If you're on the keto diet or following another low-carb plan, having low-carb McDonald's options in your back pocket is a good idea. Though you may make more meals at home and prep in advance, having a plan for on-the-go is important, too.
To keep you on track with your goals, take a look at the menu before you go. That way, you'll visit the restaurant with a plan in mind so you don't eat too many carbs and restrict your options for the rest of the day.
Following Low-Carb Diets
There is no shortage of low-carb diets to choose from, though the Keto diet and Atkins diet remain popular. There is not a formal definition of "low carb", but the Mayo Clinic says a daily limit of 20 to 60 grams is typical.
For reference, the US Food & Drug Administration says anyone on a 2,000 calorie diet should consume 300 grams of carbohydrates per day. Anything with 5 percent or less daily value of total carbohydrates per serving is considered low, and anything with 20 percent or more daily value of total carbohydrate is considered high.
To help with evaluating whether or not a food is considered low-carb, the nutrition label on a food provides you with the total carbohydrates inside. The University of California San Francisco Diabetes Teaching Center tells us that the grams of dietary fiber are already included in the total carbohydrate count on nutrition fact labels. Because fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate that your body cannot digest, it does not affect your blood sugar levels and therefore does not count against your carbohydrate intake when you are following a low-carb diet. When setting your daily carb limit, you factor in net carbohydrates or the total carbohydrate amount minus the fiber amount.
When you're on a low-carb diet, bread products are generally allowed as long as they are high in fiber and therefore low in net carbs. Per the US Food & Drug Administration, to be considered "high," "rich in," or an "excellent source of" fiber, the product must contain 20 percent or more of the recommended daily intake per serving.
Harvard Health Publishing says that unlike other low-carb diets, the keto diet focuses on fat to supply as much as 90 percent of the daily calories. Other low-carb plans focus their attention on protein, so depending on which low-carb diet you follow, some options on this list may not work as well as others.
When it comes to eating fast food, you can find low-carb options in most places. Even if they are not on the menu, many restaurants, including McDonald's, should be willing to accommodate requests. You will find a range of foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner that can help you stay on track when you are out and do not have enough snacks with you, or are traveling and unable to bring or prepare your meals in advance.
And if you really just want to eat some McDonald's food from time to time, but you do not want to skip the full experience of a burger or wrap, you can always bring your own low-carb buns or tortillas and add the McDonald's ingredients yourself.
Ordering Low-Carb McDonald’s
One of the easiest ways to make a low-carb McDonald's meal is to order a cheeseburger without a bun. If you feel like you are missing something without the bun, you can always ask for the burger to be wrapped in lettuce.
According to the McDonald's Nutrition Calculator, a double cheeseburger without the bun contains 270 calories, 20 grams of fat, 4 grams of carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein. If you want to add more fiber to the meal, order a side salad. The side salad contains only 3 grams of carbs and, if you hold the tomatoes, it brings the total down to 2 grams.
A quarter-pounder with cheese contains 9 grams of carbs without the bun. If you ask them to remove the ketchup, you will get it down to 5 grams. If you order a Big Mac without a bun, you will take it from 43 net carbs to just 7 net carbs. If you skip the special sauce, you will have 5 net carbs, and if you skip the pickles, you'll have 4 net carbs.
If you're not much of a beef eater, you could also opt for a bunless grilled chicken sandwich. You can customize it with high-fat toppings to keep it satisfying.
At McDonald's, a good way to do this is with a Pico Guacamole sandwich without the bun. It has 330 calories, 18 grams of fat, 9 grams of carbs and 34 grams of protein. When you order the grilled chicken, make sure it hasn't been marinated in any sweet sauces such as maple syrup or honey.
If you're not hungry for a burger or chicken sandwich without the bread, you can order a salad. The Bacon Ranch Grilled Chicken Salad with guacamole offers 380 calories, 19 grams of fat, 10 grams of carbs and 42 grams of protein.
Avoid any salads that contain sweet dressings or marinades, fresh or dried fruit and things such as breaded chicken, croutons, candied nuts and tortilla chips. These all contain carbs that will add up quickly.
