A vertical herb garden, illuminated so as to enhance its verdant contents, serves as a focal point at Palo Alto’s Lyfe Kitchen, dividing the dining room from the counter area. Shelves surrounding the counter display items for sale: cookbooks—as well as a book authored by Deepak Chopra—and bottles of olive oil. A beer tap dominates the far end of the counter. The bright, cleanly modern space, with its white walls and stark contemporary furniture, is warmed up with pumpkin-hued banquettes, wood-topped tables and soft lighting from shaded lamps.

Lyfe offers four different menus—one for vegetarians, vegans, omnivores and gluten-free diners—and an open kitchen that allows customers to see how their food is being prepared. Its spare, modern décor, open-air seating and sophisticated menus rival some white tablecloth restaurants. All of its entrees come in under 600 calories. And it’s a fast food restaurant.

Even with its sleek looks, Lyfe relies on many of the tactics that have made fast food successful. So when I visited Lyfe and ordered the mahi mahi fish tacos and a kale salad, it cost under $10 and took just 11 minutes and 46 seconds to reach my table.

Twelve years after the publication of Eric Schlosser’s blockbuster, Fast Food Nation, which exposed “the dark side of the all-American meal,” the country’s culinary landscape has radically changed. Not only do fast food joints such as McDonald’s and Burger King serve healthier options—apples, salads and yogurt parfaits—but a new crop of fast food restaurants are diversifying their menus, moving away from fat-laden hamburgers and french fries in favor of tastier, more nutritious options.

According to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, this trend began roughly in the last five years with the rise of Chipotle. “They started off small, and now they’re a 10th as big as McDonald’s, which is pretty damn big,” he says. “People have said they want fresher, better food, so Chipotle and the big salad places like Chop’t, Tender Greens on the West Coast and Sweet Greens on the East Coast are growing.”

Lyfe (an acronym for Love Your Food Everyday) is a more upscale version of the same trend. The restaurant originated in 2010, when former McDonald’s executives Mike Roberts and Mike Donahue teamed up with celebrity chefs Art Smith and Tal Ronen to create what Donahue calls “a new category of restaurant” that combines fast food techniques with fine dining. This fusion has generated a relatively low-calorie menu with items such as roasted mushroom and goat cheese flatbread, quinoa crunch wrap and roasted salmon—all while shunning butter, cream, white sugar, white flour, high-fructose corn syrup and trans-fats.

The group opened the first Lyfe Kitchen in Palo Alto in 2011, and has since launched locations in Southern California, Nevada, Colorado, Texas and Illinois. Their goal is to eventually have hundreds of eateries across the country.

One of the keys to Lyfe’s success has been cutting-edge technology, which can speed up cook times—every meal is prepared on site—without sacrificing quality. Instead of the microwaves that many restaurants rely on, Lyfe uses combi ovens (combination steam/convection ovens) to bake chicken in less than 10 minutes. The restaurant also uses environmentally friendly cheese melters that conserve heat and a GPS system that helps servers locate customers after they’ve ordered at the counter. “The technology gives us the ability to cook like mother used to on her stove, only at today’s speed of the marketplace,” says Donahue, the restaurant’s chief brand and communications officer. “We’re one of the first to work with the manufacturers.”

But innovative technology isn’t the only way to make nutritious fast food. Dish-N-Dash, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Sunnyvale, has found that sticking to traditional sandwiches and wraps is the best way to get the job done. “Middle Eastern cuisine tends to be healthier,” says Nadiah Mshasha, who co-owns the eatery with her husband, Emad Ibrahim, “because there’s a lot of vegetables, grains, legumes like lentils, chickpeas and fava beans, and meats.”

Like Lyfe, Dish’n’Dash, which opened in 2010, is a fusion of fine dining and fast food. The recipes for its falafel, shawarma, tabouleh, hummus and other fare come from its flagship restaurant, Dish Dash, a high-end, sit-down venue in Sunnyvale, and eschew canned and frozen ingredients in favor of locally sourced produce and organic meats. But instead of white-tablecloth, sit-down service, meals are ordered at a counter, prepared quickly and served on disposable plates. When I ordered a falafel wrap this month, it took just under seven minutes to receive my meal.

Many believe this trend toward healthier fast food can help combat America’s obesity crisis, which currently afflicts more than one-third of adults.

“It’s absolutely critical that we start putting more healthy food in the fast [food] environment,” says David H. Freedman, author of The Atlantic piece, “The Cure for Obesity: How Science is Engineering Healthy Junk Food.” “Unfortunately, much of America does most of its eating in fast food environments, so we need to bring the healthy food to them as much as possible.”

Freedman argues that altering restaurant menus is the most practical solution to the country’s poor eating habits. “We know what people will eat,” he says. “Instead of getting everybody to make massive changes in their diet we know what they won’t do, let’s bring the food they do eat up to a healthier standard.”

Donahue certainly believes restaurants like Lyfe can make Americans better eaters. He says that brussels sprouts are “definitely the most popular” side dish at the Palo Alto restaurant, which goes through 10,000 to 11,000 pounds of them per year—and he believes the miniature cabbage can someday replace French fries as America’s favorite side dish, as long as they’re prepared with good flavors. “If anybody’s going to get it done,” he says, “it’s somebody that served 40 to 50 million customers per day.”

But not everyone agrees that eating out is the answer to the nation’s ills. “The real question is what’s been the role of [fast food] restaurants in contributing to America’s obesity crisis?” says Bittman. “That’s been massive.”

A closer look at Lyfe’s nutrition facts reveals that its dishes may not be as healthy as advertised. The grilled barramundi, for instance, contains just 279 calories and 9 grams of fat, but a whopping 964 milligrams of sodium—“about three-quarters of a day’s worth,” says Jim White, a registered dietician and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “This is the trick when it comes to fast food. When you have something with decreased fat, the sodium is often increased.

Another seemingly healthy choice, the farmer’s market salad, has 23 grams of fat, and the grilled chicken sandwich packs in more calories, fat and sodium than a Big Mac. Though White says this is “something to take a look at,” he also points out that the sources of fat in the salad—pecans, goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette—are “cleaner” than other types of salads that are coated in ranch dressing and bacon bits. In the same way, he says Lyfe’s grilled chicken sandwich is “absolutely” better than traditional fast food fare, because it offers more nutrition in exchange for the calories.

Bittman, also the author of How to Cook Everything, says home cooking is the real key to good health. Richard McCarthy, executive director of the advocacy group Slow Food USA, agrees. “None of it addresses the larger fad, which is that people don’t know how to cook,” he says. “Why is it that the most radical thing in America is to cook with people you love, and sit down and eat a meal together around the table?”

Still, McCarthy thinks restaurants such as Lyfe are a step in the right direction, so long as eating out remains a supplement to—and not a substitute for—home cooking. “I think these restaurants can help people connect to food more fully if they shed more light on how to prepare foods they never thought of preparing,” he says. “Our goal should be to create more balance in where people cook and how they cook, rather than just replacing one convenience restaurant for another.”

While the merits of healthy fast food are still up for debate, one thing is certain: the industry has fundamentally changed. Even if traditional fast food joints like McDonald’s and Burger King survive—Bittman says they’re having difficulty connecting to younger generations—they will have to keep pace with the trend toward fresh, tasty and nutritious menu items.

“The debate’s over,” says Donahue. “Everybody now either offers items that are on the more healthful side, or is in the process. The companies that are going to be the most successful are the ones that adapt to the changing consumer.”