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Helpful hints to keep restaurant calories in check

June 10, 2013 - Carla Tracy

A new study conducted by JAMA Internal Medicine shows the average American consumes over 1,100 calories per meal when dining at a sit-down restaurant. Those calories, on average, contain a staggering 151 percent of recommended daily sodium intake, 89 percent of daily fat intake, and 60 percent of daily cholesterol.

This, of course, is not good news to anyone on a diet or anyone trying to eat healthy on a regular basis. Particularly someone like me who dines out much of the time. The good news, however, is that there are helpful hints to use that can help us keep restaurant calories, fat, sodium and cholesterol intake in check.

Rachel Berman, director of nutrition for Calorie Count Website — a free health and wellness website with more than five-million members—has responded to my email to discuss why restaurant meals are so calorie laden, and how to stay on track with your healthy eating lifestyle when dining out, along the following points:

Here are her answers to the following questions.

Q. What typical menu items are the worst culprits for calorie content, sodium, fat and cholesterol?

A. “Calorie counts will vary greatly by restaurant, portion size, and a huge aspect that determines the healthfulness of a dish is obviously preparation. Typical menu items to steer clear from are those that are fried, super-sized, covered in cheese or sauce. Sauces can be the most hidden source of calories, sodium, and fat in the dish so when in doubt, ask your server how something is prepared or ask for the sauce on the side.”

Q. What buzzwords should consumers watch out for, and which ones to embrace when selecting your appetizers and entrees? (e.g., steamed, pan-fried, broiled, baked, etc.)

A. “Watch out for these words which are usually indicative of empty calories coming your way: Crispy, fried or pan-fried, au gratin, scalloped, creamed or buttered, stuffed or crusted and instead choose foods that are steamed, broiled, stir-fried, baked, grilled, poached, or roasted. The latter are more healthful methods but remember, just because something is steamed, it could still be topped with a butter sauce (again, ask for sauce on the side!).”

Q. Are there any methods you use to quickly estimate the number of calories in a menu item? How can restaurant goers estimate the caloric content of their meal?

A. “Estimating calorie counts can be complicated. For halfcup of a grain or starch, you're getting 80 calories and to put that in perspective, typically restaurants will serve up to 3 cups of pasta in a dish. That's 480 calories before adding sauce or protein (including how that protein is prepared, in oil, etc) Some other basic calorie counts you can use - 1 tbsp olive oil = 120 calories, 1 ounce cheese = 100 calories, 3 ounces lean meat = 165 calories. It's hard to know how much oil is used in preparation. But another tip - on average for 3 ounces of protein, frying adds about 100 calories and 8 grams of fat!”

Q. What about restaurant portions?

A. “Because portions at restaurants are so large, I'd recommend splitting with a friend and eating slowly so that you can pay closer attention to your physical hunger cues. And less time obsessing over the exact calorie count.”


Article Comments



Jun-11-13 6:24 PM

Great essay and yet there is more to be considered.

Short of any genetic disposition to be overweight or an issue with one's metabolism, maintaining or losing weight is basically calories in calories out. It is not only necessary to watch potion control, but the regularity of exercise is just as important. Not only will exercise kick your metabolism forward, but it will make a great difference in HDL levels and blood pressure . It does not take hard workout,but the regular 20 minute walk, jog,swim, etc.. at least four times a week or other exercise that elevates you heart rate, but does not take your heart rate to racing levels. Combining portion control to getting one's metabolism in gear at the same time is a recipe for weight management, and better yet a great sense of achievement .


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Rachel Berman, director of nutrition of