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How You Can Use New Calorie Data at Restaurants

Posted Dec 01 2010 2:34pm

If you've recently eaten at Panera Bread, a 50-year-old restaurant chain with more than 1,400 locations, you may have noticed the calorie counts on the chain's menu. Some of the information could cause your jaw to drop:


• 430 calories fro a cinnamon crunch bagel
• 720 calories for a Smokehouse Turkey panini
• 1040 calories for a Italian Combo sandwich

If the fact that one sandwich can have 1040 calories (not including the drink and potato chips) seems shocking, get used to being shocked. The new health care reform law will require restaurants to own up to the calorie counts of the food on their menus. Panera is just ahead of the curve.

A few municipalities—most notably New York City—already require restaurants to display some nutritional data on their menus, an effort to educate consumers and allow them to make healthier eating decisions.

So far, the evidence is mixed as to whether menu calories will make a difference in eating habits. In New York, researchers found that people weren't ordering less calorie-laden foods from restaurants but they were visiting cafes less often—which could be a sign of calorie-conscious decision making or the bad economy.

Some people are glad to see calorie counts: It makes it easier to eat out with diabetes or stick to a weight-loss diet.

But calories don't tell the whole story about nutrition. In fact, restaurants need to provide much more information before consumers can make a true "healthy" choice.

For example, some salads may have more calories than a cheeseburger. But that doesn't make the burger a healthier pick. The salad may have has less saturated fat and sodium, along with more fiber and nutrients.

Restaurants, already bristling at putting calorie counts on their menus, aren't likely to voluntarily add information about saturated fat, sodium or dietary fiber. But as a consumer you can still use the calorie information to make good eating decisions. Here's how:

1. Make an educated guess as to where the calories are coming from. Not all high-calorie foods are created equal. Some fruits, for example, are high in calories but contain important nutrients. A salad could get a lot of their calories from added fruit. On a hamburger, the calories are coming from the bun, the condiments and all the unhealthy saturated fat.

2. Cut the calories in half by reducing portion size. Restaurants often serve gigantic portions. Either order a smaller serving (the half-sized Italian Combo sandwich at Panera Bread only has 570 calories) or ask the restaurant to put half your order in a take out box. Find more tips on how to eat out without gaining weight .

3. Use common sense when comparing items. You don't have to be a registered dietitian to know that green leafy vegetables are better for you than a burger and fries, even if the salad has more calories. Salads become nutritional hazards when you add lots of toppings and creamy dressings. But you can make a restaurant salad healthier by opting for a vinaigrette and skipping the croutons and cheese.

Finally, you can learn more about a restaurant's menu before you dine. Many big chain restaurants put their nutritional information online. As Everwell's registered dietitian says, the more you know, the more you can eat .

How to dine out on a diet

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