Some Roadside Foods Are Really Not That Bad - Others Are a Health Disaster

From survival mode to calorie catastrophes - the good, bad and ugly truth about road trip eats.
Written by Jim Belt in Cars

Going on a road trip? Chances are you're gonna hit up some fast food joints along the way. Sure, it ain't health food. But you could do way worse.

Let me break it down for you. From decent picks to diet disasters, here's the real deal on what to expect calorie-wise at popular chain restaurants. Some might surprise you...

10. Taco Bell

While fast food Mexican fare is far from authentic, Taco Bell can offer a few decent options when hitting the road. Simple bean burritos or basic tacos with just protein, lettuce, and salsa can provide some fiber and nutrients without going overboard on calories, fat, and sodium. More importantly, skipping the heavy nacho cheese sauce, sour cream, and other rich toppings keeps things relatively light. The black bean burrito "fresco style" with just pico de gallo is one of the healthier ways to go.

9. McDonald's

The world's most ubiquitous fast food chain isn't exactly known for nutritious fare. However, with a few smart choices you can do better than a Big Mac meal. For breakfast, the Egg McMuffin provides protein without an exorbitant amount of fat or calories compared to McGriddles or breakfast sandwiches with sausage and bacon. At lunch or dinner, the grilled chicken sandwiches and side salads are more sensible than french fries and most burger options laden with saturated fat, sodium, and empty calories.

8. Wendy's

Wendy's menu has a handful of options that can work for a quick meal on the go without disastrous levels of fat, salt and calories. Stick to simple baked potatoes topped with chili or broccoli, or basic garden salads with grilled chicken and light dressings. The grilled chicken sandwiches make a better choice than Wendy's signature square burgers and baconators that quickly rack up the dietary damage. But you'll still want to avoid the fries and frosty shakes that are devoid of nutritional value.

7. Subway

As far as fast food goes, Subway has built a reputation as one of the more health-conscious chains by allowing lots of customization with its made-to-order sandwiches. Go for lean proteins like turkey breast or veggie patties on 9-grain or other whole wheat breads, load up on all the veggie toppings you want, and skip the full-fat mayo and heavy dressings. The 6-inch subs keep portions reasonable. While the indulgent cookies and chips may tempt you at the checkout, avoiding those will help Subway live up to its "eat fresh" slogan.

6. Chick-fil-A

The classic chicken sandwiches and nuggets from this regional chain provide a decent hit of lean protein compared to greasy beef burgers from other fast food joints. Grilled nuggets or the grilled chicken sandwich make healthier options than the iconic fried chicken sandwich or original nuggets that have been dipped in a fryer. Still, watch out for the high sodium across most of the menu. And while the waffle fries may seem like a decent side pick, they are deceivingly heavy on fat and calories. Plain side salads provide a rare veggie option.

5. Cracker Barrel

This Southern-inspired roadside staple plays into all the worst regional dietary stereotypes - fried everything, biscuits with gravy, heavy sauces, and butter galore. While the extensive menu has a few healthier options like veggie plates or grilled chicken, most diners come for the hearty country fried items, thick bacon, and big ol' plates of gravy and biscuits. Those battered, fried, and creamy choices deliver a serious whammy of saturated fat, sodium, and calories. Even seemingly innocent sides like hash brown casserole can push well over 1,000 calories when combined with an entree. Portions are invariably massive.

4. Denny's

The classic diner draws in road-weary travelers with its 24/7 service and massive menu of American comfort classics. While you can make decent choices like veggie omelets or basic salads, it's all too easy to blow your calorie intake for the day on towering breakfast platters like the Sizzlin' Skillet that mixes eggs, potatoes, cheese, sausage and pancakes into one 1,600 calorie mess. Even lighter fare like a short stack of pancakes can pack nearly 700 calories before toppings. Resist the temptation of milkshakes, mounds of whipped cream, and other sugary desserts.


The clue is in the name at this breakfast specialist - pancakes, waffles and syrup galore make IHOP an easy place to overindulge on refined carbs, fat and sugar. Even a seemingly simple order of pancakes delivers an enormous calorie payload, with a short stack of five buttermilk pancakes weighing in at nearly 700 calories. Add in whipped topping, syrup and butter and you've exceeded most people's full day needs with just that short stack. The omelettes provide one of the few reasonable choices when steered clear of ham, cheese and other rich ingredients. Ultimately, IHOP exemplifies how classic diner breakfasts deliver a diet disaster.

2. Outback Steakhouse

As with most steakhouse chains, the menu at Outback sets you up for a calorie avalanche from the very start with dishes swimming in butter and heavy sauces before you even get to the slabs of beef. The famous Bloomin' Onion appetizer alone packs in over 1,900 calories and a day's worth of fat and sodium. Entrees like the "Ribeye Outback Special" topped with a butter sauce add another 1,000+ calories. Even vegetable sides like the dressed potatoes or battered bloomin' onion petals get drowned in oil and creamy toppings. It's all too easy to consume an incredible surplus of protein, saturated fat and refined carbs in one single steakhouse meal.

1. Cheesecake Factory

While the name gives away their towering desserts take center stage, make no mistake - the main meals at Cheesecake Factory rank among the biggest calorie bombs in the restaurant world. Portion sizes here are obscene, with single dishes easily exceeding the full daily recommended amounts of calories, fat, sodium and more for the average person. The breakfast menu features horrors like the Breakfast Burrito Navajo stuffed with scrambled eggs, chorizo, cheese, and fried potatoes clocking in at 2,740 calories and nearly 200 grams of fat. Many pasta dishes top 1,500 calories before you even look at a cheesecake. You'd be far better off sharing one appetizer