Healthy dining at restaurants and fast food chains is one of the most difficult challenges for anyone who is concerned about nutrition, diet, or weight control. With today’s on-the-go lifestyle, we eat out more and more – studies vary by region, but put the number as high as 4 to 5 times a week. That doesn’t count snacks.
To help consumers with healthy dining choices, the FDA now requires chain restaurants that have 20 or more locations and vending machines to provide nutrition information.
“For standard menu items, calories will be listed clearly and prominently on menus and menu boards, next to the name or price of the food or beverage. For self-service foods, such as served from buffets and salad bars, calories will be shown on signs that are near the foods. Calories are not required to be listed for condiments, daily specials, custom orders, or temporary/seasonal menu items.”
See our prior post that explains: What is a calorie and how many do we need?
The FDA offers this rule of thumb when comparing calories of individual menu items:
- 100 calories per serving is MODERATE
- 400 calories per serving is HIGH
Labeling will include calorie information and comparisons, but if you want to dig deeper, restaurants must also provide written information on fats, sodium, protein and more – you may have to ask for how to find this; it’s commonly on websites, and some restaurants may have it on flyers or handouts.
You can find more about these requirements and what you as a consumer can expect for restaurant food labeling from the FDA.
A recent article in Consumer Reports talks about ways to make healthier choices at restaurant chains. One of the points they make is that even with labeling, it can be difficult to find the healthiest options. Part of the reason is marketing – names and descriptions can be misleading. Salads might sound healthy, but depending on how they are made, they may not be the best choice. Their nutritionists looked at 5 popular chains and found the best choices on each menu. They also identified common menu problems that can create confusion and suggested ways to get around that.
Here are a few other options for healthy dining:
There are numerous apps for counting calories. Here are a few resources that offer suggestions or tips for healthy dining.
- The American Heart Association offers numerous resources and tips for healthy choices while dining out
- Healthy Dining Finder features the best choices at a variety of restaurants, not just healthy restaurant. Healthy Dining Finder offers a wide range of restaurants that offer dietitian-recommended Healthy Dining menu choices that meet Healthy Dining’s nutrition criteria and incorporate lean and high-nutrient ingredients.
- MyPlate offers a variety of nutrition tools and 10 tips for eating out
- Fitness Magazine suggests 30 Surprisingly Healthy Fast Foods