Think you can go to a restaurant and make an intelligent menu choice? You can usually do a pretty good job as far as taste and satisfaction go. But when it comes to health and nutrition, think again.
We don’t have a clue
There is an interesting series of books called “Eat This, Not That,” by David Zinczenko (Rodale Press, 2010). In its Restaurant Survival Guide, the book lists menu items to choose and menu items to avoid for many chain restaurants. I am a nutritionist, so you would think I’d have a clue. In most cases, I had no clue. Restaurant after restaurant, I was unable to correctly determine which items to rate as “Eat This” and which to rate as “Not That.”
Who would guess that at Carraba’s, Lasagna has more than twice the calories (1,360) as Manicotti (640); or that at On the Border, the Grilled Mahi Mahi Fish Taco has almost three times the calories (1,220) as the Pico Shrimp Tacos with Black Beans and Grilled Vegetables (490); or that at Pizza Hut, the Garlic Parmesan Bone-Out Wings would have more than three times the calories (840) as the All American Traditional Wings (240)?
Can you guess which individual dishes pack so many calories that they come close to the total recommended daily intake for many people? Consider the Santa Fe Chopped Salad at TGI Friday’s, which comes in at 1,800 calories; or the Grilled Chicken and Avocado Club at the Cheesecake Factory, which contains 1,752 calories. I do not expect an ice cream and cookie dessert to be low-calorie, but who would expect the Chocolate Chip Cookie Sundae at Applebee’s to pack 1,620 calories. I wouldn’t have believed it, nor I imagine would you.
The challenge of healthy choices
I see two challenges here. The first is irresponsible restaurants. It is defensible for restaurants to offer ridiculously high-calorie dishes to people who want them. I don’t recommend that, but it is a free country and if people want that, well, so be it. But it seems wrong to dump that load of calories on unsuspecting customers. We have truth-in-lending laws to level the playing field between lenders and borrowers so that borrowers know what they are getting themselves into. Shouldn’t the same relationship, level of disclosure and level of honesty exist between restaurants and their patrons?
The second challenge is that, more often than not, we’re flying blind! Restaurant patrons cannot make an informed choice about the nutritional value of what they order. Knowing that grilled is better than deep fried is not enough.
The feds to the rescue. Really!
There is some hope on the horizon: The federal health-care-reform legislation passed in 2010 (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) will require chain restaurants with 10 or more stores to begin posting calorie information once the rules are worked out, probably sometime this year. While research on the effect that posting calorie information has on consumer choice is not yet clear, the new requirement will at least result in better informed choices, and perhaps wiser nutritional choices.
In addition, I suspect that once disclosure is required, many restaurants will begin reformulating their recipes rather than reveal the shocking nutritional reality of many of their dishes. In 2006 when food manufacturers were required to include information about trans-fat content on their nutrition-facts labels, that’s what happened. Maybe it will happen again. Regardless, we will be better informed consumers.
When the menu labeling begins, check it out and see if it improves your ability to make wise choices. Talk with your friends and family about it. I’ll be on the lookout for any research and policy updates on this subject to share with you.