The Unhealthiest Fast Food Chicken Nuggets And What To Order Instead

pile of chicken nuggets
pile of chicken nuggets - Lauripatterson/Getty Images

Chicken nuggets might have a bit of a reputation as being a staple belonging on the kids' menu, but there's no shame in adults wanting them too. They're a great option for a quick snack that's not going to ruin your appetite for dinner. Plus, what's a better pick-me-up than a big ol' order of chicken nuggets and a milkshake?

That said, not all chicken nuggets are created equal. A number of fast food chicken nuggets aren't just unhealthy, but they're also the kind of food that's going to serve up a lot of fat and in some cases nearly an entire day's worth of sodium in one serving. Given that it's meant to be more of a snack than a full meal, that makes the nutritional values even worse.

We can forgive fast food meals for being on the unhealthy side -- it's what you trade for convenience. But a snack? Especially one that we know you might want to enjoy alongside a milkshake or other dessert? That's a little harder to swallow. Sometimes, you just need to treat yourself, and that's fine — but if you're in the habit of picking up some snack nuggets on a regular basis, you should know that you're not doing your heart any favors in the long run. So, let's take a look at some of the unhealthiest fast food nuggets on the market, and talk about what you can order instead and still come away satisfied.

Read more: Ranking Fast Food Fried Chicken Sandwiches From Worst To First


McDonald's McNuggets with fries and sauce
McDonald's McNuggets with fries and sauce - abid99/Shutterstock

If you've ever found yourself craving some chicken nuggets from McDonald's, there's actually a very good reason for that. McDonald's scientifically engineers its nuggets to taste good: There's nothing weird at play here, just the perfect combination of seasonings, salt, juiciness, and texture. (Wondering what's in those nuggets? We found out here!) The bad news is that designing the perfect nugget to cater to your cravings means that they're not exactly good for you.

Take the 10-piece order of nuggets. It has 410 calories, 24 grams of fat, and 850 milligrams of sodium. And that's where the problem really is. According to the American Heart Association, most people in this country get too much sodium — it's a huge problem. While the average consumer gets around 3,500 milligrams of sodium per day, the organization says people would be much healthier if they averaged no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium. Even better? The ideal amount, according to the group, is no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. Eat one 10-piece serving, and you're a good part of the way there.

So, what should you go for instead? A McChicken sandwich is the better bet here. Although the fat and calories are comparable — 21 grams of fat and 400 calories — the 560 milligrams of sodium is much better for you healthwise. And the fact is that the more filling sandwich will make those numbers feel like they're going further, so it's a win-win.

Jack In The Box

Jack in the Box chicken nuggets in box
Jack in the Box chicken nuggets in box - Jack in the Box/Facebook

Jack in the Box has a massive menu, and it includes not only chicken strips — for the days when you're feeling a little more adult — but also chicken nuggets. For the sake of consistency, we're going to stick with the nutritional content of its 10-piece nuggets, since most chains seem to offer this number (or close to it). Swing through the drive-thru here, and you'll be getting a fast food treat that comes with 480 calories, 33 grams of fat, and a whopping 1,210 milligrams of sodium.

For those keeping track, that makes these chicken bites higher in both calories and fat than McDonald's nuggets, and these have 42% more sodium. At a time when the American Heart Association is warning that too many Americans are getting too much sodium, a single 10-piece nugget order that contains nearly the entire recommended ideal amount of sodium seems pretty atrocious.

Granted, you're not going to be going to Jack in the Box — or any fast food chain — and expecting to get ultra-healthy food, but even this is a little too much. There are other options on the menu that still aren't great healthwise but are better. Opt for the Chicken Fajita Pita (without salsa) that has 320 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 870 milligrams of sodium. While that's still going to mean keeping an eye on nutrient numbers for the rest of the day, it's not nearly as bad as the nuggets.

