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Inside Info About Eating Out

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008; Page HE01

Eating out is a national pastime.

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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.


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