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The best paleo fast food items at Chipotle, McDonald's, Taco Bell and more

Strict paleo adherents won't eat fast food, but if you're willing to be a little flexible, these are your best options.

Fast food tray full of hamburgers

Can fast food ever be paleo?

Getty Images

The paleo diet is so deeply entrenched in the public consciousness by now, some might think it's old hat (keto feels a touch more modern). But paleo adherents, like dieters in general, are still legion -- and while purists would never dare set foot in a fast food joint, dabblers and casual paleo practitioners continue to be frustrated by the lack of paleo options when it comes to dining out. Luckily for them, there are a surprisingly high number of technically paleo options at several major fast food chains.

Read more: The best keto fast food options | The hunt for the best air fryer

Paleo guidelines

If you're not up to speed on paleo, the basic idea is to eat only whole foods that our ancient ancestors would have consumed (which is why it's sometimes called the caveman diet). The focus is on lean meat, fish, eggs, fresh vegetables, nuts and berries. To be avoided on paleo: dairy, grains, legumes (including peanuts and beans) and all highly processed foods.

Because of that processed food restriction, it's debatable whether any fast food ever can or should be called paleo -- but for those times when you just can't resist (or avoid) the drive-through, you can at least attempt to make better choices.

To that end, we've covered generally healthy fast food you can buy, the best keto fast food options and even healthier versions of fast food you can make at home. But if you're on the caveman diet, here are some paleo fast food options that you can grab while you're on the go.

Note: These are also all Whole30 compliant -- although not all Whole30 options are paleo. (Maybe you should just scrap the whole diet thing and consider intuitive eating instead.)

Chipotle

Honestly, Chipotle has probably always been the top option when it comes to fast food that's reasonably healthy and way less processed than is the norm.

What to eat

It's not difficult to build your own paleo bowl, but they've taken all the guesswork out of the equation with their new "Lifestyle Bowls" (does that sound vaguely ominous to anyone else?) The Paleo Salad Bowl contains "braised and hand-shredded barbacoa, fajita veggies, green salsa, and our hand-mashed guacamole on a bed of fresh chopped Romaine lettuce."

If you still want to construct your own, all meats (steak, chicken, barbacoa and carnitas) and grilled fajita vegetables are fair game. As for other toppings, the tomatillo green chile salsa and fresh tomato salsa are paleo. Pile on that guacamole, too.

What to watch out for

No rice, beanscheese or sour cream, of course, and no tortillas or chips either, but you can always double up on the avocado if you're feeling decadent. Skip the sofritas, which are made with soybeans. Since corn is not considered paleo, pass on the roasted chili-corn salsa too.

chipotle-paleo-bowl

Chipotle added paleo, keto and Whole30 options to their menu earlier in 2019.

Chipotle

McDonalds, Wendy's, Burger King, Shake Shack, In-N-Out, Jack in the Box and Carl's Jr.

Pretty much the same things go at any burger chain: you can get a burger without the bun (and without cheese or condiments) and skip the fries, but here are some particulars.

What to eat

Plain burger patties and naked chicken breasts without buns, cheese or condiments should usually be OK, though not always (some chains cook their chicken in vegetable oil, which is a paleo no-no -- but also maybe not that big a deal once in a while?) Order either beef or chicken with a lettuce wrap (BK, Shake Shack and In-N-Out will all let you sub one in for the bun, but otherwise you can always order a plain side salad, sans dressing).

Bacon is technically an OK addition, even though it's more processed, so perhaps better to call it a slippery slope.

McDonald's will serve you fresh eggs if you ask -- they come standard on the Egg McMuffin, so you can order that and ask them to hold the bun, etc. Or you can try requesting a "round egg" on its own; your success will depend on how draconian the particular laws are at the location you visit.

Since white potatoes have been deemed admissible by some, while you're at Wendy's, feel free to have their relatively healthy baked potato, as long as you don't put dairy on it -- although clarified butter is okay, so you may seriously want to consider stashing travel-size packs of ghee in your glove compartment for emergencies. 