Burger King

Burger King chicken nuggets
Burger King chicken nuggets - Deutschlandreform/Shutterstock

While Burger King doesn't have a 10-piece order of chicken nuggets, it does have an eight-piece — and it's worth keeping that in mind for anyone who's got a running comparison going among our fast food chains. Order that eight-piece, and you'll get 390 calories, 25 grams of fat, and 990 milligrams of sodium. Do the math to estimate the values for 10 pieces, and that's way worse for your health than the numbers for McDonald's ... which aren't great to begin with.

But you're saying you still want your chicken. We get that! Interestingly, there is a completely legit alternative here, and that's the chicken fries. An eight-piece serving of chicken fries has 220 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 680 milligrams of sodium. We'd even go as far as saying that we like these better anyway, as there's something satisfying about the shape and the breading.

The crispy wraps are another good alternative. Take the Honey Mustard Royal Crispy Wrap: That's got 290 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 790 milligrams of sodium. The fact that it comes with sauce is another advantage for this option. We're not factoring sauces into our nugget nutrition tallies because there are simply way too many options and combinations. It goes without saying that adding sauces to any option will increase calories and sodium levels even more. Order a wrap, and avoid that massive pitfall.


Arby's chicken nuggets
Arby's chicken nuggets - Arby's

Arby's has gone from that place with the really weird roast beef to a fast food chain with a variety of decent options, including chicken. (And don't even get us started on the Jamocha Shakes.) Arby's offers a nine-piece order of chicken nuggets, and according to the nutritional information, that comes with 470 calories, 23 grams of fat, and a whopping 1,360 milligrams of sodium. That's close to what the American Heart Association considers an ideal daily limit, and wrapping that up in a small serving of chicken nuggets is definitely not ideal.

That's kind of the unfortunate thing about Arby's — at least, as far as its chicken is concerned. The sodium is kind of off the charts, but if you're sitting there and still craving that chicken, the best thing to do is opt for the three-piece chicken tenders. That'll be served up with 370 calories, 18 grams of fat, and 1,190 milligrams of sodium, which still isn't great for your health, but it's better than the nugget option ... with a caveat.

It's worth noting just how unhealthy fast food sauces can be. Opt for the Buffalo Dipping Sauce, and you're going to add negligible fat and calories along with a shocking 720 milligrams of sodium. For dipping sauce! That's by far the worst of the worst, but it's food for thought: Skip the sauce, and your heart will thank you in the long run.


Wendy's chicken nuggets
Wendy's chicken nuggets - Wendy's/Facebook

It's no secret that Wendy's is pretty delicious with amazing burgers. And the Frosties? Those go without saying. Still, when we did a deep dive into everything you ever wanted to know about Wendy's chicken nuggets, we did find some disturbing things — like the claim that its nuggets are only about 37% chicken. The rest? Fat and breading. (The same estimates put McDonald's McNuggets at 39% chicken). That's ... sad. Don't get us wrong. They're still good, but that's weird. Now, let's talk numbers.

For the 10-piece nuggets from Wendy's, you're talking about 450 calories, 30 grams of fat, and 870 milligrams of sodium — again, that's just plain nuggets with no sauce. (Sauces here add between 45 and 120 calories and between 120 milligrams and 240 milligrams of sodium.) Fortunately, Wendy's has a ton of options, and there are some delicious ones that can absolutely be swapped in for a healthier, more filling snack — or meal — than nuggets.

We'd recommend the Grilled Chicken Go Wrap. With just 260 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 740 milligrams of sodium, it's pretty decent. Other Go Wraps are comparable, with the Spicy Chicken and the Homestyle Chicken being slightly higher in all the numbers but still much more satisfying than nuggets. (The Crispy Chicken Caesar Go Wrap, however, is a no-go: That Caesar dressing unsurprisingly adds a lot of flavor but a lot of sodium and fat as well.)


