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Fast-food chicken nuggets are among the most popular menu items at many fast-food chains. In addition to being a tender, juicy, crispy source of protein, they are often marketed as a quick and easy snack or meal option for both adults and kids on the go. Americans surely can’t get enough helpings of protein-packed chicky nuggs. In fact, the NPD Group reportedly found that back in 2018, approximately 2.3 billion servings of crispy, delicious fast-food chicken nuggets were served to restaurant patrons across the country, according to a report from CNBC.
Although we’re all probably aware that most fast-food chicken nuggets are not exactly healthy (most are deep-fried, after all), you only get one life to live. Thus, you are entitled to the occasional indulgent splurge every now and again. But dipping your toe in fast-food decadence is not the same as diving in full-throttle; you can still enjoy the chicken nuggets you adore without totally abandoning an overall well-balanced diet conducive to your health.
When it comes to indulgent fast-food menu choices, there are always lessers of caloric, fatty, sodium-loaded evils. Because not all chicken nuggets are created equal, we wanted to help you know which ones are so unhealthy that they’re worth avoiding altogether.
In order to identify which fast-food chicken nuggets are the absolute worst for your health, we consulted a few registered dietitians for their expert insight. Keep reading to find out what these RDs think about the worst fast-food chicken nuggets you can order, and get some helpful tips to help you still satisfy your chicken nugget cravings without compromising your health and wellness. And for more healthy eating tips to help you make wise decisions the next time you find yourself pulling into a fast-food drive-thru, be sure to check out 60 Healthy, Low-Calorie Fast-Food Meals Under 500 Calories.
Per 12-piece order: 380 calories, 17 g fat ( 3.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1,820 mg sodium, 16 g carbs (0 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 40 g protein
“Although [these have] fewer fat and calories than some of the other 12-piece chicken nuggets [from Chik-fil-A], these small fried nuggets still set you back 380 calories and 17 grams of fat, contain zero antioxidants, and likely will barely fill you given they’re devoid of fiber,” say Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT, and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT, also known as The Nutrition Twins.
“If you want nuggets, do your waistline a favor and get the grilled nuggets instead,” the Twins suggest. “One serving is only 130 calories and has 25 satisfying grams of protein with only 3 grams of fat. Add a Kale Crunch side and a fruit cup, and you’ve got yourself a protein- and antioxidant-rich meal that even has fiber! And if you’re still hungry,” the Twins add, “another serving of grilled nuggets isn’t a bad option! Kudos [to] Chick-fil-A for making healthier alternatives.”
Per 10-piece order: 410 calories, 24 g fat (4 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 850 mg sodium, 26 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 23 g protein
“McDonald’s [10-piece] chicken nuggets contain 24 grams of total fat, 850 milligrams of sodium, and [are] loaded with phosphorus additives,” notes Dharti Shah MS, RD, LD, CLT, a kidney health dietitian.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, “high phosphorous levels can cause damage to your body.” More specifically, this can cause your bones to become more brittle over time by detracting from the calcium supporting them. Elevated phosphorous levels in your body can also reportedly increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, and even death by serving as the catalyst for dangerous calcium deposits in the lungs, eyes, blood vessels, and heart.
Per 10-piece order: 470 calories, 31 g fat (7 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1,190 mg sodium, 22 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 26 g protein
“These Wendy’s nuggets are high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium, with a 10-pack containing 470 calories, 31 grams of total fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, and 1,190 milligrams of sodium,” explains Mandy Tyler, M.Ed., RD, CSSD, LD. “The American Heart Association recommends individuals consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day; the nuggets provide more than half of this daily limit.”
“A healthier choice at Wendy’s is the Jr. Hamburger, with 250 calories, 11 grams total fat, 4 grams saturated fat, and 420 milligrams sodium,” adds Tyler.
Per 9-piece order: 470 calories, 31 g fat (7 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 910 mg sodium, 18 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 26 g protein
“White Castle’s Chicken Rings deserve their spot among the worst fast-food chicken nuggets due to their alarming nutritional profile,” says Jessie Hulsey, RD, an Atlanta-based registered dietitian. “Shockingly, a mere 9-piece serving of these chicken rings contains a staggering 31 grams of fat and 910 mg of sodium. This excessive fat content, coupled with their highly processed nature and lack of essential nutrients, makes them a poor choice for those seeking a balanced and healthy diet.”
Per 10-piece order: 480 calories, 31 g fat (6 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1,220 mg sodium, 30 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 22 g protein
Although these Burger King nuggets appear no different than their crispy, short-and-stout nugget counterparts, the amount of sodium packed into one 10-piece order is certainly cause for pause, especially if you are watching your sodium intake or are concerned about your blood pressure getting too high.
“They are shockingly high in sodium,” says Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES. “One order will pack 1,220 milligrams of sodium—nearly half of the recommended 2,300 milligrams of daily sodium for Americans.”
“Once in a while, this is no big deal for most. [But] if you find yourself regularly stopping for fast food, you might want to reconsider how you can make more balanced choices,” advises Thomason.
