Just when you think you're doing the right thing, you may need to read the fine print.
Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) -- the consumer group known in some quarters as the "food police" -- issued its newest report on restaurant fare. This time, two national fast food Tex-Mex chains, Chipotle and Baja Fresh, as well as two regional chains, Rubio's and La Salsa, fell under CSPI's scrutiny. (In the past, the consumer group has evaluated such popular items as Chinese food and movie theater popcorn.)
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CSPI director Michael Jacobson said that Chipotle (partially owned by McDonald's) and Baja Fresh (owned by Wendy's) "cultivate an aura of healthfulness, and sometimes it's deserved."
Where the restaurants score high is in offering plenty of fresh vegetables, grilled seafood and chicken, salsa and beans at a reasonable price. These tasty foods provide plenty of fiber, are low in fat and are loaded with vitamins, minerals and other healthy phytonutrients.
But as many Lean Plate Club members have discovered, just because something is grilled or vegetarian doesn't mean it is necessarily low in calories, saturated fat or sodium. CSPI found that Baja Fresh's chicken, cheese or steak quesadillas average 1,230 calories and have nearly two days' worth of saturated fat. The nachos clocked in at 2,000 calories and provided a day's worth of sodium and two days' worth of saturated fat. That's more than you'll find in four Quarter Pounders at McDonald's.
Here's how you can make smart choices when you eat out at the Tex-Mex joints or fix these foods at home:
Pile on the beans. They're loaded with flavor, fiber, protein and complex carbs and are generally low in calories. A half-cup, for example, will only set you back about 80 calories. At home, read the label on refried beans, which sometimes contain lard, a saturated fat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a half-cup of refried beans has about 118 calories and about two grams of fat, one of them saturated.
Reach for the salads and other fresh vegetables. These high-volume foods are filling and generally low in calories. At home, be sure to dress your tortillas with plenty of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and salsa. At Baja Fresh, CSPI found that the chicken and seafood ensaladas were wise choices, with about 300 calories each and no more than four grams of saturated fat. At Chipotle, the Chicken Burrito Bol, which is loaded with black beans, lettuce and salsa, had 430 calories and four grams of saturated fat. And yes, go ahead slather on the salad dressing, just choose wisely. CSPI found that at Baja Fresh, four tablespoons of salsa verde added only 20 calories, and four tablespoons of avocado salsa dressing have 40. The same amount of ranch dressing clocks in at 220 calories; olive oil vinaigrette has 230 calories.
Skip the sour cream and cheese. CSPI found that doing so could save 200 calories and half a day's worth of saturated fat on tortillas. At home, consider fat-free sour cream (just 30 calories per two tablespoons vs. 60 for the full-fat stuff) and measure out cheese. A tablespoon of shredded Monterey Jack has about 30 calories and plenty of flavor. If your restaurant salad or taco needs more oomph, CSPI says, consider a side of guacamole. At home, a tablespoon of guacamole can form the base of a great home-made salad dressing and has only about 30 calories.
Share. That's because restaurant portions can be muy grande. Baja Fresh's cheese nachos weighed nearly two pounds. So did some burritos at Chipotle. Split one with a friend or eat half and take the rest home.
Use the six-inch tortilla. Reach for tortillas made of corn or whole wheat instead of white flour. Corn is lowest in calories, with just 53 for a six-inch tortilla vs. 149 for one made of flour. Both are a fraction of the 340 calories for a 12-inch flour tortilla. And be sure to read labels carefully to avoid the tortillas with lard.
-- Sally Squires
Share Your Tips or ask questions about nutrition and activity when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club online chat, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. today, on www.washingtonpost.com. New To The Club? The Lean Plate Club is devoted to healthy eating and boosting activity. To learn more, and subscribe to our free e-newsletter, visit www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub.