The salads are few and the vegetables fewer. There's not much fruit aside from applesauce, apple juice and apple pie, and you won't find a yogurt cup on the menu, though milk and water are served as beverages. So it's fair to say that the task of finding acceptable healthy options from BK's menu is a bit challenging.
Red, fried and processed meats aside, there are a few items that stand out in terms of their healthfulness, so much so that we mentioned those options for more than one category. For example, the garden grilled chicken salad with Tendergrill chicken is one of the healthiest options on BK's menu, along with the protein-rich Tendergrill chicken sandwich.
Regardless of meal type, the Tendergrill chicken is always a better choice than the Tendercrisp chicken, which is fried. And then there's the veggie burger, for those who want to avoid meat.
We recommend steering clear of bacon, found in many of the chain's cheese-containing burgers, and other processed meats, such as sausage (found in eight of the chain's breakfast sandwiches) and hot dogs. And while the Whopperrito -- the newest addition to Burger King's menu -- may sound tempting, the mixture of beef and queso sauce wrapped in a flour tortilla offers about half a day's worth of saturated fat and sodium.
If you want to splurge on fries or onion rings, choose the value size, which will make a much smaller dent in your daily calorie and sodium limits. For example, a large order of onion rings has 500 calories and 1,310 milligrams of sodium, or more than triple the calories and sodium than the value size portion, which has 150 calories and 400 milligrams of sodium. For a healthier side dish, choose the sodium-free applesauce for just 50 calories.
As with other chains, avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. The smallest size, a 16-ounce soft drink, contains about 40 grams or 10 teaspoons of sugar. A 40-ounce cup has more than 100 grams, or more than 25 teaspoons. According to the American Heart Association, women should limit added sugars to no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day and men about 9 teaspoons. US dietary guidelines recommend a limit of 10% of calories from added sugars; on a 2,000-calorie diet, that translates to 12½ teaspoons.
Below are the best Burger King options if you're focused on healthy choices within the limits of the menu. We break it down by our picks for kids, athletes, drivers, vegetarians and vegans, as well as low-calorie, low-sugar, low-salt, gluten-free and low-carb options.
Our picks: Chicken Nuggets King Jr. meal (4 pieces) with ketchup, applesauce and fat-free milk
When it comes to kid-specific lunch and dinner, choices at Burger King include chicken nuggets, a hamburger or a cheeseburger. The chicken nuggets are lowest in saturated fat: A four-piece serving has 2 grams of saturated fat, compared with 3 grams for the hamburger and 5 grams for the cheeseburger.
A packet of kid-friendly ketchup for dipping is a welcome alternative to some of the higher-sodium sauces and has fewer sugars than the barbecue sauce.
We like the fact that the King Jr. meal comes with applesauce and a choice of a beverage, though we highly recommend the fat-free milk over the apple juice, which has 20 grams (5 teaspoons) of sugar.
You don't have to deny your child dessert, but be smart: The vanilla soft serve ice cream cone has 140 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat and is a better option than the chocolate fudge sundae, with 270 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat, or the vanilla milkshake, with 580 calories and 10 grams of saturated fat.
Our picks: Morningstar Veggie Burger without mayo, ketchup or pickles and garden side salad without croutons and dressing
For those who want a meat-free meal, Burger King offers a Morningstar veggie burger (like the one found in supermarket freezers), topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, ketchup and mayo. But the condiments come at a cost: With all of the fixings, the sodium count registers at 1,060 milligrams. If you take away the mayo, ketchup and pickles, you can slash 240 milligrams of sodium. Add a garden side salad if you desire, but skip the croutons and dressing, which add even more sodium to the meal.
Our picks: Garden side salad without cheese or croutons and with Golden Italian dressing, applesauce and French fries (value size)
Aside from French fries, hash browns and French toast sticks, there isn't much to choose from when it comes to vegan options at Burger King. Though the veggie burger may be a welcome option for vegetarians, the same cannot be said for vegans, as the patty contains eggs and milk. You could theoretically fill a bun with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and romaine, but be prepared to be hungry soon after, as it won't provide much protein.
The best we can recommend is a garden side salad (without cheese, croutons or egg-yolk-containing ranch dressing) with a side of applesauce. And if you feel like splurging, go for value size fries.
For calorie counters
Our picks: Tendergrill chicken sandwich without mayo; or veggie burger without mayo, ketchup and pickles; or garden grilled chicken salad with Tendergrill chicken, without dressing
Believe it or not, there are many low-calorie items at Burger King. Our favorite is the Tendergrill chicken sandwich without mayo. It has only 320 calories, but we really like the fact that it delivers 32 grams of protein and will keep you satisfied long after the meal, which is especially important if you are limiting calories.
The veggie burger without mayo, pickles and ketchup is another appealing option, with 300 calories and 21 grams of protein. (Although the ketchup and pickles don't contribute many calories, cutting them brings the sodium count down by 170 milligrams.)
And if you are willing to part with salad dressing, the garden grilled chicken salad with Tendergrill chicken has only 320 calories and 36 grams of protein. If part of your enjoyment of salad includes the dressing, use only half a packet. BK's Lite honey balsamic dressing is one of the lowest, at 120 calories per packet.
Note: Don't look at calories in isolation, as some of the least healthy items on BK's menu are also some of the lowest-calorie options. A bacon cheeseburger has fewer than 300 calories, but it has less protein and more saturated fat than the Tendergrill chicken sandwich without mayo or the veggie burger. And we don't recommend processed meats like bacon or a grilled hot dog, which has only 310 calories. If you are in the mood for a burger, go for a Whopper Jr., which has about half the calories of a regular Whopper.
