We love the ooey-gooey goodness of mac and cheese just as much as the next person, but we’re not deceiving ourselves by pretending it’s a super healthy food. Mac and cheese typically is a great source of carbohydrates, fat, and a little bit of protein. Although, when you pick it up at one of these fast food chains, you can expect to get an item that is often high in sodium, added oils, and empty calories.
We spoke to dietitians and nutrition experts to find out exactly which mac and cheese they say you should stay away from next time you’re in a drive through. Of course, it’s totally fine to indulge in your favorite foods from time to time, but if you’re regularly picking up one of these fast food mac & cheeses, you may want to opt for something a bit more balanced the majority of the time.
What makes a fast-food mac and cheese dish unhealthy?
There are three reasons why the following dishes made our list of the unhealthiest mac and cheeses you can order at fast-food restaurants:
- Sodium: The daily recommended allowance for sodium is 2,300 milligrams, or about a teaspoon of salt in your diet. Increased levels of sodium from processed foods have been linked to high blood pressure and increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Fat content: While some fat in our diet is healthy, consuming large amounts of fat—saturated fat, in particular—consistently can increase our risk for heart disease and high cholesterol.
- Empty calories: All of the excess calories from fat can be considered empty calories. Especially if they don’t leave you feeling very full for long and they are easy to overeat in one sitting.
If you choose to make mac and cheese at home, using cottage cheese is an easy way to boost the protein content and lower the fat while still enjoying a fun food. But for the next time you order from the drive-thru, make sure you read on to find out exactly which fast-food mac and cheese orders nutrition experts recommend you avoid. And for more, don’t miss 9 Unhealthiest Coffee Creamers on Grocery Shelves.
PER 1 REGULAR SERVING: 280 calories, 18 g fat (8 g saturated fat), 830 mg sodium, 21 g carbohydrates (1 g fiber, 3 g added sugar), 8 g protein
Jessie Hulsey RD, an Atlanta based registered dietitian weighs in: “While indulging in the occasional treat is perfectly fine, it’s important to be aware of the nutritional content of what we consume. An individual serving size of Bojangles’ mac and cheese contains 280 calories and 18 grams of fat, which makes this popular fast food dish fall on the unhealthier side of the spectrum. The excessive calorie content and high fat content may contribute to weight gain and can increase the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.”
PER 1 REGULAR SERVING: 280 calories, 21 g fat (21 g saturated fat), 510 mg sodium, 16 g carbohydrates (0 g fiber, 3 g added sugar), 11 g protein
The Popeye’s mac and cheese is an unhealthy side choice as it is high in both saturated fat and sodium. If you upgrade to a large mac and cheese, it contains 830 calories, 63 grams of fat, 36 grams of saturated fat, 2 grams of trans fat, and 1,1540 milligrams of sodium. This contains more than half of the daily recommended limit of sodium. For a healthier choice at Popeye’s choose the coleslaw as a side to enjoy with your meal, advises Mandy Tyler, M.Ed., RD, CSSD, LD.
PER 1 REGULAR SERVING: 380 calories, 16 g fat (3.5 g saturated fat), 670 mg sodium, 47 g carbohydrates (2 g fiber, 8 g added sugar), 10 g protein
KFC’s Mac & Cheese Bowl is one of the unhealthiest fast-food mac and cheeses due to its high calorie, fat, and sodium content. The macaroni and cheese itself is often made with processed cheese, heavy cream, and butter, contributing to its high saturated fat content. Additionally, the bowl is topped with fried popcorn chicken, which adds extra calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium to the dish.
The combination of these ingredients creates a calorie-dense meal that lacks essential nutrients. Regular consumption of the mac and cheese bowl at KFC can lead to weight gain, elevated cholesterol levels, and an increased risk of heart disease, shares Wan Na Chun, MPH, RD, CPT.
PER SERVING: 960 calories, 64 g fat (35 g saturated fat, 2 g trans fat), 2,300 mg sodium, 67 g carbs (0 g fiber, 15 g sugar), 32 g protein
Chun shares another popular grab that you might want to think twice about next time: “The Panera Bread Mac & Cheese has 960 calories per serving. Out of those calories, 580 calories come from fat, making it a high-fat option. The mac and cheese contain 64 grams of fat, including 35 grams of saturated fat and 2 grams of trans fats, which can negatively impact cardiovascular health. The dish also contains 165 milligrams of cholesterol and a whopping 2,300 milligrams of sodium, which exceeds the recommended daily intake. It also has 15 grams of total sugars and zero grams of dietary fiber. Consuming excessive amounts of sugar can contribute to weight gain and increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.”
PER 1 REGULAR SERVING: 540 calories, 28 g fat (17 g saturated fat), 1130 mg sodium, 52 g carbohydrates (4 g fiber, 1 g added sugar), 19 g protein
The Mac & Cheese from Buffalo Wild Wings is considered as one of the unhealthiest mac and cheese options. One of the main reasons why it is considered unhealthy is its sodium content, with approximately 1,160 milligrams of sodium per serving, Chun says.
This significant amount exceeds a substantial portion of the recommended daily sodium intake for most individuals. Consuming excessive sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, water retention, and an increased risk of heart disease. Additionally, the mac and cheese is typically high in calories and saturated fat, which can lead to weight gain and negatively impact cardiovascular health when consumed in excess, Chun adds.
PER 1 MEDIUM SERVING: 450 calories, 29 g fat (16 g saturated fat), 1190 mg sodium, 28 g carbohydrates (3 g fiber, 3 g added sugar), 20 g protein
“Chick fil A mac and cheese is one of the least healthy choices. A large serving is packed with 840 calories and more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium, more than you need for an entire day! Instead I recommend choosing a grilled sandwich option for higher protein and lower sodium,” Amanda Lane, MS, RD, CDCES offers.