So many of us are trying our best to steer clear of the grab-and-go convenience of fast food restaurants because of how unhealthy they are. But what are we supposed to eat when we are jammed for time or on a long road trip and our stomach starts growling?
Yes, in an ideal world we always have our lunches packed and our snacks on hand. I don’t know about you, but I don’t actually live in an ideal world. Things happen. And getting hungry when we’re on the road is one of them.
So, are there better alternatives to McDonald’s that can offer us a fast, but healthy meal?
Panera has been touted as just that. A health-conscious, “better for you” fast food alternative. Aware that Panera is known for their delicious breads, pastas and baked goods, I definitely was a little skeptical about this going in. Here’s what I learned.
Panera Nutrition: Is it really the healthier choice?
Panera has made many positive changes over the past couple years when it comes to their quality of food ingredients. By the end of 2016, they will have removed a long list of chemicals and additives from their foods, including artificial colors, MSG, high fructose corn syrup and many other unsafe ingredients that, quite honestly, shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
So, looking at the quality and freshness of their ingredients, you are swayed to think, “Hey, this place might actually just be a healthy fast food restaurant!”. They bake their bread fresh daily, have no trans-fats in their foods and all of their chicken is antibiotic-free.
But not so fast! There are some other factors we need to consider before we let Panera slide on this whole “healthy fast food” campaign they’re running with.
Calories Count… Sort Of
Panera is known for their freshly baked and oh-so-good breads, but those breads can really derail a diet quickly. Let’s look at their vegetarian tomato and mozzarella sandwich served on ciabatta bread. Sounds healthy, right? This sandwich yields 770 calories, 29 g of fat and 1,290 mg of sodium. To give you a perspective, a McDonald’s double cheeseburger is 440 calories, 23 g of fat and 1,150 mg of sodium. Hmmm….
So, while the quality of ingredients and the nutrients you are getting are obviously much better choosing Panera over McDonald’s, these numbers left me scratching my head a little.
I’m not big on counting calories, but for some people, it’s a good way to keep them in check. Personally, I prefer to count protein, carbs and fat, but I’ll play along for this one.
Soup and Salad Options
Panera also has a large menu of salads and soups filled with any ingredients you can think of. From a kale caesar to a greek salad with chicken or a vegetarian black bean soup, you are definitely not sacrificing taste when choosing one of their lighter options.
But, of course, the big question is, “are they healthy?”.
When choosing a soup or salad at Panera, there are a couple keys to keeping it healthy. When it comes to the soups, the biggest no-no is the infamous “bread bowl”. This is just clearly not the best option and will bump your calorie intake, namely your carb intake, through the roof. Another great tip is to order the salad dressing on the side and just use a little as you need it. This will dramatically reduce your sodium, sugar and overall calorie intake.
When choosing a soup or salad from the menu, you want to stay away the cream-based soups and dressings to keep your calorie count down.
What’s With All That Sodium?
The quality of Panera’s ingredients clearly outshine your typical fast food restaurants and there are definitely much more nourishing, nutritious options to choose from (if you have the willpower to steer clear of the baked goods and enticing breads). But one thing that still struck me was the crazy high sodium count in nearly everything they served. Even some of the salads can contain up to 1,000 mg of sodium before you even put any dressing on it!
So, Is Panera Healthy Or Not?
So, with all that said, is Panera actually the healthier option? If you are choosing between Panera and somewhere like Burger King, then yes. Their food quality is drastically better and, with some skill and maybe some special requests and substitutions, you can get a relatively healthy meal quickly here.
Should you rely on Panera as your go-to spot for lunch throughout the work week instead of packing your own lunch? Absolutely not! But if you are in a bind, out on the road starving, then Panera would be a much healthier fast food option in my opinion.