Lunchtime may be a welcome break from the daily grind for most people, but if you have diabetes, a quick lunch at the local burger joint can quickly turn into too many carbs and unwelcome blood sugar spikes. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By keeping some simple tips in mind, even fast food can be diabetes friendly.

Learn some tips to navigate the menus at common fast food restaurants.

Burger Restaurants

When a burger is all that will soothe your midday craving, stick to a single patty to save on calories. Paying attention to condiments can also be a huge help. Since many fast food restaurants will automatically add mayonnaise to burgers, ask that they hold it on yours. “One tablespoon has around 100 calories,” says Amy Kimberlain, RDN, LDN, RYT, a registered dietitian at the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami.

Request mustard or ketchup packets instead. That way, you’re saving calories and controlling the amount yourself. Also avoid other key carb and fat offenders, such as bacon, cheese, and fries. Opt for a lower-carb side salad instead.

Chicken Restaurants

Chicken may seem like a healthier choice overall. When compared to a higher-fat burger, it might be, but there’s still room to go overboard here, too. To keep carbs in line, watch the wording. “Crispy typically means more calories and carbohydrates, since the chicken has been battered,” says Alison Massey, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, director of diabetes education at the Center for Endocrinology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. 

Order your sandwich grilled instead. For your side, choose a non-starchy vegetable such as steamed veggies or coleslaw instead of french fries. Of if you skip the bun, you can make room for healthy complex carbs like beans or fruit.

Mexican Restaurants

The biggest trap at Mexican restaurants is the portion size, warns Kimberlain. She stresses that people with type 2 diabetes should focus on healthier foods with the right balance of protein, carbs, and fat. Whether you’re craving rice and beans or a chicken fajita, only eat half. Better yet, share the meal with a friend.

Opt for a bowl or salad, recommends Massey. They eliminate the tortilla, which can help keep your carbs in check. If a tortilla is a must-have for you, corn is a better bet than flour. Add in black beans (not refried) for extra fiber and just a bit of avocado for some healthy fat.

Skip the chips, even if they come with your meal. Also be wary of cheese and condiments. “Every ounce of cheese is 100 calories,” says Kimberlain, adding that salsa is more diabetic-friendly than sour cream.

Chinese Restaurants

Chinese dishes are often loaded with sodium and carbohydrates, and can send blood glucose readings sky-high after the meal, says Massey. To avoid these complications, either limit your rice and noodle portion to 1 cup (which has 45 grams of carbs), or skip the rice altogether. That includes fried noodles as well. If you can’t skip the rice, order brown rice instead of white rice. Brown rice is higher in fiber, which is important for regulating the glucose entering your blood stream.

When selecting your meal, opt for a dish that’s loaded with steamed vegetables, such as chicken and broccoli. Watch your portion size as well. Order a meal to share, or set aside half of your meal for a friend or to save for lunch the next day.


Portion control can be tough when you’re splitting a pie with friends, so order a slice or two of your own instead of sharing a whole pizza.

Opt for a whole-wheat crust, if it’s available, and go for thin-crust instead of the deep-dish for fewer carbs. All vegetables make for a good topping, so choose whatever you like most. But stay away from the high-fat toppings, including bacon, pepperoni, and extra cheese.

Fast Food Survival Tips

  1. Always include a non-starchy vegetable as part of your meal. If your meal includes fries, ask for a salad instead.
  2. Ask for whole grains. More restaurants are including meals with quinoa, brown rice, or barley as options, and these are much more diabetic-friendly than refined grains.
  3. Look at how a food is prepared, and then choose the healthiest option. That means avoiding words with ‘fried’ and opting instead for items that are grilled, broiled, or blackened.
  4. Drink wisely. Soda and other sweetened drinks have loads of sugar (and carbs) with hardly any nutrients. In fact, a 24-ounce fountain drink can contain 20 teaspoons or 80 grams of sugar! Water is a widely and readily available beverage at most restaurants, and it’s always a smart choice.

Overall, realize that eating out and having fast food on the go is sometimes going to happen, says Kimberlain. At the same time, a fast meal out doesn’t have to mean diabetes disaster.