It’s a food jungle out there and you as a consumer are at a distinct disadvantage. Most packaged goods available in supermarkets at least have standard labeling. Eat out, which most of us do at least several times a week, and you generally have no idea how many calories you are consuming. It’s not just calories that have major consequences on our health, but also the fat, sugar, sodium and absence of dietary fiber in these foods.
Not all restaurants are evil. Many of the major fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Wendy’s are at least courteous enough to post the information on a wall in their restaurants. It is often on the side somewhere, and the type may be small, but at least it is there. Most restaurants will deliberately leave you in the dark. If you take the time to go to their web sites, you may find nutritional information there. Most restaurants, like, America’s quintessential neighborhood bar Applebees, prefer to leave you obese and ignorant. After all, if you knew just how caloric and toxic their food was, you would never patronize the place.
For someone like me who is back to a normal weight and plans to remain there, navigating through these endless food choices is like walking through a minefield. In part, I am succeeding because I eat out a lot less. At places I eat at all the time, like the cafeteria at work, I have learned and stick to the safe foods: the salad bar and the broth oriented soups. Yet, sometimes I cannot escape encounters with unhealthy restaurants. This weekend, because my daughter turned twenty, we let her pick a restaurant to celebrate. Being young and immortal, my daughter naturally chose one of the greasiest of joints, Red Robin in this case. Red Robin, like Applebees, prefers that you remain nutritionally ignorant. What is a smart restaurant consumer supposed to do?
One could buy one of the many books on the market that estimate the nutrition in dishes at popular restaurants, although regional chains may or may not be in these books. Most of us though don’t have time to buy these books or carry them around with us. They are also of limited value because restaurants tend to change their menus regularly. However, you could go to CalorieKing.com. That’s where I went Sunday to figure out what food I could eat at Red Robin that would not spike my blood sugar nor expand my waistline.
CalorieKing.com of course would prefer that you buy one of their many books too. However, you can also use their search engine and it will often give you the nutritional lowdown. It is quite comprehensive. If you choose a national or regional restaurant chain, they most likely have the nutritional information in their database. I typed “Red Robin” into their search engine. It was somewhat tedious but I was able to browse through seven or so pages of items available at Red Robin. As I feared, although the restaurant’s food is undeniably tasty, it is one big fat and calorie cluster bomb. With a couple exceptions, even their salad should come with blinking red warning lights.
For example, you would think a turkey burger would be safe and healthy choice, right? Turkey is low in fat. Not so fast! In the calorie intensive and lard-loaded world of Red Robin, it is 704 calories, contains 43 grams of fat and has just 3 grams of fiber. (Naturally, the bun is not made with whole wheat so it, along with the fries, will quickly spike your blood sugar.) The Whiskey River Barbeque Burger? 975 calories. Many of their burgers easily top 1000 calories. Naturally fries come with the meal but are not included in the calorie count. Consume just two and a half turkey burgers, without eating any fries or a drink and the average woman has already consumed all her daily calories.
A generation ago, people went to places like McDonalds or A&W and ate what were then considered to be normally-sized hamburgers. While not exactly healthy, by themselves they were unlikely to expand your waistline. A plain McDonald’s hamburger, for example, is 250 calories. A small order of French fries is 231 calories. With a 2000 calorie a day diet, this was a reasonable meal. Unbelievably, there was a time before the Big Macs and the Quarter Pounders with Cheese when plain hamburgers and cheeseburgers were what we ate when we went to a burger joint, and we were completely satisfied by our portions. The word “supersize” had not yet been invented.
I am no fan of McDonalds, but I wish I could have persuaded my daughter to go there instead. I ended up eating Red Robin’s Garden Burger, still pretty hefty at 422 calories and 18 grams of fat. CalorieKing.com does not list the calories in the fries they place on the side of your plate, but it was likely in the 300-400 calorie range. Had I eaten at McDonalds I could have likely saved myself at least 300 calories, enjoyed some meat, and likely would have been just as satisfied.
Aside from eating out less, it helps to get regular information to keep you mindful of your eating choices. EatThis.com is my favorite web site for this kind of information. It is a treasure of practical information, attractively arranged, interesting to read and you might say, easily digestable. For most of us, trying to estimate calories is more hassle than it is worth. What we need are some good strategies. EatThis.com offers an email newsletter to which I subscribed. Most days I get a colorful email where they offer some particular advice, and warn you about a particular toxic food while providing a healthier alternative. The articles are often packed with useful information. For example, most of us are unaware that blueberries are both oh so healthy (stuffed with antioxidants) and great brain food. Perhaps I should encourage my students to have a cup of blueberries before their test on Saturday.
EatThis.com, in addition to publishing some handy books of their own that I find useful and fun to browse, also attempts to rate restaurants. Unfortunately, it does not keep a comprehensive and up to date list of all items on all popular restaurants, but it can help you make informed choices. It also rates chain restaurants based on how nutritious their food is and how well they help you make informed dietary choices. Browsing the Restaurant and Grocery tabs on their web pages, or simply using their search engine, could easily save you thousands of unneeded calories a year. I often learn things I did not expect. For example, did you know a cup of Wendy’s chili is reasonably healthy and high in fiber? The site also includes areas for kids, great swaps for various kinds of food that are less caloric and healthier but taste just as good, as well as extensive articles and tips that help you navigate the caloric landmines all around us.
I look forward to reading their near daily emails, and frequently follow the links to the articles of interest. Slowly I am becoming an informed eater. While the news is mostly unsettling (it is amazing the extent to which restaurants go to make us obese), it is also hopeful and full of pragmatic advice.
Until we get some common sense restaurant labeling laws, your health may depend on regularly reading sites like these.
Do you have a better web site to recommend? If so please leave a comment.