The fast-food-sandwich market is not an easy one to conquer, but it's reasonable to say Arby's has the whole "roast beef" quadrant in the bag. And it's a good niche to cover--the FDA recognizes roast beef as an extra-lean cut, which means it's pretty healthy as far as meat goes. But are Arby's menu offerings wholesome enough to keep this week's expert in a good mood?
"They say they make 'good mood food' but just the other day I said to my colleague, 'What does that actually mean?'" registered dietitian Nour Zibdeh, MS says of Arby's, which has multiple locations in Northern Virginia and around the Beltway, but still has yet to open in DC. "The options are not bad . . . the sodium is high, but for someone who eats out only one meal a day and cooks the rest of their meals at home, it's okay."
If that doesn't sound like you, take a look below and learn how to eat at Arby's without giving your body the blues.
BEEF SANDWICHES (Ultimate Angus and Arby's Roast Beef)
• Worst--Beef 'n' cheddar (max): When ordered in the "max" portion, this simple sandwich--piled-high with thinly sliced roast beef, two slices of melted cheddar, and red ranch sauce all on an onion roll--packs a whopping 2,330 milligrams of sodium, 650 calories, and 110 milligrams of cholesterol (among other scary stats). It even bests the decadent (but smaller) bacon beef 'n' cheddar sandwich.
• Better--Beef 'n' cheddar (regular): At its classic serving size with one slice of cheese, this item clocks in at 440 calories, 1,290 milligrams of sodium, and 18 grams of fat. "It has only half a gram of trans fat, so I'm happy with that, but it has a lot of sodium. It's not great, but it's not extremely bad as long as the person doesn't have high blood pressure," Zibdeh says, adding that she believes trans fat to be more harmful than saturated fat. "Only half a gram is the best you can do on the menu, and it's a smaller sandwich." Lose the ranch sauce or skip the cheese to improve the stats.
• Best--Roast beef classic: There's a reason Arby's signature first sandwich is on the Eat This, Not That-approved menu. Without toppings or condiments it's only 350 calories, 950 milligrams of sodium, and 12 grams of fat.
• Worst--Roast turkey ranch and bacon sandwich: On first glance it seems decent--it has lean roast turkey sliced in-store, honey wheat bread, and the first veggies we've seen so far in the analysis. But order this and you're eating 800 calories, 36 grams of fat, and 2,200 milligrams of sodium. (The bread is made with enriched flour, not whole wheat, and the ranch, cheese, and bacon won't do your waistline any favors.) If you have an incurable jones for this sandwich, go for the wrap version instead.
• Better--Reuben: "I like this because it has zero trans fat, but the sodium is at 1,600 milligrams," Zibdeh says. "Still, the salt is most likely from the sauerkraut, and there's evidence that sauerkraut has helpful probiotics." It's unclear whether Arby's sauerkraut is quality or of the canned variety, which would make a difference in the case for or against this option.
• Best--Pecan chicken salad sandwich: This creation puts a salad of red grapes, pecans, apples, and grilled chicken between two slices of honey wheat. Unfortunately, it's all tossed in mayo, which takes the calories and fat all the way up to 840 and 44 grams, respectively. "A lot of the calories are from the pecans, which are concentrated in fat; but it's healthy fat, so it's okay," Zibdeh explains.
• Worst--Five-piece chicken tenders: It should come as no surprise that fried, breaded chicken strips (likely coupled with fries or at least dipping sauces) are simply not worth the empty 590 calories.
• Best--Cravin' chicken (roast): Our expert says, "It's moderate calorie-wise, lowest in fat, and even though the sodium is comparable to that of the tenders, [this sandwich] weighs more and will be more filling than tenders." At 380 calories, 12 grams of fat, 1,000 milligrams of sodium, and with a little help from the tomato and lettuce, this is a decent lunch option.
Although most people know the pitfalls of fast food, Zibdeh says that there's still a truth about it that escapes most people.
"[It's] not just about what you're getting--the calories, sodium, and fat--it's about what you're missing," she explains. "When we eat [fast food] we're not getting vitamins, minerals, or proper nutrients."
But Zibdeh also says it's possible to enjoy dining out in moderation, and with a bit of mindfulness. Be careful with sauces, dips, and condiments--as she points out, Arby's Buffalo dipping sauce is 720 milligrams of sodium all by itself. Try not to have too much cheese--if you have it at all, go for items that mention exactly how much you're getting (like a sandwich with one slice of cheddar as opposed to a cup of mac and cheese). Finally, swap the fries for a side salad to add extra fiber, and remember that a wrap is usually better than a sandwich because it shaves off some carbs.
"A healthy eater probably could eat here," our expert says. "Just not every day."
Follow Nour Zibdeh on Twitter at @NourRD, find her on Facebook, or contact her via her website, NOURition.