From 2013-2016, just over 36% of adults consumed fast food on a given day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. The rise of “fast casual”, however, changed the price tag, style and meaning of “fast food.”
Boasting burritos with swanky names, plant-based options and salad bars, fast casual restaurants doubled in sales and location between 2009 and 2018. Chipotle CEO Steve Ells opened his first location in 1993, a modest burrito shop, but by 2017 the chain had almost 2,300 locations.
This changing landscape also meant a new scale for “healthy” and “unhealthy” to-go food.
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How healthy is Chipotle?
Sodium is likely the biggest threat to healthy eating at Chipotle. A flour tortilla itself has about 600 milligrams of sodium, and Chipotle’s meat options range from 310-560 milligrams. Your sodium intake can easily add up with just a burrito order, ticking toward the FDA’s recommended maximum of 2,300 milligrams sodium per day. A McDonald’s Big Mac, for comparison, contains 1,010 milligrams of sodium.
But when you look at the ingredients, Chipotle is comparatively healthier than other to-go options. While a fully loaded burrito might land you at over half of the FDA’s recommended daily 2,000 calories, there are easy ways to customize and lessen your portions.
Chipotle’s build-your-own operation means that any menu item can be relatively healthy if done right. Your meal can range from a fully loaded burrito bowl to the equivalent of a salad.
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Two of the key parts of eating healthy are fresh ingredients and moderation. When it comes to the latter, moderation is always in style at Chipotle, and there’s plenty of room to get your veggies, protein and flavor in whatever quantities you choose.
Chipotle also lists the 53 ingredients used to make every item on the menu, committing to “preparing real food made with real ingredients.” They describe each ingredient and list the menu items it appears in.
Cultured cream, for example, is a “rather literal term that alludes to the process of fermenting cream that’s been purposely thickened and mildly soured over time.” You can find it in Chipotle’s queso and sour cream. Gypsum is used in the tofu that makes Chipotle’s sofritas, and, according to the restaurant, is one of the only ingredients that “doesn’t start on a farm or ranch.” Gypsum is a mineral added to soy milk to separate curds and whey.
They also list the oils they use in cooking, such as rice bran and canola oil, and exactly why they use them. Rice bran oil has a high smoke point and versatile, mild taste for everything from rice to vinaigrette, and canola oil is used to make tortillas. According to Healthline, rice bran oil is a good source of unsaturated fats and Vitamin E.
There are certainly items on Chipotle’s menu that aren’t as healthy as others. For example, one might argue its queso (a large helping has 980 milligrams of sodium) and guacamole is better consumed in moderation than a daily diet staple. It also depends on what you consider “healthy.” The definition of healthy eating depends on your height, weight, sex and lifestyle.
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Is Chipotle considered fast food?
With short wait times for orders, drive-thrus and assembly-style service, the line between fast food and the newly dubbed “fast casual” has become increasingly difficult to spot.
While fast food restaurants often include dollar deals, late night hours and drive throughs, fast casual restaurants are a bit more upscale. Your meal very well may cost you into the double digits and you can expect to see signs advertising the “realness” or “wholeness” of the food you’re about to consume. These fast casual chains, like Chipotle, Sweetgreen and Panera, are one step above McDonald’s and Dunkin’, but a bit more casual than, say, Olive Garden or Buffalo Wild Wings.
Chipotle fits squarely in the fast casual category. You’re not expected to sit down and eat your meal, but a curated ambiance and a front row seat into the making of your burrito bowl feels a bit more personalized than fries thrown haphazardly into a brown paper bag.
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What is the healthiest thing to eat at Chipotle?
Lifestyle bowls are arguably Chipotle’s healthiest menu item. These bowls are catered to dietary goals and restrictions, offering options for those partaking in Whole30, keto or paleo diets by skipping out on the grains. There are also high protein, vegan and vegetarian options.
But there’s a way to customize other meals to tailor them to your healthy eating desires. Let’s say your normal order is a burrito bowl with chicken, white rice, black beans, tomato salsa, fajita veggies, sour cream and cheese. According to Chipotle’s nutrition calculator, your meal is going to be approximately 785 calories and contain 30 grams of fat, 53 grams of protein and 74 grams of carbs.
But change any of the toppings or adjust your existing ones from “normal” portion sizes to “light” or “extra” and you’ll see the calculated answer change as well.
Chipotle’s personalized nutrition calculator makes it easy to adjust your order to whatever “healthy” looks like to you. There’s also an option for nutrition preferences, where you can filter for plant-based options, find the best options for Whole30 or keto diets or avoid dairy.
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