It's pretty unusual for an RD to be able to gush over an American fast food restaurant. But thanks to Chipotle, that's what's happening.

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Credit: Getty Images

Well, it’s official. Business analysts, health enthusiasts, and many health experts have declared Chipotle as the No. 1 healthy fast food go-to (a spot formerly held by Subway).

As a long-time fan of Chipotle, I recommend the chain to my clients, from professional athletes to new moms trying to shed the baby weight. I consider Chipotle more healthy food fast rather than fast food. Here are three fundamental reasons why.

Ingredients are everything

The ingredients in Chipotle’s chicken are simple: Chicken, water, chipotle chile, rice bran oil, cumin, garlic, oregano, black pepper, kosher salt.

I’m tempted to say enough said here, but to drive the point home, Chipotle's chicken recipe is much, much closer to something you can make at home versus something that's made in a factory.

As more and more consumers adopt a clean eating philosophy, the trend is toward recognizable ingredients in food, which I think is a great thing. In my opinion, we don't know enough about the health effects of the additives commonly used in many processed and fast foods, so I always advise my clients to stick with ingredients they recognize.

The fact that Chipotle has always been so transparent about its ingredients, has made changes in response to consumer demand, and keeps them as simple as possible earns a lot of points in my book.

Quality over calories

News reports of Chipotle’s boom often point out that the average order packs over 1,000 calories, more than half the amount most adults need daily. True.

But slashing that number is incredibly easy based on the customization of Chipotle's menu items. Plus, they even offer you a handy online nutrition calculator to help you to see how tweaking what you ask for when you move down the line affects well, your bottom line.

For example, simply switching from a burrito to a burrito bowl, by ditching the flour tortilla, instantly saves 300 calories, including 46 grams of carbohydrate. If you order a bowl and skip both the cheese and sour cream you save another 215 calories.

My personal standard order is a salad, no dressing, made with romaine lettuce, black beans, fajita veggies, fresh tomato salsa, and guacamole (the salsa and guac are dressing enough). It clocks in at 400 calories, and provides a nutrient-rich balance of veggies, lean protein, healthy and satisfying plant-based fat, and a whopping 21 grams of dietary fiber, about 85% of the minimum recommended daily target.

Chipotle’s menu offers a wide range of calorie levels and raises the bar on quality. I firmly believe that 400 calories worth of “real food” ingredients is far healthier for your metabolism and waistline than an identical number of calories (or even less) of highly processed and/or fried food that is much lower in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Case in point: one recent study from Pomona College found that volunteers who ate processed food burned about 50% fewer calories than those who consumed the same number of calories from whole foods.

Focusing on sustainability

A few of Chipotle’s recent moves have generated a great deal of media buzz. The first involved ceasing the sale of carnitas, due to the inability to find a supplier who meets their standards for raising pigs humanely. (It's now back in select cities.) Many consumers, including those who love eating pork, were impressed by Chipotle’s decision not to compromise its principles, even if it meant losing sales. Chipotle has also committed to serving meats raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics.

Then there was Chipotle’s (admittedly controversial) decision to completely eliminate GMO ingredients, making them the first national chain to do so. GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms,” are plants or animals created through biotechnology gene-splicing techniques.

As a Registered Dietitian with graduate degrees in both nutrition science and public health, I believe that the impact of food production on the environment is a critical piece of the wellness puzzle. The use of antibiotics in livestock has been shown to directly impact things like the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and pesticide exposure has been linked to rates of obesity and diseases like type 2 diabetes.

Chipotle has shown that a commitment to ingredients that support food sustainability—the ability to safely grow healthy food into the future—is not only possible for a fast food restaurant, but it also helps foster a sense of trust with consumers who can feel better about their eating choices.

The fact that all of this is resonating with the public is a sign that our attitudes about food are changing, including how we define healthy, and it will be interesting to see if this affects the fast food industry as a whole. My hope is that it does, and that in turn, will lead to real, long-term health benefits for Americans.

What's your take on this topic? Chat with us on Twitter by mentioning @goodhealth and @CynthiaSass.

Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Cynthia is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.