The Best and Worst Burgers
Recipes for disaster?
Who doesn't love a good burger? Unfortunately, not all hamburgers, or even turkey or veggie burgers, are created equal. Cooking method, portion size, and choice of bread and toppings can mean the difference between a relatively harmless lunch and a day's worth of calories, fat, and sodium.
We rounded up some of the healthiest and unhealthiest examples of what American restaurants are serving between two buns, and got an expert's feedback on the nutritional pitfalls. Here's what to look for—and what to stay far away from—the next time a burger craving hits.
Best plain burger patty
Wendy's Jr. Hamburger
A healthy rule of thumb is to keep your meal around 500 calories, says Katherine Brooking, a registered dietitian and cofounder of AppforHealth.com, but that can be hard with big juicy burgers and lots of fixings. You're generally safe, though, with the plainest, smallest burger available.
"If you stick with a plain single patty, you may even be able to have a small order of fries," she says. All the major drive-throughs have similar plain offerings, but Wendy's Jr. Hamburger—at just 230 calories, 8 grams of fat (3 grams saturated), and 470 milligrams of sodium—is the least nutritionally offensive.
Best low-carb burger
In-N-Out Burger's Hamburger With Onion, Protein Style
Health-conscious Californians love to order their burgers from this West Coast chain "protein style," which means the bun is replaced with a lettuce wrap. (The simple swap can save you 150 calories and 28 grams of carbohydrates.)
Here, a hamburger with onion and no bun has 240 calories, 17 grams of fat (4 grams saturated), and 370 milligrams of sodium; ask for ketchup and mustard instead of their signature spread to save another 80 calories.
Best burger with mushrooms and cheese
Dairy Queen's Mushroom Swiss GrillBurger
A burger topped with mushrooms has to be healthier than the competition, right?
"When it comes to fast food, all bets are off," says Brooking. "Mushrooms could have been sautéed in butter or high-fat oil, or had a lot of salt added."
Dairy Queen's quarter-pound Mushroom Swiss GrillBurger is best, with 590 calories, 35 grams of fat (12 grams saturated), and 700 milligrams of sodium. Remember: Veggies are usually a smart idea, but check nutritional information to see how much fat those seemingly healthy toppings are adding.
Best other-meat burger
Ted's Montana Grill's Skinny Dip Bison Burger
Want a more health-conscious burger but can't give up the meat? Bison (or buffalo) has fewer calories and less saturated fat than beef, says Brooking, making it a good substitute for picky carnivores.
At this chain founded by media mogul Ted Turner, you can order any burger with beef or bison meat. The Skinny Dip bison sandwich, served on an oat-and-wheat bun and topped with avocado slices, will run you 606 calories, 29 grams of fat (7 grams saturated), and—watch out!—1,973 milligrams of sodium; go bunless to save 210 calories and 360 milligrams of sodium.
Best gluten-free burger (with bun!)
Cheeseburger in Paradise's Back to Basics Burger
Jimmy Buffet's tropics-themed establishment offers beef, turkey, and veggie burgers, as well as seafood and chicken. And now they're all available on gluten-free buns, which have 250 calories and 9 grams of fat—5 grams saturated.
The restaurant has long offered a gluten-free menu and modified meals for those with a gluten intolerance. But with this new addition, diners with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity can finally enjoy burgers the same way the rest of us can—utensil free, between two pieces of bread.
Ruby Tuesday's Zucchini Cake Minis
Don't let size fool you. A serving of mini burgers at some chains can easily cost you more calories than a single normal-size sandwich. (Chili's Big Mouth Bites dinner served with ranch dressing and fries totals more than 2,100 calories!)
Ruby Tuesday's combination meals, which let you pair mini burgers with soup or salad, is the smartest choice we found. Our favorites are the delicious zucchini cake patties—made with roasted red peppers and feta cheese—with 580 calories, 22 grams of fat (3 grams saturated), and 1,714 milligrams of sodium.