Plain side salads from any of these chains should be safe if you order one with nothing but fresh veggies -- most, if not all, dressings are likely to contain corn syrup and other verboten ingredients (and the same is often true of even the ketchup and mustard, which is why we said no condiments).  

mcdonalds-egg-mcmuffin

You can get a paleo-approved fresh egg at McDonald's -- just order a McMuffin without the meat, cheese, or English muffin.

McDonald's

What to watch out for

The aforementioned sugary condiments and salad dressings are only the beginning.

The smell of the fries will be tempting, but if you want to stick to paleo strictures, you'll have to resist. Reward yourself with a pack of apple slices from the menu if you wish.   

Nuggets, chicken fingers and chicken fries are out because of their breading.

If you're more strict with yourself than not, there are many other minefields to look out for. For instance, Wendy's has an Apple Pecan Chicken Salad that seems like a pretty good bet as long as you hold the blue cheese. But check that ingredients list and you'll see that it's still not paleo, as the roasted pecans are made with honey and added sugar and the pomegranate dressing has sugar and soybean oil -- even the seemingly innocuous grilled chicken on top is made with potato starch. And yet, this may be another case where you choose not to let perfect be the enemy of good (or at least good enough). 

The good news is, many of these chains provide pretty detailed nutritional information online and/or on their menus, so you can be aware of net protein, carbs, and so on, and sometimes even find hidden ingredients, which is helpful for anyone who enjoys facing stark reality -- and making healthier food choices, of course.    

Taco Bell

In the land of tortillas, cheese, and rice and beans, can a paleo participant find anything to eat? Yes! 

What to eat

Steak, chicken, lettuce, pico, guac -- there may not be as many options as at Chipotle, but you can still order several combos of ingredients that fit the bill in a satisfying way. Take their Power Menu Bowl for example. You'll have to replace the rice and beans with extra lettuce, skip the cheese and sour cream (ditto the avocado ranch sauce), but you can add paleo-friendly toppings like sliced jalapenos and extra pico and guac. If you're feeling like red meat, swap in steak for the chicken. Fire sauce is acceptable for spicing it up.

What to watch out for

The ground beef mixture at Taco Bell is not paleo due to additives (i.e., it's not just pure ground beef). You'll also have to skip the dairy (sour cream and cheese), tortillas and taco shells, and beans.

chick-fil-a-grilled-nuggets-paleo

The grilled nuggets and some salads are your best paleo bets at Chick-fil-A.

Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A

As is so often the case, there is technically nothing on the menu that passes paleo muster here, but there are a few choices that may be close enough for some.

What to eat

The grilled nuggets and buffalo sauce are acceptable. The Superfood Side salad is a good choice (it contains maple in the dressing but maple syrup is paleo-approved). You can also order the Southwest Salad or Grilled Market Salad without cheese and without dressing.

What to watch out for

Literally everything (else) on the menu. As for the above, soybean oil, sugar, molasses and grape juice concentrate all show up in the ingredients list for the nuggets alone, which means they are not actually paleo, but they're as good as you're gonna get at this (and most other) chains. The buffalo sauce isn't purely paleo either, but it's the only one on the menu without corn syrup and soybean oil, so that's something. 

Subway

If Subway is your best or only option, you won't have to go hungry.

subway-veggie-salad-paleo

A veggie salad with oil, and vinegar passes paleo muster.

Subway

What to eat

You can order a salad loaded up with extra veggies from their toppings bar, with oil and vinegar as the dressing. You can also add various minimally processed meats like chicken and bacon,  but -- to repeat the refrain -- even those less-processed meats may not be strictly paleo due to their cooking methods. The tuna salad is sort of paleo (except for the fact that the mayo contains soybean oil).

What to watch out for

The namesake subs, of course, because bread. You'll also have to skip the cheese, processed meats like cold cuts, salami and ham, and most dressings besides the oil and vinegar (because even the other vinaigrette options may have hidden sugar and/or soybean oil).

Bottom line: If you're actually inside a fast food establishment in the first place, you're probably OK with bending the rules a little bit. And if not, stay home and investigate some paleo recipes you can make for yourself.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.