Interpreting restaurant menus can be a challenge
The nutrition experts at Consumer Reports’ food testing lab reviewed the nutrition information for lunch and dinner dishes at the five sit-down restaurant chains that respondents to its recent survey visited most often: Applebee’s, Olive Garden, The Cheesecake Factory, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and IHOP.
The nutrition information came from menus picked up at restaurant locations or from the companies’ websites. The goal: Identify the meals that a healthconscious diner could feel comfortable ordering. Ideally, those are dishes with about a third of a day’s nutrition intake, based on a 2,000-calorie diet – at or below 670 calories, 22 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat and 770 mg of sodium.
Consumer Reports focused on three common sources of confusion and found the fixes that can help you eat healthier anywhere.
Misleading meal names
“Even menu items that sound healthy may still be high in calories,” says Lisa Sasson, M.S., R.D., clinical associate professor
of nutrition at New York University.
Take the Eggplant Parmigiana at Olive Garden. Eggplant is a veggie, so it seems better than Chicken Parmigiana, right? But each has 1,060 calories. And though you probably wouldn’t be surprised to see that the Bacon Temptation Omelette at IHOP has 1,080 calories, would you think that the Garden Omelette has 840?
Salads aren’t always a great choice, either. At Applebee’s, the Oriental Grilled Chicken Salad has 1,290 calories vs. 780 in the Classic Burger.
Fix: Look for the light. “Most of the dishes we recommend come from the chains’ lighter menus,” said Ellen Klosz, who conducted the review. At press time, The Cheesecake Factory had around 40 dishes on its SkinnyLicious menu. Consumer Reports also found six Lighter Fare dishes at Applebee’s, eight Wholesome Fixin’s on Cracker Barrel’s lunch and dinner menus, five Lighter Italian Fare meals at Olive Garden and two IHOP Simple and Fit dishes, both centered on eggs.
Too little information
Applebee’s, The Cheesecake Factory, IHOP and Olive Garden list calorie counts on their menus. Cracker Barrel does for its Wholesome Fixin’s dishes. That’s helpful, but it’s not enough: “Lower calorie” doesn’t automatically mean healthier. “A healthy meal is also lower in fat, saturated fat and sodium,” Klosz says.
Fix: Research what you’ll order beforehand. Check chain restaurants’ websites in advance, review the available nutrition information and pick one or two dishes to choose from.
About 90 percent of Americans get more than the recommended daily maximum of 2,300 mg, and a good chunk comes from restaurant food. And if you think “lighter” dishes are less salty, think again. Four of six Lighter Fare entrees at Applebee’s have more than 2,000 mg of sodium. With 2,450 mg of sodium, the Lighter Fare Shrimp Wonton StirFry alone exceeds the daily maximum.
Fix: Set a sodium strategy. Anything with cheese or a sauce is practically guaranteed to be a sodium bomb, Klosz says. Request sauces and dressings on the side, and use just a little bit, which may save you calories and fat, too.