Best meatless drive-through burger
Burger King's BK Veggie Burger
Even vegetarians can have it their way with Burger King's Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie patty on a sesame-seed bun with lettuce, tomato, ketchup, and mayo. Order it without mayo and it's only 320 calories, 7 grams of fat (1 gram saturated), and 960 milligrams of sodium.
Brooking says high amounts of sodium are difficult to avoid in fast-food burgers. The current recommendation for most people is no more than 2,300 milligrams a day (about a teaspoon of table salt), because
Best restaurant veggie burger
Denny's Veggie Burger
"America's diner" is known for its hearty breakfasts and fat-filled meals, but they get points in our burger book for offering an Amy's Veggie Burger made from organic grains, vegetables, and protein-rich soy.
Order it off the menu and it'll come with melted pepper Jack cheese, spinach, tomato, and grilled mushrooms on a wheat bun, with a side of balsamic vinaigrette and fresh veggies—all for 540 calories, 13 grams of fat (5 grams saturated), and 1,340 milligrams of sodium.
Best portobello burger
Cheeburger Cheeburger's Grilled Mushroom Portobello Sandwich
Cheeburger Cheeburger's portobello mushroom sandwich doesn't have any beef, but it's the same meaty texture and has much less saturated fat.
A plain portobello sandwich, served on a kaiser roll, will run you 476 calories, 24 grams of fat (5 grams saturated), and 1,415 milligrams of sodium. You can also get it on a platter, served with fries or onion rings and a side salad or coleslaw. Go easy on the signature sauces, which are notorious everywhere for corrupting even the healthiest of meal choices.
Best turkey burger
Hardee's and Carl's Jr.'s Charbroiled Turkey Burger
"In general, ground turkey has less saturated fat than ground beef," says Brooking, "but at a restaurant, you can never be sure whether one turkey burger is better for you than another beef burger." And we found plenty of turkey burgers covered in cheese, bacon, and even fried onion rings.
So we were delighted by the options at Hardee's and Carl's Jr. They teamed up with an editor from Men's Health to offer five turkey burgers under 500 calories: Plain, BBQ Ranch, or Mushroom & Swiss (at Hardee's) and Plain, Guacamole, and Teriyaki (at Carl's Jr.).
Friendly's Grilled Cheese Burger
You've seen the best—now here's the worst! Friendly's has combined the burger with another greasy-gooey comfort food: the grilled cheese sandwich.
Not one grilled cheese sandwich, either. This monster "Big Beef burger" comes nestled between two grilled cheese sandwiches (four slices of bread!) layered with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, and will run you 1,540 calories, 92 grams of fat (35 grams saturated), and 2,490 milligrams of sodium. This is essentially three sandwiches masquerading as one!
Worst double cheeseburger
Denny's Double Cheeseburger
When it comes to burgers, you could assume double-anything probably isn't the healthiest of options, which is why this Denny's burger made our worst list. Unlike many of the concoctions on our worst list, this double cheeseburger doesn't come with a ton of toppings or sugary sauces. It's essentially just the basics—cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onions—and two beef patties.
This unassuming burger clocks in at 1,400 calories, 87 grams of fat (41 grams saturated), and 2,680 milligrams of sodium. We're begging you: Please don't add bacon!
Worst drive-in burger
Sonic's Ring Leader Loaded Burger
For the most part, fast-food restaurants fared pretty well on our best and worst lists; their patties tend to be smaller and not as juicy (read: less fatty) than a lot of the diner or bar-and-grill chains. But, of course, there are exceptions.
With just one patty—plus bacon, cheese, a fried onion ring, and mayo—Sonic's Ring Leader Loaded Burger manages to pack in 1,230 calories, 86 grams of fat (28 grams saturated), and 1,230 milligrams of sodium. What's even worse? You can also order it as a double.