Popeyes box of chicken nuggets
Popeyes box of chicken nuggets - Popeyes/Instagram

Oh, Popeyes, how we love you. Let us count the ways! Popeyes is a massive favorite for a good reason, but that only holds as long as you don't take a look at its nutritional information. The numbers are enough to make your arteries clog just by reading them, and even though we know that fried chicken isn't a health food, it's still shocking. Let's take the 12-piece chicken nuggets. If you think you're doing yourself a favor by opting for nuggets instead of the fried chicken, well, consider that bubble burst.

One order of nuggets comes with 570 calories, 36 grams of fat, and a whopping 1,320 milligrams of sodium. That's creeping up on the American Heart Association's ideal limit for sodium for an entire day. Plus, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 78 grams of fat per day. One order of Popeyes nuggets gets you almost halfway there. So what's a better alternative?

Well, you could opt for the eight-piece nuggets, which, of course, has lower numbers -- 380 calories, 24 grams of fat, and 880 milligrams of sodium. Otherwise? We honestly don't know what to tell you here, because, well, it's Popeyes. It's not going to be healthy. It's going to be delicious, fried chicken goodness, the sort of thing that leaves your fingers feeling greasy even after you've had a good wash. It's okay to treat yourself but be mindful about it.

Shake Shack

Shake Shack chicken nuggets
Shake Shack chicken nuggets - SHake Shack/Facebook

Shake Shack is another great option that's joined the ranks of widely accessible fast food chains, and that's pretty brilliant. The place is known for its burgers, but it has chicken nuggets, too. They're more precisely called Chick'n Bites, and a 10-piece pack comes with 510 calories, 32 grams of fat, and 1,300 milligrams of sodium. That's a lot — and if you opt for the 10-piece Hot Honey Chick'n Bites, all of those numbers are going to go up even higher: 770 calories, 56 grams of fat, and 2,030 milligrams of sodium. That's well past the American Heart Association's ideal of 1,500 milligrams per day, and nearing the level that the group recommends the average consumer not exceed for daily intake.

That's a shame because it's easy to fall into the line of thinking that suggests chicken is going to be a healthier option than beef. That's not always the case, but say you're still wanting some chicken. What then?

If you're heading to Shake Shack and have your heart set on chicken, ordering the Chick'n Shack is a slightly better option than the bites. With 550 calories, 31 grams of fat, and 1,170 milligrams of sodium, it's a more substantial choice that's healthier for you in the long run.

White Castle

White Castle chicken rings
White Castle chicken rings - White Castle/Instagram

This one seems like it might be a little counterintuitive, but just bear with us. White Castle is known for its sliders, and while you can get chicken nuggets there — in the form of Chicken Rings — it's actually healthier for you to get a Chicken Ring Slider. What?

Let's look at the nutritional information for a nine-piece order of Chicken Rings. That's 470 calories, 31 grams of fat, and 910 milligrams of sodium. Those levels are not great, but actually are not the worst on our list — which is why it kind of makes sense that if you opt instead for a Chicken Ring Slider, you'd be doing your health a favor.

Order a single Chicken Ring Slider with cheese, and that's 200 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 470 milligrams of sodium. That, too, isn't great for your health, but ordering single sliders allows more control over the portion size, and you can get your chicken fix with a slider or two instead of a whole order of rings. And let's be honest: You're going to want to get sliders at White Castle. Why else would you go there?


box of Chick-fil-A nuggets
box of Chick-fil-A nuggets - Chick-fil-A/Facebook

It kind of goes without saying that Chick-fil-A knows what it's doing when it comes to chicken, and that includes its chicken nuggets. They're a major hit for a good reason, but are they good for you? Here's where we come to some good news and some bad news.

First, the bad news: Those regular nuggets aren't the greatest healthwise ... but in all honesty, they're not the worst on our list, either. Let's take the 12-piece box because you're definitely not ordering anything smaller when you go there, are you? (We didn't think so.) That comes with 380 calories, 17 grams of fat, and 1,820 milligrams of sodium. So, as we said, not the worst values ... but these chicken bites still have more sodium than the American Heart Association recommends you have in a whole day.

