District May Add Data to the Menu

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

If you're wondering how you can eat out without overloading on calories, a bill slated to be introduced in the D.C. Council today could soon help.

The Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act would give you information about calories, fat, trans fat, sodium and carbohydrates. It's being introduced by Council member Phil Mendelson, who has tried to get similar legislation passed twice before. Those bills died in committee.

But with the New York City Board of Health requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information later this year, Mendelson and some consumer advocates think that the time may be right for a similar bill in the District.

"People are flying blind at restaurants without calorie information on the menu," says Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). "There's no way that you can guess that a tuna salad sandwich has 50 percent more calories than a roast beef sandwich. Or that the Bloomin' Onion appetizer has more than twice the calories of the fried mozzarella sticks."

Every day, about 132 million Americans eat out, according to the National Restaurant Association. While fast-food restaurants are often blamed for providing high-fat, high-calorie meals, a CSPI report issued last week showed that some meals at sit-down chain restaurants pack more than a day's worth of calories and fat.

"People shouldn't have to lose their place in line," Wootan says, "or squint at some hard-to-read poster at the back of the restaurant to find out nutritional information."

Even nutrition experts get fooled. Just ask Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University. As part of an experiment, she dined at a fine New York restaurant with other food and nutrition experts. Among the dishes served: a half-cup of mouth-watering risotto. When the meal was analyzed, Nestle learned that her small portion of risotto alone had a whopping 1,200 calories, with 110 grams of fat -- about the amount found in five Big Macs with sauce.

The meal illustrates, Nestle says, "that nobody, not even dietitians or nutritionists, can know how many calories are in foods these days just by eyeballing them."

The surprise is that a lot of restaurant nutrition information is already available, if you know where to look. With some planning -- and a little knowledge -- you can find healthier options whether you grab a bite from the drive-through or sit down at a restaurant for a meal.

Hungry? Sample the Web first. A recent survey by CSPI found that roughly half of chain restaurants provide nutritional information, many of them on their Web sites. That's the only way you can learn that the baby back ribs at one place may have fewer calories than the chicken tenders at others. For example, Uno Chicago Grill ( http://www.unos.com), which has eliminated trans fat from its food, provides nutrition facts on its Web site. You can find meals with less than 500 calories, dishes that contains less than 750 milligrams of sodium and fare that is low in saturated fat, as well as choices for those who have food allergies.

On the run or about to order? Access this info via your PDA, cellphone or BlackBerry. (Find more links to restaurant nutrition information on washingtonpost.com)

Ask for more information."People often feel embarrassed to ask too many questions," Wootan notes. "But if a menu is vague, ask the server to explain it. Is that chicken sandwich grilled or fried? When they say salad, do they mean greens, or just mixed with mayonnaise? It's a good way to avoid surprises." Also, request nutrition information. A growing number of restaurants have pamphlets, notebooks or kiosks with this information, but they often don't advertise it.

Divide and conquer. Portion sizes are so large at most restaurants that they can easily serve two. Ask for a container when the food arrives and take half home for another meal. Split entrees or order an appetizer as an entree. Simple is better.

Skip the fried foods, which are likely to be loaded with fat, especially unhealthy trans fats and saturated fat. Baked, grilled, steamed and broiled foods are smarter, lower-calorie choices. Choose non-cream-based soups. Order a salad, but get the dressing on the side. And that dessert? Split it.

Crave french fries? Order them at fast-food restaurants. CSPI found that the fries at sit-down chain restaurants contain 500 to 600 more calories than a small order of fries at a fast-food restaurant. The reason? Portion size.

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