Taco Bell's menu, as selected by a nutritionist

Story highlights

  • From a nutritional standpoint, some options at Taco Bell fit into your diet much better than others
  • Here are the best options if you're focused on healthy choices within the limits of the menu

This story is part of a series on finding the healthiest menu options at some of the most popular fast food restaurant chains.

(CNN)When you take a trip to Taco Bell, it's probably not because you are in the mood for a salad -- probably not even a taco salad. Chances are, you're craving comfort food or something indulgent, such as a smothered burrito or a hash brown-filled Crunchwrap. It may not surprise you to hear that these foods are far from a dieter's delight.

But you don't need to steer clear of the chain, either. After a lot of menu analysis, we found that from a nutritional standpoint, some options at Taco Bell will fit into your daily diet much better than others.
    The first thing you should know about Taco Bell is that any meal can be customized to your liking. That means you can eliminate salty, fatty, high-calorie toppings and replace them with healthier alternatives. For example, many options can be ordered "Fresco style," which replaces mayo-based sauces, cheese, guacamole and sour cream with tomato-rich pico de gallo. The Fresco soft tacos made our recommended list a few times, as they are lower in calories and saturated fat and are some of the healthiest items on Taco Bell's menu.
    Healthy fast food switches that will surprise you
    Healthy fast food switches that will surprise you

      JUST WATCHED

      Healthy fast food switches that will surprise you

    MUST WATCH

    Healthy fast food switches that will surprise you 01:22
    Additionally, if you have time to plan, you can visit Taco Bell's website, which has a very user-friendly nutrition calculator that allows you to add or subtract toppings and fillings, and view the updated nutritional information. We found this to be extremely helpful when trying to reduce the sodium or carbs in a meal, for example, and as a result, you will see that many of our recommendations are customized to satisfy our nutritional standards.
    Also worth mentioning: Taco Bell's oils are free of trans fats, and the company is removing artificial flavors and colors from its foods (for example, natural fruit juice concentrate and turmeric are now used in place of blue No. 1 in the chain's avocado ranch sauce).
    A few notes of caution: Though the company states that it reduced the sodium content of most menu items by an average of 15%, many of the items, such as the breakfast Crunchwraps and taco salads, top 1,000 milligrams of sodium and deliver more than half of your daily sodium limit.
    Also, as with other chains, sugar-sweetened beverages can max you out on sugar for the entire day. Some, such as the 40-ounce Mountain Dew, have a whopping 145 grams of sugar, or 36 teaspoons worth. Your best bet is to stick with plain water.
    Here are the best Taco Bell options if you're focused on healthy choices within the limits of the menu. We break them down by our picks for kids, athletes, drivers, vegetarians and vegans, as well as low-calorie, low-sugar, low-salt, gluten-free and low-carb options. Note that our nutrition information is based on one portion (i.e. one taco).

    For kids

    Our picks: Crunchy taco with fire-grilled chicken, or shredded chicken mini quesadilla without chipotle sauce, or Fresco soft tacos (shredded chicken or steak); black beans; and chips and guacamole
    You won't find a children's menu at Taco Bell. In 2013, the chain discontinued kids meals in US stores, mostly because it considers itself a brand for millennials and is less interested in marketing to children. But that doesn't mean you won't find kid-friendly options on the menu.
    The crunchy taco with fire-grilled chicken, shredded chicken mini quesadilla or Fresco soft taco with shredded chicken or steak, all paired with black beans, deliver protein and fiber without topping the sodium charts. (We omitted the chipotle sauce in the quesadilla, as it might be a bit spicy for kids' palates). An order of kid-friendly chips and guacamole works well for a group and boosts monounsaturated fats while delivering less than 500 milligrams of sodium for the whole dish.

    For vegetarians

    Our picks: Cheesy roll-up with tomatoes, plus black beans, or veggie power burrito without guacamole, sour cream or avocado ranch sauce
    Taco Bell's cheesy roll-up with tomatoes is simple and satisfying for vegetarians, but to upgrade its nutritional profile, we recommend adding the black beans, which boost fiber and protein for the meal. The veggie power burrito with black beans, cheddar, pico de gallo and romaine is also vegetarian-friendly and offers 8 grams of fiber and 13 grams of protein.
    While we recognize that guacamole contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, we would rather you save it for a snack and slash more than 100 milligrams of sodium from the meal. Omitting the sour cream and avocado ranch sauce helps lower sodium by another 50 milligrams.

    For vegans

    Our picks: Black bean burrito without cheese and with mild border sauce instead of red sauce, or veggie power burrito (Fresco style)
    The black bean burrito without cheese offers 7 grams of filling fiber and contains all certified vegan ingredients. But by choosing the mild border sauce instead of red sauce, you slash 115 milligrams of sodium.
    Additionally, items from the vegetarian menu, such as the veggie power burrito, can be made vegan-friendly by ordering them Fresco style. That removes mayo-based sauces, sour cream, cheese and guacamole and replaces them with pico de gallo, which gets its flavor from tomato, onions, cilantro and lemon juice dressing.

    For calorie-counters

    Our picks: Fresco soft taco (shredded chicken or steak), or shredded chicken mini quesadilla; and side of black beans
    You can enjoy Mexican food even if you are counting calories, and Taco Bell has simplified the menu-selection process for waistline watchers by offering its Fresco items (all under 350 calories) as well as mini versions of popular foods, such as the shredded chicken mini quesadilla. Even better, you get a healthy dose of protein for the relatively small amount of calories: 10 grams with the Fresco shredded chicken or steak taco and 12 grams for the chicken mini quesadilla. To keep hunger pangs further away, add the black beans for just 80 calories and 5 grams of filling fiber.

