Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Hard Truths About Restaurant Nutritional Information

I'll be honest, I don't go out to eat too often.  I prefer knowing exactly what goes into my meal, and enjoy experimenting with my own culinary ideas.  That's not to say restaurants aren't a great change of scenery, and it's not to say that they can't make a healthy meal.  You just need to know what to look for, which, like I always say, will be coming in a later article.  However, you should have a general idea:

Grilled chicken with pan seared vegetables?  Good

Salmon Filet with cauliflower and garden salad?  Good

Fish and chips with a heaping pile of fries and coleslaw?  Meh...not so much.

But orders aside, I've been noticing that more and more restaurants are displaying nutritional, or at least caloric information about their meals.  This, I believe is a good thing in general.  Instead of blindly ordering something, you now have at least a little idea of the caloric value of that meal, and therefore can make some assumptions about what went into it.  To see caloric information on Wendy's menu made me quite happy the one time I couldn't find any other place to go, and I was relatively content eating their grilled chicken sandwich, with NO fries, and water.  It was a good meal, and I more or less knew exactly what I was eating.

But I'm not writing this article to rave about how amazing these calorie signs are.  In fact I'm here to say that while in general they represent a good idea, they've opened up a lot of hidden dangers that most people don't realize.  I'm here to reveal the truth about some of these restaurants, and while they may be revealing a little bit, they're still hiding a good amount of information about the food they're giving you.  And that information, ladies and gentlemen, could greatly hamper your diet attempts.  Here are the hard truths:

1.  The calorie information they're showing you is true only for THE MOST BASIC VERSION OF THE ORDER.  I'm going to pick on Subway for this one.  Their logo is the "fresh fit meal," and they happily display caloric information about all of their sandwiches.  Let's take the six inch turkey sub, for example.  Subway says that's 280 calories for a turkey breast sub on wheat bun.  Not bad, eh?  Well guess what they're not telling you.  That 280 calories does not include cheese or condiments.  And it most certainly does not include the Mountain Dew you have with the meal.  Add 4 slices of cheese?  Another 200 calories.  Add mayo?  I'd say another 200 at least, the way those workers pour it on.  Suddenly you're eating a sub that's close to 700 calories, and absolutely LOADED with sodium.  Don't get me wrong, Subway has the potential to be a somewhat healthy meal.  But you have to keep it basic.

2.  The calorie information tells you nothing about the ingredients.  I'll pick on McDonalds AND Subway for this one.  Sure, at the end of the day, it can be argued that calories are calories, and the types of food that those calories were contained in don't matter as long as you didn't go over your daily caloric intake goal.  But that's a close-minded way of thinking, in my opinion.  Your body is going to be more apt to drop off unwanted fat and build that lean figure if it's filled with natural, nutrient rich food.  And while that subway sandwich may only by 280 calories plain, it's packed with salt, and the bread is some of the worst quality you could get, filled with things like high fructose corn syrup.  

It's more easy to relate to a McDonalds example.  A Big Mac alone is 540 calories.  While that's pretty heavy for a relatively compact sandwich, it's manageable from a caloric standpoint.  But look at the nutrition facts.  About half your daily sodium, 1.5g of trans fat, and not to mention all the horrible artificial ingredients/chemicals that go into the sandwich (bun, burger, cheese and all).  Think about it, you've all had home cooked burgers.  Does a Big Mac taste like a burger?  Heck no.  It's not even close.  It tastes like a Big mac.  So while 540 calories doesn't sound too bad, the ingredients should help you steer clear.

Sometimes the nutritional value of the food is more important than the number of calories. I'd rather eat a 200 calorie salad filled with fresh vegetables and grilled chicken than a 100 calorie cookie pack.

3.  Some restaurants haven't quite "come out of the closet" yet with their nutritional information, but think they're doing just as well by putting little symbols next to the menu items that they deem "heart healthy."  I think I saw this in friendlies and a few other places.  What I'm here to say to you is while yes, maybe those menu items lend themselves toward being slightly healthier than a traditional cheap cut of steak, don't for one second think that they're low in calories, or are in general "good for you" in any real, feasible way.

Some menus will give you a limit to their maximum calorie density like "under 555 calories."  Sure, it may be they're under that.  But same deal, look at the ingredients, and choose wisely.

So let's wrap this up.  I believe that displaying nutritional information about food is a good first step.  I also believe that restaurants should be a little more honest with these figures.  They should also make accessible ingredient lists, and details explaining what the caloric information regards (like whether it's the most basic meal, or what options it includes).  

However they're trying to make money, so I don't see this happening any time soon.  And guess what that means.  It's up to YOU, THE CUSTOMERS, to be smart about what you eat.  No, fast food won't kill you if you only have it a few times a month.  It won't even throw off your diet, so don't beat yourself for indulging every now and then.  But BE SMART.  Don't assume that the 280 calorie, heart healthy sandwich includes mayonaise in it's nutritional information.  Don't believe for one second it includes those four slices of cheese either.  

Be smart.  Eat right.  Feel good about the choices you've made each and every day.

1 comment:

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