Devour these sites

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Eating out is hazardous to your health

The Thinker by Rodin

Since I started my diet in late January, I have lost 16 pounds. That’s good for me, of course. My blood pressure is now about normal. I hope that in three months when I am retested my cholesterol will be within normal ranges again too.

16 pounds amounts to about 7 percent of my weight. As you might expect, my diet has changed. Not only do I consume fewer calories than I used too, the portion of my calories from fat and processed foods has nosedived, and the amount of fiber in my diet has gone way up. Perhaps because of my own dieting adventure, I am also watching the eating habits of others. For most, their habits appear to be a lot like mine were at the beginning of the year. I too was largely mindless of the total calories and fat I was consuming.

A certain loved one of mine complains of lower back pains and of feeling tired all the time. Now it all makes sense. I would be tired too if someone gave me a heavy backpack to wear every day, which is in effect what happens if you are obese. Your body, designed to support a certain weight, is now hefting many more pounds everywhere it goes. Your spine carries most of your weight so it doesn’t surprise me it would manifest itself in lower back pain. If I were obese I would probably be complaining of back pain pretty much every day of the week.

My latest excursion in dieting has made me realize that we are all literally what we eat. Not only do we gain weight by what we eat, what we eat perturbs our body in many ways that are not obvious. If your body were a car, would you put high-test gasoline in the engine, run with a quart of oil in the engine and drive around with 10 psi of tire pressure in each tire? If you did your car, which is designed for 200,000 miles, would be lucky to make it to 100,000 miles. Yet many of us Americans are doing just this with our bodies. The result is predictable: we are throwing a wrench into our innards. The result: obesity, lots of aches and complaints, higher health costs and for many ultimately a shorter lifespan.

Now when I look at a slice of pizza, the shiny fat glistening on its surface is like a neon warning sign. I think to myself, “If I eat this, most of this fat will not be burned but will quickly get stored in my fat cells. The more fat I eat, the more I will weigh. Moreover, some of these fat cells will be converted into cholesterol, and some of it will stick to the walls of my arteries and veins. This could result in all sorts of problems, including heart attack and stroke.”

I am now also vigilant of just how calorie-dense modern American food is. Restaurants go out of their way to add (and hide) fat, calories and sugar. This is easy to understand: we will enjoy the food more if it is tasty, and if it is tasty and satisfying, we will want to revisit the restaurant. You would think a restaurant salad as an entrée would be a safe bet, right? Wrong. My daughter and I recently had dinner at Champps, a sports bar. The BBQ Chopped Salad with Chicken, which I had for dinner, is 742 calories. (Ostensibly, it consists of two servings but of course, it comes out as one salad.) It was a good salad but it amounted to about a third of my daily calories. Moreover, it was loaded with over 40 grams of fat.

The salad though was one of the healthiest dishes on the Champps menu. Have a craving for the Champps Cheese Burger? Supposedly, it serves two, but it does not come out sliced in half. If you eat the whole cheeseburger, it is 1162 calories with 78 grams of fat. Doubtless, the fries that come with the entrée were at least five hundred more calories. Hankering for their Cajun Shrimp Penne? It has 1322 calories and 73 grams of fat. Want a steak? The New York Strip is almost something of a health food, as it is only 1008 calories. However, if you are a woman that one steak is probably more than half your daily calories. Naturally, none of this information is actually printed on the menu. You have to dig it out from their website.

I suspect the human body does pretty well in adjusting to variations in diet. In the past, we would exercise off the calories through activities like hunting deer or tilling soil. Today, we have oriented our lives to minimize exercise. Why walk if you have a car? Why work in a hot and sweaty field for little money when you can sit in an air-conditioned cubicle and make much more? Today these choices catch up with us. They are manifested in many overweight or obese people in symptoms like excessive tiredness, listlessness and lower back pains. In my case, perhaps because I exercise regularly, they were manifested in high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which generally go unnoticed unless you look for them.

You are what you eat but who you are is a result of what your parents ate. This link goes on back until the dawn of time. Your particular chromosomes are a result of natural selection, and natural selection includes the eating choices of past generations. If you are childless but planning to be a mother, you are shaping the destiny of your children by your eating choices. If you are an overweight woman, you are more likely to give birth to a child who will grow up overweight. Moreover, that child is more likely to have more health issues than children born to healthy mothers who are of normal weight. Dads, you don’t escape either. You provide the sperm and the quality of your sperm is affected by your diet and exercise. Whether you even father a child may be a consequence of your weight. Studies show that obese men and women have a lower sex drive than people of normal weight, which is likely a result of many of them having adult diabetes. Aside from the listlessness that often accompanies obesity, obesity also tends to make you less attractive, making intercourse less likely.

There are no Surgeon General warnings on restaurant menus, like there are on cigarettes. There should be. As a public service our next surgeon general could insist that restaurant menus come with warnings like this: Warning: the surgeon general has determined that most of the entrees in this restaurant are dangerous to your health. Some restaurants have little icons to indicate items that are relatively healthy, i.e. low in calories and fat. Perhaps there should be easily understood icons next to each entrée. Perhaps a scull and crossbones would do the trick for entrees that are high in calories or fat. As a start, simply putting the number of calories, fat and dietary fiber per serving for all items on menus would be helpful.

I know now that eating out can be dangerous to your future you. So I eat out less and try to research restaurants before I got there to find entrees that are relatively healthy. Often there are no healthy entrees on the menu. Sometimes you can convert an entrée to something healthier by asking it to be cooked or served differently. For example, a baked potato is healthy, if you skip the sour cream. Eating the potato skin adds important nutrition. Restaurants could actually increase business if they emphasized their healthy entrees. A small Wendy’s chili, for example, is 190 calories and has 6 grams of fat and 5 grams of dietary fiber (doubtless from the beans). Almost everything Panera Bread serves is unhealthy, but their Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean soup is delicious and has 250 calories, 9 grams of fiber and just 2 grams of fat.

The reality is you must be a very careful shopper if you wish to avoid packing on the calories. My guess is that four out of five products served in our modern supermarkets would not qualify as healthy food and that includes many of the products with “reduced fat” on them. If you care about your health, extreme vigilance is required.

I hope with our new administration and congress we will see new progressive legislation so Americans can easily make informed choices on restaurant eating. I bet the restaurant industry would adopt. McDonalds is trying, although their menu is still rife with calories and grease. Not only should all restaurant menus be labeled with their calorie and fat content, each restaurant menu should include a simple weight chart indicating the recommended daily calorie and fat allowances for men and women of various ages and weights. Except in a few cities and states, right now we diners have the odds stacked against us.