(Image not intended as an answer to the question above. Not an endorsement!)
Last Lent I gave up meat for the whole season. I am sure I just wasn’t doing vegetarianism “correctly” but I have to say it was the least healthy I have ever felt. When Lent ended, I went on a high protein diet (lots of meat) and now feel much less likely to die any time soon. Therefore, this Lent I had to think about what in the heck am I am going to eat on the days where I have to abstain from meat again (all Catholics, ages 14 or older, are called to abstain on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent).
This question called for some statistical analysis. The most challenging meal for many working age Catholics might be lunch. You aren’t at home and there likely aren’t any parish fish dinners available at this time. This often means one might buy a quick meal from a restaurant. I dug into the 2019 non-meat offerings at national fast and fast-casual chains and our findings might surprise some. I assume that a Catholic diner is looking to skip the meat but get as much protein (and fiber) as they can as a nutritional goal. I also assume they look to keep calorie and carbohydrate counts reasonable and minimize fat (...well maybe not keto Catholics), sodium, and sugar. Unfortunately taste is too subjective to be considered.
Although it varies by activity level, the average American needs around 2,000 calories per day and should try not to exceed 65 grams of fat and 2,300 milligrams of sodium. A healthier intake of sugar would be about 35 grams per day. To keep the comparisons fair, one Lent-friendly meal per establishment is evaluated and the base meal is a fish sandwich and medium fries (drink excluded). Some of the restaurants offer neither so the closest equivalent is considered in these cases. How do the menus this Lent stack up within these guidelines? I ranked them all on each nutritional outcome and the figure below shows the average rank (i.e., a lower rank indicates a better outcome given my assumptions) for each meal and establishment.
For me, someone looking to eat somewhat healthy and get as much protein as possible, Panera Bread’s tuna sandwich on focaccia with potato chips might be ideal. It is ranked overall as the 5th “healthiest” option this year (quotations are used because I am a doctor but not that kind of doctor…) providing 800 calories, 43 grams of fat (66% of daily limit), 75 grams of carbohydrates, 30 grams of protein, 1,520 milligrams of sodium (63% of daily limit), 5 grams of fiber, and 6 grams of sugar.
The “healthiest” option overall, given my assumptions, would be a Subway’s 6-inch tuna sandwich on Italian bread with potato chips. It is only 610 calories (no cheese but your choice of any vegetables allowed), but it has significantly less protein than Panera at 21 grams. On the positive side, Subway also offers less fat (35 grams), fewer carbs (53 grams), and lower sodium (780 milligrams).
The next “best” option to Subway may surprise—it’s the original fast food Lent offering. McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish with medium fries is surprisingly lighter than many other options. This meal comes in at only 610 calories with 35 grams of fat, 82 grams of carbohydrates, 21 grams of protein, 780 milligrams of sodium, 6 grams of fiber, and 5 grams of sugar. Outside of elevated fats these nutritional targets measure close to 1/3 of what one would expect in a day’s eating. This was a meal specifically designed for the Catholic consumer in 1960s Cincinnati. Nutritionally, it is still not a bad option.
Which meal meets or exceeds some generally recognized daily nutritional goals? It’s one where there was not an equivalent to the fish sandwich and fries and this may have made it a less than fair comparison. If you wanted Chipotle you might order a sofritas burrito bowl (also including beans, rice, fajitas, cheese, salsa, lettuce, and sour cream) with a side of chips and guacamole. This amounts to 1,530 calories with 79.5 grams of fat, 165 grams of carbohydrates, 38 grams of protein (best of any meal evaluated), 2,800 milligrams of sodium (exceeding daily total maximum), 27 grams of fiber (best of any meal evaluated), and 14 grams of sugar. So if you are looking for maximum protein and fiber this is the choice but it comes with some other less desirable outcomes. This could also be a better option by cutting out the chips and guacamole and keeping the cheese and sour cream out of the burrito bowl. This option would only provide 545 calories, 15.5 grams of fat, 21 grams of protein, 81 grams of carbohydrates, 1,770 milligrams of sodium, 14 grams of fiber, and 9 grams of sugar. But would this be a meal that is really an equivalent to a fish sandwich and fries? It’s probably a bit too far on the lighter side.
While KFC does not appear to have a meat-free Lent option (unless you are lucky enough to be in Guam), Chick-fil-A does. A fish sandwich joins the lineup (at participating locations) for Lent. While the sandwich does not have complete nutritional information from the company, it appears to be similar, based on other sources, to McDonald’s once one factors in the side of fries. It comes in as the third “healthiest” relative to the recommended daily values. If you want a more calorie packed (and flavorful?) fish sandwich and fries you could try Wendy’s, Burger King, or Arby’s. These all exceed 850 calories, 100 carbohydrates, 40 grams of fat, and about 1,500 milligrams of sodium or more. Arby’s comes in with the highest numbers for the fish and fries meal for fat, carbs, sodium, and sugar (…this is the franchise with the tag line “We have the meats!” so it may not surprise that it is not likely the first option for a Friday during Lent).
Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. have offered a beer battered fish sandwich in the past. However, as of Ash Wednesday, it was not an option that was active from their menu windows online. Instead, under their “Better for you options” they currently offer a Veg It Thickburger, which appears to be a toppings loaded burger without the meat. We utilized this for our analysis (with medium fries). The fish sandwich from previous years would have been less “healthy.” Taco Bell also requires some selective ordering. We went with the Cheesy Bean and Rice Burrito with Nacho Fries for the analysis. It offers the lowest protein option but ranks second highest in fiber.
As we have noted in the past, Catholics are a relatively healthy bunch in the United States. Hopefully, our review of 2019 offerings helps you make some menu decisions this year. A recent scientific study showed that knowing what you are consuming may be one of the easiest steps to maintaining your health.
McDonald’s background image courtesy of michaelgoodin.