The caloric highs and lows of eating at Chipotle, McDonald’s, Panera, and Taco Bell

The most popular combinations of beans, rice, and meat that people order from Chipotle, America’s favorite fast-casual burrito chain, all contain close to 1,000 calories—as the New York Times so helpfully informs us. The implication is that, if you’re anything like the average burrito-lover, your meals at Chipotle are indulgences; they’re too rich in fat, carbs, and sodium to be a regular part of a healthy diet.

Consumers think they want this information, except when they don’t. But whether or not you’re shocked to learn that great-tasting, generously-portioned restaurant meals are high in fat, Chipotle is no better or worse than other chains in this regard. And it is possible to craft lighter lunches and dinners from the choices offered.

In the spirit of healthy awareness, here are some tables illustrating what’s nutritionally possible when one orders a complete meal (one main item and, in some cases, a side, and only according to standard options—no secret menu tricks), at various quick-service restaurants in the US. These are not the absolute lowest- or highest-calorie meals you can get at these restaurants, but they’re reasonable representations of high- and low-calorie combinations that are at least mildly satisfying.

chipotle menu via flickr
(Photo by Flickr user animakitty)
A light lunch at Chipotle Calories Carbs Protein Fat
Veggie burrito bowl w/ brown rice, black beans, fajita veggies, tomato salsa, cheese 460 64g 18.5g 16g

* burrito bowls are better bets than salads at Chipotle because the chain’s salad dressing contains 270 calories and 4.5 grams of saturated fat.

An indulgent dinner at Chipotle Calories Carbs Protein Fat
Flour tortilla burrito w/ steak, white rice, black beans, corn salsa, sour cream, cheese, & guacamole 1320 130g 60.5g 62g
A meal consisting of a Quarter Pounder hamburger, french fries and soft-drink is pictured at a McDonald's restaurant in Los Angeles, California July 23, 2008. McDonald's on Wednesday posted a quarterly profit that topped expectations, boosted by continued strength overseas, the sale of its stake in sandwich chain Pret A Manger, and the weak dollar. But the world's biggest restaurant chain reported segment margins that were softer than some analysts expected and forecast rising beef costs, and its shares were off 19 cents.    REUTERS/Fred Prouser             (UNITED STATES) - RTR20GU7
A McDonalds Quarter Pounder has fewer calories than even the leanest Chipotle burrito, but who can eat a burger without french fries on the side? (Reuters/Fred Prouser)
A light lunch at McDonald’s Calories Carbs Protein Fat
McChicken sandwich w/ small order of french fries & ketchup 610 72g 16g 28g
Or: Premium Southwest Salad w/ crispy chicken & Creamy Southwest dressing 600 54g 26g 32g
An indulgent dinner at McDonald’s Calories Carbs Protein Fat
Quarter Pounder burger w/ bacon & cheese, medium french fries & honey mustard 1000 98g 40g 49g

It’s tough to put together a McDonald’s meal that looks complete and also comes in at fewer than 600 calories. But you need to order multiple menu items to reach the level of that indulgent Chipotle option.

At Taco Bell, the menu’s caloric range is even tighter. Dozens of menu items, even hearty-sounding ones like the Cantina Steak Power Burrito, have fewer than 500 total calories. If you go over 1000, you’ll know it—because you’ll have eaten the fried tortilla bowl your fatty Fiesta Taco Salad came in, or you’ll have chosen a meaty XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito.

An order of nachos is seen on a table at a Taco Bell fast food restaurant in New York December 7, 2006. At least 47 people in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have been infected with E.coli in the last few weeks, and dozens more potential cases are being investigated. Many of the infected people had eaten at Taco Bell prior to becoming sick, the states said. REUTERS/Keith Bedford - RTR1K5N2
(Reuters/Keith Bedford)
Light, medium, and heavy meals at Taco Bell Calories Carbs Protein Fat
Cantina Power Bowl w/ chicken (includes lettuce, guacamole, rice, avocado ranch dressing, cheese, black beans, and reduced-fat sour cream) 490 49g 29g 20g
Fiesta Taco Salad w/ beef, served in a crispy tortilla bowl, with black beans, cheese, rice, lettuce, tomatoes, tortilla strips, and reduced-fat sour cream 780 74g 26g 42g
Fiesta Taco Salad w/ beef (as above) & a side of nachos 1090 108g 30g 59g
At Panera Bread, a decadent-looking muffin will do less caloric damage than a veggie sandwich on whole-grain bread.
At Panera Bread, a decadent-looking muffin will do less caloric damage than a veggie sandwich on whole-grain bread. (Reuters/John Gress)

So many items on the Panera menu are stealth health bombs—the ingredients may be fresh and the recipes may sound artisan, but very few of the sandwiches can be eaten whole for fewer than 600 calories.

Light, medium, and heavy meals at Panera Bread Calories Carbs Protein Fat
Roasted turkey and avocado BLT sandwich on sourdough bread 510 48g 37g 19g
Cup of broccoli cheddar soup, 1/2 chicken ceasar salad w/ dressing, and small baguette 700 63g 32g 36g
Steak and white cheddar panini on baguette & cup of french onion soup 1160 124g 60g 45g
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