Worst burger posing as breakfast
Perkins' Sunrise Burger
This hamburger patty also has a fried egg, bacon, hash browns, two cheeses, and sour cream, totaling (with fries) 1,580 calories, 91 grams of fat (29 grams saturated), and 2,490 milligrams of sodium. It also has 425 milligrams of cholesterol—142% of your daily recommended value!
"It's ludicrous that people are encouraged to eat like this," says Brooking. "If a healthy person has this meal once, it's obviously not going to result in a heart attack, but a lot of people should not even entertain the thought of putting an egg on a burger and loading it with toppings."
Worst healthy-sounding burger
Ruby Tuesday's Avocado Turkey Burger
Turkey and heart-healthy avocado—what's not to like? But the deceitful title of this sandwich doesn't mention the Swiss cheese or bacon it's also served with. Once you know the whole story, it's easy to see why this one's 887 calories, 54 grams of fat, and 2,441 milligrams of sodium.
Ruby's plain turkey burger is a healthier option at just 700 calories. Or even better, ask for the Turkey Burger Wrap, which has just 591 calories.
Worst oversized burger
Fifth Third Ballpark's Fifth Third Burger
The West Michigan Whitecaps' minor league baseball stadium serves the Fifth Third Burger: one and two-thirds pounds of beef, five slices of cheese, salsa, nacho cheese, Fritos, chili, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream, all on an 8-inch sesame-seed bun. It's meant to feed four, but you get a T-shirt if you eat it by yourself!
If you can't get to Michigan, rest easy: Cheeburger Cheeburger offers the 20-ounce Pounder—1,394 calories, 81 grams of fat (29 grams saturated), and 1,903 milligrams of sodium—which should tide you over.
Worst fair or festival burger
Krispy Kreme Burger
It's the infamous Luther (Vandross) burger, also known as the Krispy Kreme burger. That's a hamburger patty, often with bacon and a fried egg, sandwiched between two doughnuts.
The Machine Shed, the Midwest chain who manned the Krispy Kreme doughnut booth at 2010's Wisconsin State Fair, upped the ante even more with an optional chocolate-covered bacon topping. There's no official word on how bad for you these really are, but with two original glazed donuts at 190 calories each, you're looking at quite a meal from just the "bun" alone.
Worst burger melt
Red Robin's All-American Patty Melt
You might think a sandwich on marble rye bread has got to be healthier than one on a fluffy, doughy hamburger bun. This Red Robin creation will prove you wrong.
The All-American Patty Melt, topped with two slices of cheese, caramelized onions, and Thousand Island dressing, is one of the worst items on the Red Robin menu: 1,315 calories, 98 grams of fat, and 2,064 milligrams of sodium.
Worst burger hybrid
Applebee's Quesadilla Burger
Swapping your bun for a tortilla isn't the solution, says Brooking. "When you're at the grocery, you can make smart choices and buy a low-fat tortilla with 100 calories. But at a restaurant, you have no idea what's in there."
Applebee's Quesadilla Burger is ground beef with "Mexi-ranch sauce," pico de gallo, bacon, and shredded lettuce, served in a pepper Jack and cheddar quesadilla. With 1,240 calories, 103 grams of fat (43 grams saturated), and 3,530 milligrams of sodium, it could bring you one step closer to a life-threatening heart attack.
Burger so bad it should be illegal
Chili's Southern Smokehouse Bacon Burger
We thought we were going to have a tough time crowning the very worst burger. And then we found the Southern Smokehouse Bacon Burger.
Think of every high-fat, high-sodium, and high-calorie topping, and this one's got it: maple bacon, smoked cheddar, mayonnaise, crispy onion strings, and ancho-chile barbecue sauce. With fries, the meal has 2,290 calories and more fat and sodium than you should consume in two days: 139 grams of fat (211% of the proper daily intake), 46 grams of saturated fat (230%), and a bloodcurdling 6,500 milligrams of sodium (271%).