For the sugar-sensitive
Our picks: Garden grilled chicken salad with Tendergrill chicken, with a half packet of ranch dressing; or chicken nuggets (6 pieces) with ranch dipping sauce
The garden grilled chicken salad with Tendergrill chicken has just 1 teaspoon (or 4 grams) of sugar and is one of the lowest-sugar items on BK's menu. Though it comes with Lite balsamic vinaigrette dressing, the dressing appears to contribute 3 grams of sugar for every 2 tablespoons. We recommend the ranch dressing instead, which has only 1 gram of sugar per packet (use half the packet to limit sodium intake).
The chicken nuggets are also sugar-free; however, steer clear of the barbecue dipping sauce, which has 2½ teaspoons (10 grams) of sugar per serving. The ranch, buffalo and zesty onion ring dipping sauces are lowest in sugars. Each has 1 gram per serving, though the ranch is lowest in sodium of the three sauces. We were tempted to include the original chicken sandwich without mayo, as it is also one of the lowest-sugar options on the menu, but it has close to 1,000 milligrams of sodium, even without the creamy condiment.
For the salt-sensitive
Our picks: Whopper Jr. without mayo, ketchup and pickles; or chicken nuggets (4 pieces), garden side salad without croutons and dressing; and applesauce
There's something to be said about junior sizes. They are guaranteed to have fewer nutrients across the board, compared with their regular-size counterparts. And in the case of sodium, that's a significant savings. A regular Whopper sandwich has 810 milligrams of sodium, but when you order the junior size, the count is cut by more than half, down to 390 milligrams, making it one of the lowest-sodium meals on BK's menu. Taking away the mayo, ketchup and pickles brings the sodium count down further, from 390 to 230 milligrams.
Another low-sodium option is the four-piece chicken nuggets, at 310 milligrams, though we recommend skipping the sodium-laden dipping sauces. Pair them with the garden side salad to add some vitamins, but skip the croutons and dressing for a significant sodium savings. Though fries and onion rings are sodium saboteurs, you can enjoy a cup of sodium-free applesauce as a snack.
For the gluten-sensitive
Our picks: Garden grilled salad with Tendergrill chicken and without croutons and with Lite honey balsamic dressing; or Whopper Jr. without bun
Burger King cautions that although some of its foods may be free of gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley, rye and oats, they are not intended for those with celiac disease, due to the risk of contamination. Even French fries, while gluten-free, may be fried along with gluten-containing foods.
When it comes to meals without gluten, the options are pretty much limited to burgers without buns and salads without croutons and meat patties. Smoothies are available too, but they will max you out on added sugar for the entire day.
We like the garden fresh salad with Tendergrill chicken (minus the croutons). The Lite honey balsamic dressing is one of the lowest-calorie dressings and is gluten-free.
For the athlete
Our picks: Flame-grilled chicken burger without mayo and pickles, fat-free milk or low-fat chocolate milk
For those who make spin classes, jogging or going to the gym a regular part of their weekly routine, the flame-grilled chicken burger is a welcome alternative to a beef burger and offers a balanced combination of carbs and protein to fuel and repair muscles during workouts.
We omitted the mayo and pickles to bring down the sodium count, though if you perspire a lot, you can afford more sodium, as some of the mineral is lost in sweat.
To drink, choose low-fat milk, which offers even more protein and carbs, along with bone-building calcium. And if you are running long distances, the low-fat chocolate milk will give you even more carbs to replenish muscles.
For the road warrior
Our picks: Big fish sandwich, without tartar sauce and with half the bun; or Tendergrill chicken sandwich without mayo
If you are on a road trip, you might be eating away from home at least for a day or two. Whether you're visiting friends, looking forward to a weekend getaway or even attending an out-of-town business conference, our guess is that you may be surrounded by high-calorie indulgences when it comes to foods and drinks.
So we couldn't pass up the fish sandwich at Burger King. After all, it's rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats and relatively low in calories and saturated fat, especially when you skip the tartar sauce. The sodium is on the higher side, but you can save some milligrams by taking off the top of the brioche bun and eating the sandwich open-faced. For longer trips, choose the Tendergrill chicken sandwich without mayo, with 32 grams of protein to keep you satisfied and focused.
For the carb-conscious
Our picks: Tendergrill chicken sandwich without bun; or cheeseburger without bun; plus garden side salad with ranch dressing and without croutons
When you look beyond burgers, sandwiches, fries and onion rings, you won't find many low-carb options on Burger King's menu. The foods with the fewest carbs include the chicken nuggets -- a six-piece serving has 16 grams (four pieces have 11 grams) -- and the garden grilled chicken salad with Tendergrill chicken, which also contains 16 grams of carbs, without the dressing.
If you want to keep your carb consumption at a minimum, your best bet is to order the Tendergrill chicken sandwich and toss the bun. You'll save on sodium too, as the brioche bun for the chicken sandwich has more than 300 milligrams. Another low-carb option is the bun-less cheeseburger. Pair either with a garden side salad, minus the croutons, and choose the ranch dressing, which has only 2 grams of carbs per packet.
For the breakfast lover
Our picks: Original maple-flavored oatmeal; or egg and cheese Croissan'wich
Once you eliminate processed breakfast meats, high-sodium biscuit sandwiches and oversized portions, there isn't a whole lot to choose from on BK's breakfast menu. We like the heart-healthy maple-flavored oatmeal best because it's low in sodium and saturated fat.
If you prefer more protein at breakfast, we recommend the egg and cheese Croissan'wich, though avoid adding ham, which brings the sodium count to 1,000 milligrams, as well as sausage or bacon, which boosts sodium and saturated fat.
Whatever you do, skip over the ultimate breakfast platter, which appears more appropriate for a group, as it comes with scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, a biscuit and three pancakes. It has over a full day's worth of sodium. We also recommend avoiding the Egg-normous burrito, which has a whole day's worth of sodium and saturated fat.