Dining Out: Make the Most of Healthy Choices and Steer Clear of Unhealthy Disguises

Edited by Deb Dutta

It seems like the healthy food trend is becoming more mainstream with popular nationwide food chains incorporating healthy options on their menus. Some even have separate low calorie menus and menus for special diets. Are these choices for real and what options do we really have? We decided to check out a  few popular chain restaurants and fast food joints to find out their healthy offerings. Here’s a neat table of the results: While most restaurants are catering primarily to lower calories menus (such as favorite items from the menu under 400 calories at McDonald’s), some others are disclosing allergen  information (Applebee’s and Olive Garden) and offering options for special diets (Chipotle). And while Calorie is one measure, there are others such as salt and sugar content, quality and quantity of ingredients. Some are disclosing ingredient information but what is lacking in most cases is information on the quality of ingredients. One chain has led the way in aiming for higher quality ingredients: Chipotle is offering hormone-free and grass-fed meats and fresh ingredients on their menu. On the other hand, chains such as Panera, which pride themselves on their “Craftsmanship” surprisingly has a menu where most sandwiches, soups and pastas that are high in calorie content. Even more surprising was the high sodium content on their menu, 1340 to 2930 mg for 1 full serving of their pastas, whereas the recommended daily sodium intake is at 2400 mg. Salads on any menu offer a healthier low calorie choice but we need to watch out for how much dressing we are adding over our salad. After looking at the menus of the most popular chain restaurants in America, here is our consensus: while having these healthier choices are certainly moving in the right direction, most often the ingredients are not fresh and hence lack nutrition value. Often they lack creativity, flavor and variety. They are missing information on the type of oils or sugars used. Vegetable oil often means canola or soy oil that has been chemically extracted. Here are a few things you can do to make the best of options available when you are eating out:

  1. Read up ahead of time on choices available: Some restaurants have nutrition facts available online. You could even plan your intake using a nutritional calculator (for instance the one available on Chipotle’s website)
  2. In an interesting experiment a teacher and his students used McDonald’s nutrition planner to plan healthier meals
  3. Ask for ½ portions where available (for instance at Panera) plus a  side salad to make your meal
  4. Ask for your dressing on the side for your salads
  5. Substitute your soda with water and your chips with carrots or a side salad. That choice alone will save you unnecessary sugar and salt intake
And finally, you could always make your own healthier versions at home. That way, you can take control of both quantity and quality Measure the oils and fats you use. Prepare your vegetables and proteins in the most nutritious way possible. Swap high fat condiments like mayo and pesto for healthier, vegetable based spreads. Switch things up and make fruits and vegetables the star of your meal and use the protein as a side. Here are 3 dishes under 500 calories that are creative, fun, and filling: Vegan Naan Pizza (instead of regular pizza) http://herbnzest.com/recipes/vegan-naan-pizza-with-pumpkin-pesto-and-arugula/ Fish Taco Lettuce Boats (instead of regular tacos) http://herbnzest.com/recipes/fish-taco-salad-with-cranberry-avocado-crema-in-a-lettuce-boat/ Baked Curry Vegetable Sandwich (a filling substitute for a high-calorie sandwich) http://herbnzest.com/recipes/baked-curried-vegetable-sandwich-with-tomato-relish/

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  • Deboleena Dutta
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