START THE DAY OFF RIGHT
If hectic mornings mean you're swinging by fast-food chains for breakfast, long lines in the drive-throughs show you're far from alone. Though a convenient meal out may not be as healthy or cheap as breakfast can be at home, it doesn't have to be a nutritional disaster. We consulted with dietitians and nutritionists to discover healthier alternatives to some of the most indulgent, unhealthy breakfast menu items at 10 popular chains.
Big Breakfast with Hotcakes: 1,350 calories
Got a big appetite? It might be tempting to dig into McDonald's Big Breakfast with Hotcakes, which also includes scrambled eggs, a biscuit, hash browns, and sausage. But your big morning indulgence "is a horrific meal nutritionally in every sense," says Jennifer Glockner, a registered dietitian nutritionist and creator of Smartee Plate. The calorie count is almost three-fourths of what a person on a 2,000-calorie diet needs in a day, she says, and the 25 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat is actually over daily guidelines. Also hiding in this meal: Close to a day's worth of sodium and sugar.
MCDONALD'S: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Egg White Delight McMuffin and Yogurt Parfait: 430 calories
Instead, Glockner suggests digging into an Egg White Delight McMuffin, made with grilled egg whites, extra-lean Canadian bacon and white cheddar. With this meal, you're down to 7 grams of saturated fat. For a little bit of sweetness, add a yogurt parfait, which will "have added sugars, but not to the level of the big breakfast of hotcakes," she says. An even healthier choice, she says: Snag some apple slices in place of the parfait.
Almond Croissant and a Caramel Brulée Latte: 860 calories
A steaming Caramel Brulée Latte from Starbucks is a tempting way to indulge your sweet tooth and get a nice jolt of caffeine, and an Almond Croissant seems like a natural choice to round out your breakfast. But beware: "With 450 calories and 47 grams of sugar, the Caramel Brulée Latte is more of a full out meal than a cup of coffee," warns Lauren Harris-Pincus, a registered dietitian who specializes in managing weight and prediabetes. "An Almond Croissant, while tasty, packs 420 calories and a whopping 22 grams of fat, which equals 34 percent of the recommended daily intake of fat in one croissant."
STARBUCKS: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Spinach, Feta and Cage Free Egg White Breakfast Wrap and Tall Skinny Latte: 390 calories
Tear yourself away from the bakery items, Harris-Pincus recommends. "I'm in love with the Spinach, Feta and Cage Free Egg White Breakfast Wrap because it's a mix of protein, veggies and whole grains. For 290 calories, you get 19 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber." Pairing it with a Tall Skinny Latte tacks on only 100 calories and a more reasonable 14 grams of sugar.
Egg-Normous Burrito: 940 calories
We know it's a great idea to start the day with lots of filling protein to prevent overeating later on. In this respect, the Egg-Normous Burrito delivers, with a whopping 38 grams. But that's not all it's packed with. "Everything is wrong with this item," says Julie Cunningham, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes instructor. "It has half a day's calories, a whole day's fat and saturated fat, more than a day's worth of cholesterol and sodium, and a gram of trans fat — the worst kind of fat, which is known to raise your LDL, or 'bad' cholesterol."
BURGER KING: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Quaker Instant Maple Oatmeal: 170 calories
"The only thing I'd be willing to eat on this breakfast menu is the Quaker Instant Maple Oatmeal," Cunningham notes. It has just 3 grams of fat, with no trans fat, and just 270 grams of sodium. If you just can't resist the lure of a breakfast sandwich, the Egg and Cheese Croissan'wich is a much better choice than the Egg-Normous Burrito with only 370 calories, 18 grams of fat, and 610 milligrams of sodium.
Coffee Cake Muffin and a Vanilla Chai Tea: 1,040 calories
Tea and a muffin: It sounds innocent enough, right? Dunkin' Donuts even recommends the two together, calling them a "perfect pair" on its website. But just because you aren't eating a doughnut doesn't make this a better breakfast choice. A Coffee Cake Muffin alone has 590 calories, and a large Vanilla Chai adds 450 more. "This breakfast choice is low in protein, but high in calories, sugar and carbs," cautions Natalie Allen, a registered dietitian and biomedical sciences instructor at Missouri State University. "Eating these types of foods in the morning will not keep you full." In other words, you've just scarfed down half your daily calories, and you'll be hungry again by 10 a.m. — not worth it.
DUNKIN' DONUTS: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Turkey Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Wake-Up Wrap and Hot Coffee: 270 calories
Fortunately, Dunkin' Donuts has made it easier to make better choices. Allen says: "Look for items designated as 'DDSmart.' They are lower in calories and fat." She particularly recommends Wake-Up Wraps like the one with turkey sausage, which has just 240 calories. A medium cup of hot coffee with Splenda only adds 30 more, "but watch what you add to the coffee, such as sugar or flavored syrups," she cautions — it's a quick way to add empty calories.
Breakfast Crunchwrap Combo: 820 calories
Starting your run for the border in the morning doesn't necessarily mean you'll be choosing from healthier fare at Taco Bell. The Breakfast Crunchwrap Combo sure sounds delicious: The wrap comes with bacon, cheese, egg, hash browns and creamy jalapeno sauce, plus you get a side of two decadent, icing-filled Cinnabon Delights. But Glockner warns of the high sodium content — 1,360 milligrams — and the high calorie count. Even worse, you could tack on tons more calories by selecting a drink like the Mountain Dew Baja Blast, she says.
