In­ter­pret­ing res­tau­rant menus can be a chal­lenge

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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.

Sneaky sodium

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.

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