What started off as a small-town Southern diner in the '40s has pretty much gone viral--Chick-fil-A has countless locations from coast to coast and a cadre of cows who've learned to write and picket with (albeit poorly written) signs. We asked Elana Natker, MS, RD, to find out if their simple menu was something a healthy eater could support.
"There are certainly some good picks you can find here," she answered, "but the healthier choices are overshadowed by the not-so-healthy choices."
Check out her breakdown below.
• Worst--Spicy chicken deluxe: This spicy, breaded chicken breast sandwich is topped with lettuce, tomato, pepper jack cheese, and, of course, the signature dill pickle chips. It also has 570 calories, "which is quite a bit for just a sandwich," Natker says. "It's loaded with fat and saturated fat, and the sodium [1,790 milligrams] is pretty much all you'd need for a day."
• Better--Chargrilled chicken club: With 400 calories, 12 grams of fat (5 saturated), and a hefty 37 grams of protein, this chicken, bacon, and provolone sandwich is a decent choice. "It's still high in sodium [1,110 milligrams], but it's not too damaging," our expert explains, also pointing out it's unclear if the nutrition facts account for the accompanying packet of Honey Roasted BBQ sauce. Leave off the bacon and skip the sauce for a healthier version.
• Best--Chargrilled chicken sandwich: At a mere 290 calories, 4 grams of fat, and a satiating 28 grams of protein, this sandwich topped with lettuce, tomato, and pickles is reasonable enough that you can even order sides. Although the 1,650 milligrams of sodium is problematic, the sandwich has enough going for it to let it slide. Natker says, "You've got everything you need without the bad stuff, plus it's pretty low-cal. It's really a decent option."
• Worst--Chicken caesar cool wrap: "This wrap is on par with some of the chicken sandwiches," Natker says. If the 470 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 1,290 milligrams of sodium weren't enough, the wrap also packs in 70 milligrams of cholesterol.
• Best--Chargrilled chicken cool wrap: Our expert had a hard time with this one, calling it a close tie with Chick-fil-A's third option, the spicy chicken cool wrap. Although their stats are similar--a mix of veggies, lots of vitamin A, and high protein--it all came down to one factor: fiber. "Our fiber needs are about 25 to 30 grams a day, and Americans get about half that," Natker says. "So when it comes down to the difference between five, six, or seven grams of fiber, every gram counts."
• Worst--Chick-n-strips: Three fried chicken tenders are nestled into this salad bowl, which includes grape tomatoes, broccoli, sunflower seeds, and other greenery--none of which sounds too bad until you look at the stats. With a whopping 90 milligrams of cholesterol, 450 calories, 960 milligrams of sodium, and 22 grams of fat, it's definitely on the naughty side of the salad scale.
• Best--Chargrilled chicken garden salad: Lose the cheese and replace the fried chicken tenders with grilled chicken strips, and you're in business. This salad is so lean our expert was concerned about whether it would make for a proper meal--"It's only 180 calories, so I don't know if it would be filling enough--you might want to get something else with it," she says. She recommends asking for extra chicken to fill up on protein.
BONUS--THE WAFFLE FRIES
We know what you're thinking: Do I really want to hear this? Since these are some of the only waffle fries around (and delicious in their own right), we know the temptation is great--so we couldn't resist asking Natker to check them out.
"The small is 300 calories--that's just mind-blowing! I'm all for indulgences, but my advice is to order them sparingly, and when you do, savor them," she says.
Natker makes an interesting observation in pointing out the menu's long ingredients lists, a sign of highly processed food. Two of the breads, for example, are described as "golden wheat" and "wheatberry"--not to be confused with whole wheat, since the restaurant's versions are made from enriched flour and not nutrient-rich whole grains.
She also has a more unusual take on cheese, which often gets a bad rap around here.
"I get nervous about telling people to skip the cheese because it's high in calcium, which is another nutrient we don't get enough of. But it is also high in cholesterol and saturated fat," she explains. "You need the calcium, but I will say there are better ways to get it."
Some easy-to-remember advice for erring on the nutritional side at Chick-fil-A? Stick to grilled chicken, hold the dressings when you can (opt for half a pack of low-cal Italian when you can't), and walk in with a game plan.
One more tip: The wraps are your best bet. Natker says, "They've got a great variety of veggies, not a lot of extra carbs, a lot of fiber for what you're getting, and excellent protein."