Low-Carb Breakfast Options
If you're heading to McDonald's for their all-day breakfast offerings, you still have plenty of choices, as long as you can eat eggs. The McDonald's Nutrition Calculator says the Big Breakfast without the biscuit or hashbrowns contains 340 calories, 29 grams of fat, 2 grams of carbs and 19 grams of protein.
Alternatively, you could order the Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit without the biscuit. It contains 190 calories, 13 grams of fat, 4 grams of carbs and 14 grams of protein.
You can order any breakfast sandwich on the menu at McDonald's without the bread — whether it is a bagel, muffin or biscuit — and make it a low-carb option. If you're not a fan of bacon, sausage or steak is a low-carb friendly substitute. If you swap regular eggs for egg whites, you'll save another carb.
If you're more of the breakfast burrito type, the sausage burrito without the tortilla contains 150 calories, 12 grams of fat, 4 grams of carbohydrates and 9 grams of protein.
When it comes to sides and drinks, the best thing to drink is water, but you can also opt for unsweetened tea. Diet soda is also an option, if you really want to have a soda. If you must have something on the side, opt for apple slices or mandarin orange slices.
Remember, though, the natural sugar found in fruit counts as carbs. The Mandarin orange slices contain 8 net carbs – so for those on a really low-carb diet, they may not be the best option.
If you want to add sauces or dips to your meal for more flavor, the creamy ranch sauce (not the same as the ranch dressing packets that accompanied the salad) contains 1 net carb, as does the spicy buffalo sauce. The marinara sauce contains 2 net carbs, while a packet of ketchup contains 3 net carbs.
If you want to keep an eye on your portion sizes, order a cheeseburger Happy Meal without a bun or ketchup. Either skip the side of fries, or ask for the sliced apples instead. Rather than milk or juice, opt for water, diet soda or unsweetened tea.
Be sure to avoid the yogurt they may include in the meal because it is full of carbs. If you have a higher daily carb limit because you're in maintenance mode, you could also spring for the four-piece chicken nuggets instead of the cheeseburger.
McDonald's Foods to Avoid
When it comes to breakfast at McDonald's, you'll definitely want to avoid the fruit and maple yogurt if you're on a low-carb diet because it contains 62 grams of carbs. If you remove the fruit and the oatmeal, there's nothing left.
Any other time of the day, avoid buns, ketchup, croutons and the french fries and shakes. Getting rid of the onions in your burger will also reduce the carbs in your overall meal, since the onions add 1 carb.
You'll also want to avoid any coffee drinks that are made with lots of milk or sugar. That means you'll have to avoid most of the McCafe menu, since they McDonald's do not offer dairy-free alternatives like some other coffee chains. If you want to have coffee with your meal, ask for a splash of heavy cream rather than milk, and use a calorie-free sweetener if you don't like black coffee.
If you want a breaded chicken sandwich, opt for the McChicken without the bun, which has 11 grams of carbs. Skip the mayo, and you'll save another carb. The crispy chicken sandwiches use a different breaded chicken that contains 18 grams of carbs after the bun, tomato and mayo have been removed.
While the keto diet advocates high-fat options, it's best to avoid the ranch salad dressing at McDonald's. McDonald's Nutrition Calculator indicates that it has 7 net carbs per serving. Instead, either bring your own dressing or opt for the balsamic vinaigrette, as this only has 4 net carbs per serving.
While the honey mustard, chipotle BBQ sauce, tangy BBQ sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and sweet chili sauce may sound delicious and tempting, they range anywhere from 5 to 12 net carbs each depending on the flavor. If you want something to dip your food in, consider bringing your own low-carb dressings or dips with you.
- Mayo Clinic: "Low-Carb Diet: Can It Help You Lose Weight?"
- US Food & Drug Administration: "Total Carbohydrate"
- University of California San Francisco Diabetes Teaching Center: "Understanding Fiber"
- US Food & Drug Administration: "Food Labeling"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Should You Try the Keto Diet?"
- McDonald's: "Nutrition Calculator"