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Fat, Calories and Sodium ... Oh My!

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Like many image-conscious Angelenos, your new year's resolutions may include losing weight. But even if they do not, everyone's list of resolutions this year should include the resolution to look at nutritional information on restaurant menus.

Recently, my wife and I went to a local California Pizza Kitchen where I was about to order one of my favorites: the Original BBQ Chicken pizza. She then directed my attention to the nutritional information brochure. I was not surprised that the pizza contained 1,136 calories or 19 grams of fat, but was shocked that it had 2,568 milligrams of sodium -- more than the recommended allowance for the entire day. No wonder it tastes so good. Needless to say, I split a salad with my wife instead.

Most of us would rather stick our heads in the sand and not know the details about what we are eating. Sure, it's easier to enjoy that decadent meal or juicy fast-food burger without knowing the fat and calorie content. But not paying attention is likely to catch up with all of us, even those that are currently in good health. It is estimated that one-third of the calories that our society consumes and one-half of the total food dollars that we spend is for food purchased from or eaten at restaurants or other food facilities. So this is an important issue that we need to address.

Nearly 16 million Californians are obese or overweight. Many also suffer from heart disease, hypertension or diabetes. In an effort to take control of their health and make better choices, many people have learned about smarter options of choosing leaner fish and poultry, foods with good fat versus bad fat (avocados versus French fries), and water instead of sugared sodas. Now that we know about some better choices, the next hurdle is getting the actual nutritional information to make a truly informed decision. The fat, sodium and calorie feasts of some "healthy" items could surprise you.

Some of LA's most popular eateries offer weight-conscious options, which are a great start to making better choices. The catch is still making informed decisions and balancing your selections for the day. The Cheesecake Factory's Weight Management Asian Chicken Salad has 574 calories for a single serving, which is a better choice than many of the menu items. However, the salad reportedly packs a whopping 31 grams of fat and 2599 milligrams of sodium. That is a lot of fat, particularly if you are trying to watch your weight, and the high sodium content could cause some fluid retention.

On the surface, California Pizza Kitchen's Field Greens Salad with Sautéed Salmon sounds like it could be a good choice. But if you take a look at the nutritional information, you'll get hit with some surprising facts: With 1,227 calories, 15 grams of saturated fat and 952 milligrams of sodium for a single serving, you might want to keep shopping. Their popular Original BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad with Avocado also is a diet buster with 1,257 calories, 18 grams of saturated fat and 1,464 milligrams of sodium. You would need to spend nearly 3 hours riding a stationary bike at the gym to burn off that many calories.

So what do you do? Stop eating out? No. As of July 1, 2009 in California, chain restaurants with 20 or more locations are required to provide brochures with nutritional information. The brochures must contain counts of calories, saturated fat, carbohydrates and sodium for all standard menu items. If you don't see the information, ask for it. The next phase of the law will be rolled out in January 2011, when calorie information must be on menus and indoor menu boards. The California Legislature hopes that making this information available will help consumers make wiser food choices and will also spur the restaurants to create healthier alternatives to high calorie, high saturated fat and high sodium-containing items.

Once you are armed with the nutritional information, you can still have your favorite chicken salad, but consider consuming less than half of it for a meal and save the other half for later, or share it with a friend. In addition to calories, fat and sodium content, you should watch that the serving size is for one portion, not two or three. When ordering, don't be afraid to ask the server how dishes are prepared and if can they modify it to help trim the fat and calories. For instance, eating chicken that has been baked or grilled results in less calories and fat than if it were fried or sautéed.

For a healthy adult, the current recommended daily intake based upon a 2,000 calorie diet is up to 65 grams of total fat, with no more than 20 grams of saturated fat, 300 grams of carbohydrate, of which 25 grams is in the form of fiber, 50 grams of protein, less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol, and less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium.

Dining out doesn't have to feel like a minefield. So, add a resolution to your list for this year to look at the menu calorie, fat and sodium counts. Your body will thank you.