Like with any restaurant chain, take time to review the ingredients.

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Subway has had its share of nutrition-based public relations ups and downs, including a recent lawsuit claiming that the chain's tuna isn't actually tuna, which Subway denies. Tuna aside, you may be wondering if Subway is a healthy option overall. I've certainly had clients tell me they believe it's a better option compared to fried fast food. Here are my thoughts as a nutritionist, including what to order if you're health-conscious and Subway is one of your go-to spots.

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Credit: Getty Images

Check the ingredients

Beyond calories, macros, and terms like whole grain, the most important factor that determines healthfulness, in my opinion, is ingredients. Subway does offer a downloadable PDF that lists ingredients for its breads, proteins, veggies, condiments, and other items, including pizzas, cookies, and soups.

Here's an example of why checking the ingredients can matter: Subway's grilled chicken isn't simply cooked chicken breast. Its ingredients include boneless skinless chicken breast with rib meat, soy protein concentrate, modified potato starch, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, maltodextrin, dextrose, caramelized sugar, and other ingredients. When I look at ingredient lists like these with clients, they'll often tell me, "Oh, I assumed it was just fresh chicken breast," like the type you'd find in your grocery store's meat aisle. But that might not be the case. So just take a look for yourself to see if the ingredients for the item you're interested in are as simple as you might think.

Apart from using ingredient info to try to select items with simple, recognizable contents, you can also easily identify allergens or sensitivity triggers you may need to avoid, including soy, wheat, dairy, and sulfites. The chain also provides separate allergen-specific info.

Load up on veggies

Two pros of Subway include the ability to customize your order and the availability of fresh veggies, including spinach, tomatoes, red onions, green peppers, and cucumbers. The best way to build the most veggies into your meal is to order a salad or one of the chain's new protein bowls. While there are several options with pre-selected ingredients, you can also build your own. Subway even offers a nutrition calculator, which allows you to see how some additions or omissions impact the meal's nutrition facts (unfortunately, other pre-set items can't be altered in the tool). To do your calculations, all you need to do is click on the item you want on the site's nutrition profile page and then click on "nutrition calculator."

Bowls and salads are also a smart way to skirt surplus carbs. A full footlong roll can pack as much as 75 grams of carb—about the amount in five standard slices of bread. If you need more carbs than a bowl provides, opt for a squeeze pouch of Musselman's unsweetened applesauce as a side item, which is made from just apples and vitamin C and provides 12 grams of carb with no added sugar.

Subway only offers one non-animal protein option—a veggie patty made from veggies and soy. Even if you're not plant-based, consider trying it if you can tolerate soy. After all, a 2020 study that looked at data from more than 400,000 US men and women over a 16-year period did show that a higher intake of plant protein was associated with a lower risk of death from all causes.

If you do eat meat (and have no problems with soy), then first consider trying the rotisserie style chicken, made from chicken, water, and 2% or less additional ingredients, including salt, soybean oil, dextrose, and seasonings.

Add avocado

A scan of the ingredient PDF shows that the only ingredients in Subway's smashed avocado are Hass avocados and sea salt. Add it to any order to up your meal's content of anti-inflammatory fat, fiber, antioxidants, and key vitamins and minerals, including potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure and is needed for heart, muscle, and nerve function. Regular avocado consumption has also been linked to healthy weight management, including lower odds of becoming overweight or obese as an adult.

Stick with H2O

Make water your beverage of choice to avoid excess amounts of added sugar or artificial sweeteners. A 16-ounce fountain soda without ice can pack over 30 grams of sugar, over 7 teaspoons worth. That's more than the maximum daily advised limit for added sugar based on guidelines from the American Heart Association.

Bottom line

As a convenient option, Subway may be a better-for-you choice compared to fried foods, but nutrition goes beyond the cooking method and includes ingredients, processing, and nutrients. If you're health-focused, take the time to review any chain's ingredients, including those of Subway, especially if you eat there frequently. Opt for fresh, minimally processed foods as often as possible, and go for items with straightforward ingredients and few additives, including added sugar.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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