Is Subway Healthy? A Nutritionist Looks at Its Menu

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

Subway has had its share of nutrition-based public relations ups and downs, including a 2021 lawsuit, as reported by NPR, claiming that the chain's tuna isn't actually tuna, but other types of meat (Subway denies the claim on its website, stating that it uses wild-caught skipjack tuna.

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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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 on its website 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. As stated on its downloadable Ingredient Guide, 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 on the Nutrition page on its website.

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 No Bready Bowls (previously known as Protein Bowls), which gives you the ingredients of a sandwich—minus bread—served in a salad-like style in a bowl.

While there are several options with pre-selected ingredients, you can also build your own. Subway even calculates the calories in your selections when ordering online, which allows you to see how some additions or omissions impact the meal's overall calorie total.

Bowls and salads are also a smart way to skirt surplus carbs. A full footlong roll can pack as much as 80 grams of carb—about the amount in six standard slices of bread, according to the U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA).

If you need more carbs than a bowl provides, opt for a squeeze pouch of unsweetened applesauce as a side item, which provides 16 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 published in JAMA that looked at data from more than 400,000 US men and women over a 16-year period showed 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.

Avocados contain nutrients and bioactive compounds that may help reduce the risk of becoming overweight/obese. Regular avocado consumption may reduce adult weight gain according to a 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients.

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, according to the USDA. So that 16-ounce soda alone exceeds the 6 teaspoon maximum daily advised limit for added sugar for women and children 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.

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