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Inside Info About Eating Out

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Eating out is a national pastime.

On a typical day, 133 million Americans dine outside the home, according to the National Restaurant Association, which projects that we will spend $558 billion on restaurant fare this year alone.

Letting a restaurant do the cooking for you may be quick, easy and tasty, but it can also mean relinquishing control over what you eat -- and even how much.

Just ask New York University professor of nutrition Marion Nestle, who once regaled me with this cautionary tale: As part of a meal at a Manhattan restaurant, Nestle and a group of nutrition experts and food writers dined on a delicious mushroom risotto. It seemed like a sensible choice -- with rice, vegetables and a sprinkling of cheese on top. But after they finished eating, they discovered from the chef that each small serving contained 100 grams of fat and 1,200 calories -- more than half a day's worth for the average American adult.

No wonder that the New York City Department of Health, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, and others are pressing for nutrition labeling on most restaurant menus.

In the meantime, a growing number of fast-food chains provide nutrition information -- if you know where to find it. Much of it is online, which may not be so convenient when you're standing in line. But if you pull out a PDA or a phone with Internet access while you're waiting, you can view an array of fast-food nutrition information that I've collected at http://www.leanplateclub.com, under the tools section.

Most fast-food restaurants also have brochures or notebooks with nutrition information, but you need to ask for them because they're usually kept behind the counter. Au Bon Pain has taken that idea a step further: This chain provides computer stations where you can touch a screen to check the calories, fat, protein and other nutrition facts about your order.

Another option is the Healthy Dining Finder. This free service from the National Restaurant Association allows you to search for healthy fare by location, price and your preference: to dine at a restaurant, get takeout food or arrange for catering.

It's a great service for travelers, but read the menu options carefully since some are still fairly high in calories and fat.

The almond and cashew chicken at P.F. Chang's, for example, clocked in at 745 calories, with 23 grams of fat (although only four grams were unhealthy saturated fat) -- more than many watching their weight might expect to eat.

Also, after you've made your pick, remember to ask if the restaurant uses trans-fat-free oils, since that information is not provided. And if the answer is no, you may want to switch to broiled fish, chicken or lean meat, which will likely be low in trans fats.

Or you could turn to one of these paperbacks that offer a lot of help in dining out. They're small enough to tuck into your laptop bag, briefcase or purse.

¿ "Eat This, Not That!" by Men's Health editor in chief David Zinczenko with Matt Goulding (Rodale, $19.95).

This little book is so slick and filled with mouthwatering photos that you may find yourself drooling on the pages. Once you open it, just try to put it down. It will show you how to find smart options at Arby's, Cold Stone Creamery, Five Guys, Panera Bread, Wendy's and a host of other chains. It also gives tips on how to order wisely everywhere from white-tablecloth restaurants to vending machines, and even offers guidance for buying groceries.

Follow its advice, and you could save hundreds of calories at your favorite restaurants.

At Smoothie King, for example, order the skinny, 20-ounce Amaretto Coffee Smoothie, which has about a third of the 277 calories found in the skinny Mo'cuccino Smoothie.

And at Panera, order the tempting and cheesy BBQ Chicken Crispani (380 calories) with less than half the calories of the Sierra Turkey Sandwich (840 calories). Get that information and more from this book. It's a winner.

¿ "Eat Out, Eat Right" is by a registered dietitian, Hope S. Warshaw (Surrey, $12.95), and it gets high marks from some noted nutrition experts, including one of my former graduate school professors at Columbia University's Institute of Human Nutrition.

With 450,000 copies produced since it first appeared in 1992, this slim volume clearly appeals to consumers, too, although it's not very flashy. You'll find solid restaurant information, help in knowing when to ask for more healthful substitutions when dining out and handy nutrition tips.

¿ "Restaurant Confidential" by Michael F. Jacobson and Jayne G. Hurley (Workman, $12.95) remains a reliable standby six years after its publication. It was written by the Center for Science in the Public Interest team that regularly gives an eye-opening reality check to consumers with roundups of restaurant food.

Find great nutrition nuggets here, including why ordering chicken Caesar salad is not a wise choice and how Mexican restaurant meals often pack more unhealthy fat and calories than their Chinese and Italian counterparts.

The only thing that has changed since publication are trans fat gram counts. A growing number of fast-food chains are eliminating that artery-clogging fat, thanks in large part to petitioning from these authors and their colleagues, who also led the charge to get trans fat labeling on food nutrition facts labels.

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