subway sandwich Photo by Marissa Angell

Hunger strikes while journeying through the airport, plugging through a long work day, or driving through town. The fast options for fueling up often include a pizza joint, a Chinese food buffet, an ice cream stand and, finally, a token sandwich place. One in particular, Subway, is celebrating its 46th anniversary (don’t forget to send a birthday card…), which may account for its totally pervasive presence around the country. Turn a corner, and there’s Subway (Seriously! Try it).

Like many others, this restaurant chain touts quickly made sandwiches, salads, and breakfast foods as a healthy addition to a balanced diet. But are there some options that are healthier than others? We asked experts, actual customers, and Subway reps to weigh in.

A Nutritionist Says…

Jessica Garay Redmond, registered dietitian, adjunct instructor at Syracuse University and founder of Major League Wellness:

Subway ranks above many traditional fast food places for the amount of fresh vegetables offered, and it stands apart from sit-down restaurants that often offer huge portion sizes. Subway’s healthier line of subs or flatbreads under 6 grams of fat refer to sandwiches made without cheese. Adding cheese, which most of us do, tacks on an additional 40-50 calories… In addition, the tally does not include the accompanying chips/cookie. Always choose baked chips to save an extra 130-140 calories and 2-3.5 grams of fat.

Due to the high amount of sodium in the lunchmeat, avoid the Black Forest Ham and Subway Club, among others, even though they are low in total fat. Another good option is the 6″ Veggie Patty (a veggie burger).

Consider a foot-long— say, the Chicken & Bacon Ranch, which is 1040 calories, 28 grams of fat, and almost 1200 milligrams of sodium— these are amounts that comprise about half of most people’s daily needs. Other fast-serve sandwich restaurants I like include Quiznos, which has a number of options under 500 calories, and Blimpie (opt for their Grilled Chicken, VegiMax, or Buffalo Chicken 6” sandwiches).

Subway Patrons Say…

Wendy Toth, 30, Brooklyn, NY:

I try to pack my lunch but when I forget, I go to Subway as an inexpensive treat. I really love meatball sandwiches and Subway’s is no exception. Since it’s at the high end of the calorie scale (580 for a six inch, plus 40 for provolone cheese) I switch between ordering that and its exact opposite, the 230-calorie Veggie Delite. I like veggies, too, and Subway’s are usually fresh, so it’s not a huge sacrifice. This way, if I forget my lunch twice a month, I average out at 425 calories a sandwich.

Gabriela Villaba, 26, NYC by way of Ecuador:

Normally I get the 6-inch Veggie Delite on whole wheat bread when I come to Subway. I hate junk food, and I work, so I don’t have time to bring lunch and don’t want to go somewhere unhealthy. For me, this is the best food option, since Subway uses decent ingredients and it’s not crappy, unhealthy food.

A Restaurant Rep Says…

Les Winograd, Subway public relations specialist:

[Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle first garnered attention when he was featured in a Men’s Health article. He’d lost 245 pounds as a college student by eating Subway along with an exercise program of his own design.] Ever since Jared first appeared on a Subway commercial, we have received a steady stream of letters, calls, and e-mails from people who wanted to know more about Jared’s weight loss, what he ate, and to tell us how much Jared inspired them and to tell us of their own weight loss successes.

Lanette Kovachi, RD, Subway’s corporate dietitian:

Any of the “6 gram of fat” or less sandwiches on 9-grain wheat are great healthy choices… In my opinion, the Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki is the tastiest— the combination of teriyaki with sweet onion sauce is really flavorful… Probably, the most satisfying subs are the chicken and beef subs on 9-grain bread (Roasted Chicken, Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki, etc.). They contain the most protein.

To stop the calories from piling up quickly, skip the full fat dressings and sauces (oil, Ranch, Mayonnaise, and Southwest Sauce) and go for vinegar, Sweet Onion sauce, Honey Mustard, or regular mustard instead. Adding extra cheese or bacon also adds on the calories.

Taste Test and Final Sub Thoughts

Like many chains nowadays, Subway puts it all out there where the public can see it. (Full disclosure: I live in the great state of New York, where chains are required to post calorie information, making choosing healthy options a little easier.) The majority of Subway stores are clean and have relatively fresh produce and lunchmeats, though the sandwiches are pretty standard; certainly nothing to write home about. I generally tend toward the Veggie Delite or Turkey Breast sandwiches, but in the name of research I tested out the Grilled Chicken and Spinach Salad, as well as the Subway Club on a flatbread. While the Club was yummy, the Grilled Chicken and Spinach Salad, clocking in at 150-170 calories, was mediocre at best, and worst of all, not very filling even after I loaded it with veggies.

As a go-to sandwich chain, Subway has a relatively large number of healthy meal options and decent ingredients for the price. One big caveat: to reap the health benefits, be a purist. Extras like sauces, dressings, cheeses, and other add-ons pack on fat, calories, and salt and will turn a healthy lunch into a calorie-laden meal— in which case, why not just splurge on the slice of pizza?