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Beware of Restaurant ‘Monster Meals’

By McKenzie Hall, R.D.N.

monsterWe’re eating out a lot these days. Americans spend 50 percent of their eating dollars on foods consumed away from home, such as from coffee shops, cafeterias, sit-down restaurants and fast food chains, according to data released by the USDA Economic Research Service.

However, if you forego a home-cooked meal for a restaurant entree or even “just” an entree salad, you may unintentionally add unwanted calories, saturated fat, sugar and salt to your day. Some pasta and chicken restaurant meals weigh in at 2,600-plus calories!

People who eat out at full-service restaurants consume, per day, on average 205 more calories, 2.5 grams more saturated fat, and 451 milligrams more sodium than those who eat at home, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition.

These findings are consistent with several other studies, which find that eating out is linked with obesity, higher body fat, and lower intake of fruits and vegetables. The reason dining out can be a downfall is because restaurants often use excess butter, oil, sugar, salt, condiments, dressings and sauces in the preparation of food, as well as serving super-sized portions.

Good news for restaurant lovers

There’s no need to sacrifice dining out completely. The pendulum appears to be swinging in the right direction in terms of healthier menu options at restaurants.

An overall decline in calories from restaurants has been observed, according to an October 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, which looked at the calorie levels for more than 19,000 menu items in restaurant chains in 2012, and compared them with levels in 2013.

Additionally, a National Restaurant Association survey of 1,300 professional chefs revealed healthfulness among their top restaurant predictions for the year.

“It all goes back to consumer demand,” says Joy Dobust, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D., Senior Director of Nutrition at the National Restaurant Association. “Consumers are demanding healthier options that are very competitive with other items on the menu.”

Everywhere you turn, you can find examples of restaurants offering popular menu options that also happen to be healthy. For example, The Cheesecake Factory offers a SkinnyLicious menu with more than 50 dishes under 590 calories, and Olive Garden offers a Lighter Italian Fare Menu with entrees under 575 calories.

How you can eat out healthfully

Despite the daunting calorie content of some restaurant meals, you can certainly enjoy dining out healthfully by using these strategies:

1. Focus on menu items that are steamed, baked, broiled, or grilled.

“Anything that’s fried will contribute to the calories in the meal because of the oil involved,” Dobust notes.

2. Choose vegetable-based over cream-based.

Vegetable-based sauces, soups, and condiments are typically lower in calories and saturated fat.

3. Beware of sauces.

Many dipping sauces, dressings, and condiments can be rich in calories, saturated fat and sodium. “Ask for sauces on the side so you can be in control of how much you’re adding,” suggests Dobust.

4. Trim your portion.

Share a dish with a friend or portion out half of your entree into a to-go box prior to eating.

5. Be mindful of beverages, such as sugary cocktails, sodas or shakes, as they can quickly contribute empty calories.

– Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC.

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