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Watch Out for These Sneaky Restaurant Dishes!

By Jennifer Thomas | February 13, 2020 | Rally Health

We’ve all seen those eyebrow-raising restaurant dishes that are deep fried, packed with carbs, and loaded with calories. It’s no surprise that deep-fried pasta or triple chocolate cookie-pizza aren’t the healthiest picks on the menu. 

“The high-calorie mashups are everywhere,” says Lindsay Moyer, RDN. Moyer helps puts together the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s annual Xtreme Eating roundup, which compiles what they consider to be the most unhealthy dishes in the country. “It’s as if restaurant chains are trying to get diners to do some free viral marketing for them, tempting people to post on Instagram about their pasta pizza.” 

You probably know to be wary of deep-fried macaroni and cheese or a slice of cheesecake the size of your head. But sometimes even healthy sounding options like salmon or a side of veggies can be made unhealthier because of how they’re prepared. It’s more important than ever to brush up on your healthy ordering habits because “people get one-third of their daily calories outside the home every day,” Moyer says. 

Here are some red flags to watch out for, and ways to fix those unhealthy dishes.

Cobb Salad

The word salad has a huge health halo, and while Cobb salads contain plenty of vegetables, they unfortunately may have a lot of downsides, too. 

“They can ring in at 900 or more calories and be high in saturated fat because of the multiple proteins like ham, turkey, egg, and cheese, and the problem of extra large portions,” says Wendy Bazilian, RDN, co-author of “The SuperFoods RX Diet: Lose Weight With the Power of SuperNutrients.” “Add the dressing at about 200 calories or more and you’re topping more than half of your daily calorie needs from a salad,” based on a 2000 calories a day diet.

And Cobbs aren’t the only culprit. Large portion sizes can bloat the calorie count of many salads. Add in dried fruit, cheese, and too much dressing, and you have a salad with far more calories than you bargained for. 

The fix: Load up on a variety of tasty veggies rather than meat, cheese, and eggs. And when you’re served a super-size restaurant salad, a simple way to have your salad and eat it too is to simply eat less of it. Divide your salad in half and ask for a box right away so you won’t be tempted to overeat. Ask for the dressing on the side so you can control the amount you put on the salad. 

Pad Thai

At face value, the typical ingredients of pad thai don’t seem so bad. Shrimp is a low-calorie protein, peanuts are good for the heart, even the rice noodles may be OK if you keep an eye on portions, Bazilian says. The sauce is a different story. “It’s off the charts in sodium,” she says. “At one popular chain restaurant, the dish has 4,780 mg of sodium, which is more than twice the daily recommendation of about 2,300 mg. The majority of that sodium comes from the sauce.”

According to the American Heart Association, 90% of Americans are consuming too much sodium, putting them at risk for health complications that include high blood pressure, osteoporosis, kidney disease, stroke, and even heart failure. 

The fix: The next time you order pad Thai, get the sauce on the side and use it sparingly.

Super-Size Burgers

Restaurant burgers can easily top 1,000 calories, says nutritionist Keri Gans, RDN, CDN.  The average fast food cheeseburger, meanwhile, ranges from 710 to1,690 mg of sodium. This isn’t even including toppings, which might include cheese or bacon, inflating the calorie, fat, and sodium counts even more. Finally, the suggested serving size of a hamburger patty is 4 ounces, Gans says. The average restaurant burger is triple that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once you start looking at triple patty burgers with all the fixings, the nutritional outlook is grim. 

Often touted as an alternative to fatty, red meats, a turkey burger can seem like a great choice to order in a restaurant in lieu of a beef hamburger. But a turkey patty is not necessarily a better burger.

“Not all turkey burgers are made from white meat,” Gans says. “If dark meat and skin is used, it could be as many calories or even more than a beef burger made with lean sirloin.” 

The fix: Your best bet is to look for plant-based burgers, like black bean burgers or other meat alternatives. If you’re really craving a burger, cut it in half, choose fewer patties, or even order a burger from the kid’s menu or without a bun. If you’re a toppings fan, pass on creamy condiments like mayo and opt for mustard and veggies like lettuce, tomato, and onions. And, of course, try to substitute the side of fries for something green. 

(Some) Sushi

Sushi can seem like a healthy meal: there’s fish, vegetables, and the portion sizes are small. But some of those little rolls can pack a big caloric punch if you’re not careful. There are a lot of refined carbs from the white rice, no fiber, and very little protein to speak of, Bazilian says. And when you factor in rolls with fat-rich cream cheese or mayo, dipped in high sodium soy sauce, sushi night can turn unhealthy really quickly. The average sushi roll is 20 to 30 calories apiece, but can be way higher for specialty rolls.

The fix: If you’re conscious about the kind of sushi you order, it’s easy to avoid some of the less healthy options. Skip sushi described as tempura (fried), crunchy, or creamy, Bazilian says. And if you choose to eat fish, look for sustainable sushi and watch out for high-mercury varieties.

Pancakes

Pancakes might be a fun breakfast dish, but they’re made with refined flour, which may contribute to weight gain, and promote heart disease and diabetes. And when you add sugary syrup (who doesn’t) the health value only slides down further. Most of us already get more added sugar than we should — an average of 13% of our daily calories instead of the recommendation of no more than 10%

The fix: Look for whole grain pancakes on the menu, and instead of syrup, spread a little applesauce on your pancakes.

Pasta in White Sauces

While pasta is delicious, it can be very easy to go wrong with pasta dishes at a restaurant. The most commonly served type of pasta is made of refined, white flour, says Jill Weisenberger, RDN, author of “Prediabetes: A Complete Guide.”

That means it’s been stripped of the germ and bran along with many of its nutrients. Refined grains also don’t have as much fiber as unrefined grains. Fiber helps you feel full so you’re less likely to overeat.

The sauce can be a problem, too. White pasta sauce typically has a base of butter or oil, and also includes heavy cream or whole milk, and cheese. 

And don’t be fooled by the presence of vegetables. “Pasta primavera sounds good because it includes a bunch of veggies, but it packs on calories because of large [restaurant portions] and the creamy sauce,” Weisenberger says.

The fix: If you’re craving pasta, aim for a dish with a tomato-based sauce instead of a cream-based sauce. Make sure it has veggies and a good source of lean protein, such as beans, tofu, shrimp, or chicken. Finally, be aware that the restaurant portion is probably too big, so don’t eat the whole thing in one sitting. 

Big Burritos

While burritos or wraps can have a ton of healthy vegetables on the inside, the outside is not so great. “Burritos are often huge and the tortilla is made with white flour,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN and author of “The Superfood Swap.” “The tortilla alone can be more than 300 calories.” The white rice, cheese, and sour cream that are often found inside the burrito all add calories and fat to the total. 

The fix: A burrito bowl is a better option, since you can cut out the tortilla. And opt for brown rice, which has fiber and other nutrients, and a lower glycemic index (GI) rating than white rice. (A high GI diet has been associated with a greater risk for diabetes.)

With just a few changes, you can make some restaurant meals healthier — or at least lower in calories, Blatner says. And while moderation is often a good goal, it’s smart to watch out for anything on the menu described as double fried, triple-size, creamy, or ooey-gooey.

Copyright © 2020 Rally Health, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jennifer Thomas
Rally Health