there are some healthy options available in McDonald’s Happy Meals (such as the bag of apple pieces and the Seared Chicken Wrap) but that doesn’t mean everything on the kids’ menu is good for your children. Chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers and fries are all high in sodium and fat.
Best of the best takeaways
- Salad bar sandwich or wrap: Create your own culinary masterpiece with loads of salads, lean meat and avocado spread on wholemeal/grain bread.
- Japanese sushi rolls: Choose rolls that contain salmon, fresh tuna, vegetables and avocado… and skip any with fried chicken and tempura.
- Kebabs: Choose lean meats with lots of salads and tabouli, rolled in a pita bread with little or no dressing.
- Subway salads or low-fat 6-inch Subs: Ask for extra salad, lean meat and wholemeal bread and go easy on the dressing.
- Home bakery freshly made wholemeal/grain sandwiches: Home bakeries vary greatly but find a good one, and choose freshly made wholemeal/grain sandwiches with lean meat and plenty of salad – a great option especially with a tub of low-fat yoghurt and fresh fruit.
Despite some positive changes being made to many fast food outlets’ menus, many takeaways are sadly still not as healthy as they could be. In an ideal world, eating out would be reserved for special occasions. A more realistic view would be to look at limiting takeaways (including buying lunch) to a few times a week. Where possible, stick to salad, sandwich and sushi options. Try to follow the 80/20 rule (80 per cent home-cooked/20 per cent takeaways). This way you can enjoy the best of both worlds.
NOTE: Analyses conducted on product information available as at 5 April 2011.
What’s the right portion size?
Takeaway foods are often high in kilojoules – partly because they are energy-dense but also due to the serving size. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to control your portion size when it comes to certain kinds of takeaway foods – for example, hamburgers – primarily because one hamburger is not typically meant to be shared. Other types of takeaway, however, such as Thai, Japanese or Chinese takeaways are a different matter.
Keep in mind that one typical rectangular takeaway container is not meant for one person, especially if it is a creamy dish, like curry. Including a scoop of steamed rice per person, one container of curry should serve two to three people.
Slash your sodium
Without question one of the biggest issues in choosing a healthy takeaway is the sodium content. Here are some ways to reduce the sodium levels:
- When ordering Asian takeaways choose steamed rice rather than fried, and order fresh rice rolls and sushi with minimal soy sauce.
- With pasta dishes, go easy on the parmesan cheese and choose pizza without olives, anchovies and processed meats.
- When ordering chips ask for salt to be used sparingly and for salt sachets.
- Improve other takeaway foods by simply ditching the sauces on burgers, fries, wraps and kebabs.
Choices at the petrol station
It can be hard to eat well on the road, but petrol stations often stock a variety of household staples:
- Check the chiller section for tubs of low-fat yoghurt, cheese and cracker packs and chilled fresh fruit.
- Single serve breakfast cereals and trim milk make satisfying snacks.
- Steer clear of pies, sausage rolls, chocolate bars, sweet muffins and cakes.