TACO BELL: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Grilled Breakfast Burrito Fiesta Potato: 340 calories
A better choice at Taco Bell: the Fiesta Potato version of the Grilled Breakfast Burrito, made with egg, pico de gallo, nacho cheese and potatoes. "Grilled options are usually healthier than fried options," Glockner advises. "This meal has no processed meats, has grilled potatoes instead of fried hash browns, and has no creamy sauce." For extra health points, she recommends swapping in guacamole for the nacho cheese sauce. "It would be a healthier, unprocessed, plant-based fat." Pair it with a plain hot coffee or unsweetened iced tea for a better drink option than a soft drink, she recommends.
Biggie Breakfast Sandwich with Breakfast Potatoes: 1,020 calories
Topped with eggs, smoked bacon, sausage and cheese, the Biggie Breakfast Sandwich is the epitome of a convenient, filling breakfast. But pair it with a large side of breakfast potatoes, and you'll be downing 57 grams of fat and a cringe-worthy 2,600 milligrams of sodium, more than the FDA recommends for the whole day. "This 'Biggie' breakfast will leave you feeling that way too," says Bethany Tennant, a certified nutrition specialist and naturopathic physician. She also points out that high fructose corn syrup is one of the top three ingredients. "It's a set-up for weight gain — and 'biggie' body composition issues to manage."
WENDY'S: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Cranberry Pecan Oatmeal: 370 calories
Tennant suggests opting for Wendy's Cranberry Pecan Oatmeal instead. It has just 12 grams of fat and only 70 grams of sodium. While the 12 grams of protein can't touch the 30 grams in the Biggie Breakfast Sandwich, Tennant says it's still significant, noting that Wendy's had one of the only fast-food breakfast menus she's seen that offers oatmeal with a nut or protein option
Sausage, Egg and Cheese Biscuit with Hash Browns: 920 calories
Chick-Fil-A can be one of the healthier fast-food breakfast options if you play your cards right. One of the worst options, however, is this sandwich, served with sausage, folded egg and cheese on a buttermilk biscuit. Allen notes that it has 670 calories and 46 grams of fat alone — add the obligatory side of hash browns, and you'll tack on 250 more calories and another 17 grams of fat. Another concern, Allen says: 210 milligrams of cholesterol.
CHICK-FIL-A: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Egg White Grill and Fruit Cup: 350 calories
"Choose the healthier Egg White Grill sandwich, which is less than half the calories, thanks in part to being on an English muffin," Allen advises. "The chicken on this breakfast sandwich is a lean protein, which provides satiety to fuel you for the morning." It has just 7 grams of fat and only 55 milligrams of cholesterol, too. If you need a little something extra, look no further than the fruit cup, which adds only 50 calories.
Monster Biscuit: 880 calories
Hardee's isn't known for its subtlety, so anything named the "Monster Biscuit" is bound to be a beast, especially nutritionally. You'll get a sausage patty, four slices of ham, two slices of bacon and a folded egg crammed onto a buttermilk biscuit. But you'll also get 61 grams of fat, 24 of it saturated, and 280 grams of cholesterol. However, "the biggest alarm is the sodium content," warns Rebecca Stib, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Dietitian Thyme. "With over 2,400 milligrams of sodium ... you've already exceeded the limit for the day." And that's a recipe for fluid retention, bloating, and increased thirst, she says.
HARDEE'S: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit: 610 calories
While most of Hardee's breakfast menu packs a punch when it comes to calories, Stib says you can still indulge a little more responsibly by opting for the simpler Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit. "You'll still enjoy some of the (flavors) found in the Monster Biscuit, but with roughly half of the sodium." It also has a lot less fat at 38 grams, 15 of it saturated.
Cinnamon Crunch Bagel with Honey Walnut Cream Cheese and Chai Tea Latte: 790 calories
Panera beckons every morning with its tempting bagels and bevy of hot drinks. But steer clear of the dessert-like Cinnamon Crunch Bagel, especially if you're watching carbs or sugar. It has 82 grams of carbs and 33 grams of sugar, and the cream cheese adds 5 more grams of sugar. The bigger surprise might be the Chai Tea Latte, though: It has 48 grams of sugar by itself. "The combined sugar will give you a major sugar crash even before you arrive to work," Stib warns.
PANERA BREAD: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Cinnamon Swirl and Raisin Bagel and Skinny Café Mocha: 560 calories
"To avoid a sugar crash, I would pick two items that complement each other nutritionally," Stib says. "Try pairing the cinnamon swirl and raisin bagel with a Skinny Café Mocha. You'll love the similar flavors, and it has a lot less sugar." That's 46 grams, to be exact — less than the Chai Tea Latte alone.
Ultimate Meat and Cheese Breakfast Burrito: 840 calories
It's ultimate, alright — as in, it should be the ultimate nuclear option for breakfast at Sonic. Yes, this combo of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, tots and cheese has 30 grams of filling protein, but it also has "a whole day's worth of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium in one burrito," warns Cunningham. For those keeping score, that's 58 grams, 19 grams, 360 milligrams, and 2,220 milligrams, respectively.
SONIC: A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE
Junior Breakfast Burrito: 290 calories
"Have a junior breakfast burrito for about one-third of the calories, fat, cholesterol, and everything else in the Ultimate version," Cunningham recommends. It still has 12 grams of filling protein, plus the sausage, eggs and cheese of its fattier big brother. And the 820 milligrams of sodium won't leave you feeling quite as bloated for the rest of the day, either.