Per 10-piece order: 510 calories, 32 g fat (6 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1,300 mg sodium, 26 g carbs ( 0 g fiber, 2 g sugar)
“The 10-count Shake Shack Chick’n Bites contain 32 grams of total fat, which is half the recommended grams of fat per day for an average 2,000-calorie diet,” explains Jessie Carpenter, MA, MS, RD, LD. “The Bites contain 1,300 milligrams of sodium, which leaves only 1,000 mg of sodium left in the day to be at the recommended daily intake.”
“A 10-count of Shake Shack’s Chicken’N Bites has 1,300 milligrams of sodium, which is over half of the recommended daily allowance,” adds Bethany Keith MS, RDN, LD, CNSC. “Once you add in a side dish, you could be well over the recommended total sodium intake for an entire day; excessive sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure.”
“The chicken bites also contain 6 grams of saturated fat,” continues Keith. “A diet high in saturated fat is linked to a greater risk for heart disease and high cholesterol.”
Per 10-piece order: 480 calories, 300 g fat ( 4.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1,210 mg sodium, 26 g carbs ( 2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 19 g protein
“With 480 calories—nearly one-third of many people’s daily calorie requirement and half a day’s worth of fat (33 grams)—this small 10-piece serving is hardly a weight loss hopeful’s ideal meal, and that’s before you add a drink,” say the Nutrition Twins. “And that small serving can really leave you feeling bloated given that it packs 1,210 milligrams of sodium, which is nearly the daily 1,500 milligram-ideal sodium limit set by the American Heart Association, and that’s before you add the dipping sauce. There’s no fiber, antioxidants, or redeeming qualities aside from the protein,” they add.
However, if you can’t resist your hankering for these crispy chicky nuggs, the Twins offer a surefire plan to satisfy this craving and still have somewhat of a well-balanced meal. “To make the meal more nutrient-dense, split the nuggets with a friend and share a Grilled Chicken Salad to increase the antioxidants and to consume a little bit of fiber,” the Twins suggest.
Per 12-piece order: 420 calories, 18 g fat (5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1,680 mg sodium, 12 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 36 g protein
“This meal’s sodium (1,680 milligrams) is through the roof, with more sodium in one serving than the American Heart Association recommends you should get in a day—1,500 milligrams [is the] ideal target,” say the Nutrition Twins. “And that’s before you add the sodium from the dipping sauce! Although you do get 36 grams of protein, you’ll also get nearly 30% of the fat you should get all day, no fiber, and 490–660 calories, depending on which dipping sauce you use.”
“If you still want the nuggets,” the Twins advise, “split them with a couple of friends and order the Kentucky Fried Chicken Breast with double sides of green beans. You’ll get antioxidants, fiber, and you’ll save your waistline by slashing as much as two-thirds of the calories in the nuggets.” This sounds like a win-win that would please both your belly and the Colonel.
Per large order: 750 calories, 36 g fat (8 g saturated fat, 0.5 g trans fat), 2,520 mg sodium, 55 g carbs (6 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 36 g protein
In addition to providing a good bit of protein, compared to other calorie counts featured on this list, a large order of Sonic’s Jumbo Popcorn Chicken seems like the gentlest offender—that is, until you take into account that it also contains 2,520 milligrams of sodium. That means eating just one large order—which amounts to roughly 10 measly popcorn chicken nuggets—can cause you to exceed your total daily recommended sodium limit by nearly 10%.
Although you might assume that downsizing to the medium or small might be an effective solution to your high-sodium woes, this situation, unfortunately, doesn’t improve despite the smaller portion sizes. “A small order of Sonic’s Jumbo Popcorn Chicken contains 1,100 milligrams sodium, which is almost half the recommended daily value,” notes Lindsay Ducharme RD, CSR, LDN.
Per 5-piece order: 430 calories, 15 g fat (4 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1,830 mg sodium, 8 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 67 g protein
Sure, A&W’s crispy chicken tenders may be irresistibly hand-breaded to perfection. But here’s what comes along with a decadently breaded piece of juicy white meat chicken breast: SO MUCH sodium! A measly order of five A&W chicken tenders is loaded with over 1,800 milligrams of sodium, which is just 500 milligrams less than the daily limit. Also, studies suggest that eating excess amounts of sodium may potentially drive you to crave fatty foods and lead to weight gain.
Per 12-piece order: 572 calories, 36 g fat (16.4 g saturated fat, 2.3 g trans fat), 0 mg sodium, 28.1 g carbs ( 1.6 g fiber, 0. g sugar), 33.7 g protein
“At first glance, you may think that the worst thing about this meal is the calories—especially considering that you could have [one] king-sized Milky Way bar [which are 470 calories each] for about the same 572 calories as the [Popeyes] nuggets,” say the Nutrition Twins. “But as you look further, you’ll see that the king-sized Milky Way bar is half the fat and one-quarter less saturated fat compared to these nuggets!
“The nuggets have 16.4 grams of saturated fat, which is 3.5 grams more than the maximum daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association. And Popeyes lists that these nuggets don’t have any sodium—which clearly must be an error as even chicken naturally contains a little sodium. So, something clearly isn’t accurate here.”
“To get your chicken nugget fill, order the 6-piece off the kids’ menu and save 230 calories and spare your arteries some saturated fat,” the Twins suggest. “Then get a regular-sized order of red beans and rice and share it with a friend or save half for another day—you’ll get a boost of fiber and antioxidants.”