Senior Sarah Edwards is not fooled by the seemingly “healthy” choices on menus. If she counts calories, she is sure to choose a dish or entrée that isn’t loaded with hidden calories.
Surprising numbers of calories are hidden in dishes ranging from homemade favorites to restaurant classics. Author David Zinczenko has made a career out of pointing out the worst offenders in his book
Eat This, Not That!
On his list of worst restaurant items? Zinczenko nominates Blimpie’s foot-long vegetable sub as the worst “healthy” sandwich because it contains more than 1,500 calories, 29 grams of fat and the sodium content is a whopping 3,540 milligrams.
Zinczenko also names Wendy’s the home to the worst fast-food burger, the Triple Baconator, which has 1,350 calories, 90 grams of fat and 2,780 milligrams of sodium.
Surprisingly high calorie counts in many restaurant items, combined with increasing obesity rates, are one reason that President Barack Obama passed a law requiring restaurants with more than 20 locations—in other words, chains like Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and Subway—to include calorie information in conspicuous locations on menus and drive-thru signs.
The law, which was modeled after a New York state law that requires restaurants, vending machines and buffets to display calorie information, is part of the health care bill passed last year. California and Oregon adopted similar measures this year, as they wait for the national health care legislation to take effect.
”From Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, the new standard will help chain restaurants provide the same type of nutrition information to consumers in any part of the country,” Dawn Sweeney, President of the National Restaurant Association, said.
It could be years, though, before consumers start seeing calorie counts on menus everywhere because the regulations are likely to be challenged in court. What can consumers worried about expanding waistlines do in the meantime?
”I think people need to be more observant and realize what they’re ordering isn’t as healthy as they think it is,” Edwards said.
One thing that makes that difficult is that designations like “low fat” and “low calorie” don’t necessarily mean what consumers think they mean. For example, the Food and Drug Administration regulates the use of terms like “low fat” and has defined the term “low fat” to mean that 30 percent or less of the calories in the item come from fat. But that doesn’t include the high-calorie condiments and extras served with dishes, such as dressings, sauces, cheese, bacon and extra salt.
”If a restaurant is promoting an item as ‘low calorie’ or ‘low fat,’ they should be willing to provide the nutrition information per request. Be careful though, because oftentimes the nutrition information doesn’t include the dressing or extras,” Laura Cannell, registered dietitian, said.
One dish that often has unexpectedly high calories are salads, which are perceived to be healthy. But calorie-ridden dressings, cheese, fried chicken and bacon, calories add up quickly.
”Salads can be a very healthy choice. You can always ask for toppings and dressing on the side so you can control of how much goes on the salad,” Cannell said. “Dip your fork in the dressing as you take each bite instead of pouring it all over the salad. You can also say ‘no bacon and no cheese.’ Again, you are paying money for that meal. Ask what comes on the salad so you can make the right choice.”
Ordering a Premium Caesar Salad from McDonald’s with crispy chicken? It has 350 calories, 18 grams of fat and 740 milligrams of sodium. To save on calories, switch to the grilled chicken, which only has 190 calories, 5 grams of fat and 580 milligrams of sodium.
”I am surprised. People always say how healthy salad is, but then once you add dressing it’s just as bad as fried food,” sophomore Chris Van Dinther said.
It’s a concern that a lot of Kaneland students share. According to a poll of 84 students conducted on Sept. 19, 72 percent said they thought many restaurants are less healthy than they appear.
”Our nation is working hard to get kids healthy and active, yet they are tricked every time they walk into a restaurant,” freshman Madi Jurcenko said.
Yet some restaurants have also been working to shed their unhealthy images.
McDonald’s has switched to using a canola-based cooking oil—which is healthier because it contains no trans-fats—for all their fries, hash browns, fish sandwiches and fried chicken products. The chain has also added many healthy options to their menu, including apple-dippers, low-fat milk, oatmeal and fruit for low-calorie breakfast options and a fruit and walnut salad.
Wendy’s has also taken steps to make their choices healthier. Their new natural-cut fries are made with sea salt, which is supposed to be a healthier alternative to table salt.
Many foods are often not as healthy as they seem. Though 45 percent of Kaneland students polled indicated that they believed the words “baked or “grilled” indicated the item was healthier than fried options, that’s not always the case, Cannell said. Even foods described as “grilled” can still be smothered in butter, so Cannell advises asking how the dish is prepared.
There are many simple tips to be taken that can lower the calories and fat consumed. Cannell said diners should be assertive enough to ask question about their cooking methods. Also, most restaurant serving sizes are way too generous. Share a meal or dessert, or take half of it home, saving half the calories, she advised.
Another common source of unnecessary calories is fountain drinks, Cannell said. The calories can add up: drinking just one can of soda every day can cause a person to gain 12 to 18 pounds a year. Ordering a water instead can cut 239 to 477 calories, depending on the drink.
The problem with most fountain drinks is the high sugar content, which adds calories quickly when you have lots of refills. People don’t notice that they have made several trips to refill their drinks. [An] eight-ounce cola has approximately nine teaspoons of sugar. If you order water instead, you save money and reduce your sugar intake, as well as the amount of empty calories,” Cannell said.
The bottom line is customers are responsible for making the right choices, Cannell said.
”Whether you eat out, at a friend’s house or at home, you have the choice to eat healthy. It is about living a healthy lifestyle. That means making the healthiest choice possible no matter where you are. There are often healthy choices available, so the responsibility is on your shoulders,” Cannell said.