    For the sugar-sensitive

    Our picks: Fresco soft taco (shredded chicken or steak), or chicken soft taco; side of black beans; and chips and pico de gallo
    Aside from Cinnabons and sugar-sweetened beverages, there is nothing on Taco Bell's menu that is going to contribute a significant amount of sugar to your meal. That said, we really like the shredded chicken or steak Fresco soft tacos, which have 2 grams of sugar and, without fattening and sodium-rich toppings, are some of the healthiest items on the menu.
    If you prefer cheese with your taco, stick with the chicken soft taco, which has only 1 gram of sugar and 2½ grams of saturated fat, and less than 500 milligrams of sodium. We also like some of the low-sugar sides, such as the black beans (less than 1 gram of sugar), and for a snack, the chips and pico de gallo (2 grams of sugar).

    For the salt-sensitive

    Our picks: Fresco crunchy taco with beef, or crunchy taco with fire-grilled chicken
    If you are watching your salt intake, Taco Bell is probably not going to be at the top of your restaurant list; after all, so many of the tasty flavors come from salt-filled toppings, fillings and grains. The good news is, if you need to limit sodium, you do have some options. Your best bet is to turn to the Fresco taco menu, as all Fresco tacos have fewer than 500 milligrams of sodium.
    That being said, the lowest of the group by far is the Fresco beef crunchy taco, at 300 milligrams. Though we might recommend a soft taco over crunchy due to the fat content, we were pleasantly surprised to see that the crunchy taco shell is essentially sodium-free, whereas the soft flour tortilla contributes 190 milligrams of sodium. Similarly, the crunchy taco with fire-grilled chicken contains cheese but has only 280 milligrams of sodium.
    Also, when it comes to sauces, the hotter the sauce, the more sodium. For example, a serving of mild border sauce has 35 milligrams of sodium, the hot border sauce has 45 milligrams, and the "fire" border sauce has 60 milligrams.

    For the gluten-sensitive

    Our picks: Fire-grilled chicken or steak power bowl without guacamole, cheese, sour cream and rice; plus chips and guacamole
    Taco Bell's menu is predominantly flour-based, and the company does not make any gluten-free claims. So if you have celiac disease, Taco Bell is probably not your best option for fast food, as there is the potential for cross-contamination.
    If you are looking to avoid gluten, however, there are options to choose from. The fire-grilled chicken power bowl (including rice) includes all gluten-free ingredients. However, with all of its fillings, its sodium count registers at 1,300 milligrams. We don't intend to punish, really, but by eliminating sour cream, guacamole, rice and cheese, you still get a protein-rich meal with chicken, beans, romaine, pico de gallo and the signature avocado ranch sauce for almost 600 fewer milligrams (i.e. 730 milligrams).
    If you prefer grilled steak over chicken, your nutritional values won't be affected too much: It will cost you 1 more gram of saturated fat and 20 more milligrams of sodium, but you will double your iron intake. You can also enjoy chips and guacamole if you are gluten-free, but we recommend sharing this dish to avoid excess sodium.
    Also worth mentioning: The crunchy taco is gluten-free, because it is made from corn and does not contain wheat flour. However, fill it with any protein except beef, as the seasoned beef is not gluten-free.

    For the athlete

    Our picks: Shredded chicken burrito without avocado ranch sauce, or Gordita supreme with steak
    The shredded chicken burrito without avocado ranch sauce but with premium Latin rice and cheddar cheese offers a mix of protein and carbs, both necessary for strong, energized muscles, and delivers a healthy dose of performance-boosting iron. We recognize that the sodium count is on the higher side, even without the sauce, but we figure that endurance athletes who lose sodium in sweat wouldn't mind some extra milligrams in their meal.
    If you enjoy flatbread, the Gordita supreme with steak is another iron-rich option that offers a balanced combination of carbs and protein.

    For the road warrior

    Our picks: Grilled steak soft taco, or chicken soft taco
    Tacos are easy to grab and eat on the road. And there's no need to take time out to customize if you're in a hurry to get where you're going. The grilled steak or chicken soft tacos offer a moderate amount of carbs and fat, with a dose of satiating protein for long road trips. Plus, they won't drive you into sodium overload.

    For the carb-conscious

    Our picks: Fire-grilled chicken power bowl without rice, beans and sour cream, or veggie power bowl without rice and beans
    If you are a carb counter, burritos won't be on your list at Taco Bell, as most of the burritos top 50 grams of carbs. (The chipotle chicken loader griller is the lowest, at 36 grams). Some of the tacos have fewer than 15 grams of carbs, such as the Fresco crunchy taco with beef (13 grams).
    Join the conversation

    See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

    But if you are strictly limiting carbs, your best bet is to order the fire-grilled chicken power bowl without the rice and beans. It comes with grilled chicken, romaine lettuce, guacamole, cheddar cheese, pico de gallo, reduced-fat sour cream and avocado ranch sauce. (We also recommend skipping the sour cream and saving 2 more grams of carbs, 1 gram of saturated fat and 20 milligrams of sodium). If sodium is an issue, we recommend skipping the cheese or guacamole too or choosing the veggie bowl without rice and beans, which has only 6 grams of carbs.

    For the breakfast lover

    Our picks: Breakfast soft taco with egg and cheese, without bacon, or mini skillet bowl
    Breakfast meals at Taco Bell, like the hash brown-containing Crunchwraps and the potato-filled grande scrambler burritos, may sound like a morning treat, but you'll pay for it in milligrams, as they offer more than half a day's worth of sodium.
    However, the breakfast grilled taco with egg and cheese offers a moderate amount of protein and carbs and, at 330 milligrams, is one of the lowest-sodium items on Taco Bell's menu. (We wish it was offered for lunch, too). We also like the mini skillet bowl, with potatoes, scrambled eggs, nacho cheese sauce and pico de gallo, all for under 200 calories.