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Dr. Lisa Young

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Restaurant Meals Not Getting Healthier: Smart Swaps for Six Favorite Cuisines

Posted: 10/08/2013 2:11 pm

As Americans, we spend nearly half of our food budget on foods prepared away from home and consume about one-third of our calories on such foods. With a national focus on reducing obesity rates, how do restaurant foods stack up? Are restaurant chains serving healthier meals?

According to a study published in the October issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the average calorie and sodium levels of meals served at restaurant chains have not changed much in recent years.

Researchers reviewed more than 26,000 menu entrees from over 200 chain restaurants between 2010 and 2011. The average entrée contained 670 calories and the average sodium levels was 1500 mg (down slightly). The researchers also found that children's meals, in general, did not become healthier. However, fast-food restaurants decreased the calories in children's menu entrées by 40 kcal.

The authors concluded that:

... industry marketing and pledges may create a misleading perception that restaurant menus are becoming substantially healthier, but both healthy and unhealthy menu changes can occur simultaneously. Our study found no meaningful changes overall across a one-year time period.

As written in HealthDay: "Restaurant menus did not get any healthier over time," Helen Wu, a policy and research analyst at the Institute for Population Health Improvement at the University of California, Davis Health System, said in a university news release.

"Consumers need to be aware that when they step into a restaurant, they are playing a high-stakes game with their health by making dietary choices from menus that are loaded with high-calorie, high-sodium options," Wu said. "This is a game that health-conscious consumers have a very low chance of winning, given the set of menu offerings available in U.S. chain restaurants today."

As a portion size researcher, this doesn't come as much of a surprise to me. Restaurant portions are still too big. Many pasta bowls, for example hold upwards of 3 cups which (translates to an entire days worth of grains). And many steaks contain more than a half pound of meat, which is more than a day's worth of protein. Many restaurants are still serving sizzling fried foods and meals with lots of extra cheese, both which contribute added fat and calories, not to mention sodium.

For the good news, you can take charge. As I previously wrote here, you can take action to rightsize your plate by sharing an entrée, wrapping up leftovers, and just being mindful of how much is on your plate. Some other healthy restaurant tips I shared here are, order dishes grilled, order dressings and sauces on the side, and limit liquid calories.

Here are several simple swaps you can make for some favorite cuisines.

1. American
Start with a house salad with dressing on the side instead of a Caesar salad.
Order grilled instead of fried chicken or fish entrees.
Choose a baked potato instead of French fries.
Order steamed or sautéed vegetables instead of potatoes in gravy.
Order a veggie burger instead of a cheeseburger.

2. Chinese
Choose steamed instead of fried dumplings
Order steamed brown rice instead of fried rice
Order entrees steamed or lightly sautéed, instead of fried.
Instead of spareribs, choose steamed or sautéed chicken with vegetables.
Order your favorite sauce on the side.

3. Italian
Order pasta primavera instead of fettuccine alfredo.
Skip the extra cheese.
Order pasta in olive oil or tomato sauce instead of cream sauce and vodka sauce.
Start with a salad instead of fried calamari
Choose whole wheat pastas whenever possible.

4. Mexican
Start with gazpacho instead of nachos with cheese.
Order grilled fish or chicken instead of fried beef or pork (carnitas).
Choose borracho beans and rice instead of refried beans.
When making a burrito, choose extra lettuce and tomato instead of extra cheese.
Choose salsa instead of sour cream.

5. Japanese
Start with a seaweed salad instead of fried beancurd.
Order steamed vegetables or instead of vegetables tempura (battered & fried veggies).
Order sushi or sashimi instead of shrimp tempura.
Skip the "spicy" sauce.

6. French
Start with a mixed green salad instead of French onion soup.
Order entrees in a wine based sauce instead of béarnaise sauce.
Order lightly sautéed vegetables instead of creamy "au gratin" vegetables or potatoes.
Choose poached pears instead of crème caramel.

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