Eating greasy food after one too many drinks is as common as dancing with no respect for other people’s personal space or chatting to complete strangers in the toilets (just us?) And even if you’re not hitting the tiles, it’s easy to slip into a carb coma at home on the sofa. In either case, doing so is going to get you nowhere closer to your summer body goals. Not unlike the pints themselves, “carbs are cheap and they are filling,” says Jo Travers, a registered dietician and author of The Low-Fad Diet. “One of the reasons that people want them when they’re drunk is because when your liver stops doing all the jobs that it normally does (in order to process the alcohol), it releases stored carbohydrate glycogen into the bloodstream, to make sure your blood sugar stays topped up.” In other words, if you subscribe to the ‘eating is cheating’ school of thought, you’re bound to end up with low blood sugar by the fourth tequila and stuffing your face with a greasy burger bun by midnight, causing a sugar spike, followed by a sugar crash.
Whether putting in the groundwork for a monstrous hangover or just suffering a loss of willpower, there remains an undeniable magnetism of the fast food joint – it’s something to do with the lights and the aromas. But amid the cheese- and grease-laden menu options, there are still some healthy (or at least ‘healthier’) choices that will give you the energy to make it home in one piece. So, current you, do future you a favour and save this article in case of emergency. Forget the Big Mac, chocolate milkshake and 32 nuggets – this is the low carb fast food can satisfy your hunger without adding inches to your waistline.
Not all carbs are created equal. In fact, even Travers is full of praise for the humble burrito. Sure, they pack some carbohydrates, but she says this Mexican brick of goodness represents a truly well-balanced meal, as long as you swerve the rice. “What you have is carbs from the wrap, you’ve got some beans in there – which are a good carbohydrate [low on the glycemic index] – protein, you’ve got some salad, you’ve got vegetables, and you’ve got all of that fibre in there as well, which is slowing down the release of the carbohydrate into the bloodstream.” Swerve the red meat, though, and in particular slow-cooked pork. “This tends to have quite a lot of fat because that’s what keeps the meat juicy and tender during the slow-cooking.” Opt instead opt for chicken and, if you’re feeling brave (and by brave, we mean healthy) ditch the wrap in favour of a ‘naked’ burrito. Olé! Recommended Meal: Grilled chicken burrito with beans, sour cream and guacamole (no rice or cheese).
Pound-a-pint nights aren’t the only thing that can lead to fistfuls of fast food – a hangover can be just as culpable. If the chicken shop is your cure, there’s some good news: pick right (particularly when it comes to sides) and you can swerve the muffin top. “Sweet potato mash, or even the coleslaw, isn’t too bad,” says registered nutritional therapist Daniel O’Shaughnessy, also known as The Naked Nutritionist. If neither of those takes your fancy, O’Shaughnessy’s recommends a half chicken with peas and salad (“the salad is pretty plain, but it is what it is: healthy”), with a marinade rather than dousing it in sauces or dressing. Of course, if you’d prefer to have a heavier sauce, don’t let a nutritionist stop you (you’re a full-grown adult, that’s your prerogative), just be prepared to do a few extra push-ups later. Recommended Meal: Half chicken with mixed leaf salad.
It’s simple science: less pizza equals fewer carbs. But who wants to eat less pizza? No one, that’s who. Instead, choose one with a thin crust and light cheese. The calorific outcome will always be less than a large size Meat Lovers Deluxe. “The veggie option is perfect because all those micronutrients are going to do you favours,” says Travers. “You’re going to be getting antioxidants and things like vitamin C, A and E.” If you happen to be in a fancy part of town, look out for is a slow-fermented sourdough crust. It’s the easiest to digest and is usually made with no sweeteners or oils. To strip back the carb intake even more, share your pizza with a mate or save half for the morning after. Pizza for breakfast? Don’t mind if we do. Recommended Meal: Thin crust Margherita or veggie pizza (with light mozzarella cheese).
When quizzed about fast food staples – think McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King – both Travers and O’Shaughnessy tried but failed to muster any semblance of enthusiasm. Five Guys, on the other hand, can be parlayed into something somewhat nutritious. “Order a bunless burger,” says O’Shaughnessy, “and feel free to add all the toppings you want to it, just skip the fries and the sauce. If you’re happy to eat your burger with a knife and fork, you can have a have a loaded burger with a bit of salad, and it’s like having a steak.” Just watch out for the chain’s famous drinks machine, one large Coca Cola contains around 200 calories and more than half your recommended daily sugar intake. Recommended Meal: Bunless hamburger (no chips).
Providing a rare PR flip for the lowly kebab, it turns out a chicken shish could be the #GuiltyPleasure food of choice that’s the least bad for you. “The kebab gets a bad rap,” says Travers, “but if you go for a chicken shish and don’t have chips with it, you’ve actually got a really balanced meal.” What is this black magic, you ask? Well, there’s protein in the chicken, the pitta gives you some carbohydrates, and it’s got salad in it as well. “You can even have some yoghurt dressing in there, which will give you some calcium. So, actually, it’s really not a bad option.” Your local joint isn’t about to put Whole Foods out of business, of course, mainly due to the hunk of rotating grease in the window. “If you were to go for a lamb doner, have chips, skip the salad and add loads of garlic mayonnaise, you’re looking at something that is pretty unhealthy.” Party pooper. Recommended Meal: Chicken shish with salad and yoghurt.
So you stayed in last night, Netflixed and chilled until your remote thumb fell off and woke up feeling hangover free and smug AF. Treat yourself to some sushi – arguably the best low-carb fast food. “You’re limiting the amount of carbohydrate while getting a good ratio of protein,” says Travers. “Edamame beans are pretty good as well, and wasabi is not too bad either. That’s because most of the flavour comes from the wasabi itself, which is horseradish.” The important thing to avoid if you don’t want man boobs is the smaller maki rolls that are 85 per cent rice, even worse if it’s the white stuff. So, nigiri here we come. Recommended Meal: Salmon Nigiri (with brown rice).
A natural too-many-beers bedfellow, a late night curry (and the beer belly that follows) is hard to avoid. But it’s not all bad; provided you’re wobbling home before the doors slam shut, it’s an undoubtedly decent pick. “Any curry without the rice is fine,” says O’Shaughnessy. No need to tell us twice. “Just get an extra serving of veg to keep the carbs low.” Although vegetables are carbohydrates, certain carbohydrates are mightier than others. If you are tempted by rice, always, always, go for steamed brown rice over stir-fried. Recommended Meal: Any curry (minus the rice).
Sandwiches are a tangled web of contradictions. Mums pack their little darlings off to school with lunchboxes full of the things. So they must be good, right? Not necessarily. As O’Shaughnessy correctly points out: “You can eat really badly with a sandwich,” – something that anyone who’s devoured a grilled cheese melt can attest – “but you can also eat okay.” Potentially the most nutritiously sound is ham or turkey on whole wheat bread. Sounds plain, but add anything from olives and crunchy peppers to spicy jalapenos; as long as you leave out the mayo, Ranch dressing, cheese, bacon… you get the point. Recommended Meal: A turkey or ham sandwich (with mustard, on whole wheat bread).