Now, we promised some good news. In addition to the standard, breaded nuggets, Chick-fil-A also sells grilled nuggets. Swapping out standard chicken nuggets for grilled might seem like a major sin, but Chick-fil-A has gotten pretty constant praise for its grilled nuggets. Bonus? That 12-piece box of grilled nuggets has only 200 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, and 660 milligrams of sodium. And that? That's a total win.

Carl's Jr.

Carl's Jr. chicken stars
Carl's Jr. chicken stars - Carl's Jr./Facebook

Heading to Carl's Jr. for your chicken nugget fix? We don't blame you. Ever since elementary school teachers started handing out stars for good behavior and achievements, there's been something satisfying about them. Is that why Carl's Jr. decided to make its chicken nuggets star-shaped? We have no idea, but we're also not complaining.

As far as nutritional information goes, these rank in about the middle of the pack. They're no better and no worse than most of the others, as a nine-piece serving has 410 calories, 23 grams of fat, and 710 milligrams of sodium.

That star shape is also kind of a giveaway that you're eating a processed product. And while we do love getting gold stars, it's possible that it's also kind of a turn-off. If that's the case, don't worry — Carls' Jr. also has an alternative. Its three-piece chicken tenders have only 260 calories and 13 grams of fat, which is great! The downside is that you're going to be getting about 60 milligrams more of sodium in the chicken tenders compared with the Chicken Stars, but it's entirely possible that it's a trade-off you'll be happy to make.


Checkers Rally's chicken nuggets and fries
Checkers Rally's chicken nuggets and fries - Checkers and Rally's/Facebook

So, where do Checkers and Rally's fall in the chicken nugget game? (Still wondering why they have completely different names when they're the same company? We settled the Checkers vs. Rally's mystery here.) In addition to their options for regular wings and boneless chicken, they also have a 10-piece chicken nugget option that has 500 calories, 32 grams of fat, and 1,160 milligrams of sodium. Since everything is better with fries, we should mention there's also a with-fries option that's described as Chicken Bites with Fries. That clocks in at 710 calories, 40 grams of fat, and 1,680 milligrams of sodium.

Neither of those are super-great when it comes to your health. Is there anything in the very long list of chicken items that isn't going to destroy your sodium count for the day? Not entirely, but there are some better options. Go for the five-piece plain chicken wing order, and that'll set you back just 350 calories, 23 grams of fat, and 760 milligrams of sodium. That's not terrible, right?

There is an important thing to note, though. Ordering anything but the plain chicken is going to be as bad as if not worse than the chicken nuggets when it comes to the nutritional values. Some of the other options are even more atrocious for your sodium intake: The 10-piece boneless lemon pepper wings, for example, have a whopping 4,245 milligrams of sodium. Sauces and seasonings? They count for a lot.


Sonic popcorn chicken
Sonic popcorn chicken - Sonic Drive-In/Facebook

Yes, that's right! Sonic does, in fact, sell food as well as all those amazing drinks. That includes popcorn chicken. And while popcorn chicken and chicken nuggets are different, they're close enough that we think if you're craving nuggets and you're near a Sonic, they're going to be a legitimate answer. A medium order is going to have 490 calories, 28 grams of fat, and 1,640 milligrams of sodium. (Yes, that's more than the American Heart Association recommends anyone should have in an entire day.) Go for the large, and that skyrockets to 2,520 milligrams of sodium.

There are a few better options here, and it honestly depends on what you're looking for. Sonic has a two-piece order of chicken tenders on the kids' menu, and if you want just a quick snack, this might be the way to go. With just 170 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 490 milligrams of sodium, this small portion offers a nice option. Just note that because it's part of a Wacky Pack kids' meal, you're going to get a side and a drink with it. (There's also a three-piece option that is, of course, a little higher in nutritional values but still better for your health than the popcorn chicken.)

On the other hand, if you want something more substantial, consider the Chicken Slinger. The sandwich has 360 calories, 18 grams of fat, and 690 milligrams of sodium ... which is pretty much health food as far as Sonic is concerned.

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