By Clint Carter, Men's Health
THE RESTAURANT industry is an easy target, a slowly swaying punching bag for heavy-fisted health advocates. And to be honest, Men's Health is among those throwing the right hooks. Yet big chains like Applebee's and Outback Steakhouse have for years withstood the barrage and managed to slip quadruple-digit sodium and calorie counts into seemingly harmless foods like fish and salad.
It's no stretch to say that restaurant chains are partly responsible for the growth of American waistlines. Meanwhile, they seem to look out only for the expanding girth of their bottom lines. In recent years, however, we've seen a slow shift, spurred by informed consumers, in America's restaurant offerings. Trans fats are disappearing, chains are becoming more transparent about their ingredient lists, and more healthy dishes are cropping up on menus.
Make no mistake: The industry still has a long way to go. But if you put your dollars behind these restaurant trends, you'll become healthier and leaner, and you'll also encourage more chains to join the fight against obesity—and just plain bad food.
HEALTHY TREND #1
The avocado avalanche: Americans are waking up from the myth that fats make us fat. Avocados, for example, are roughly 80 percent fat; but two-thirds of that comes from monounsaturated fatty acids, which have been associated with improved cognitive function, lower odds of obesity, and decreased rates of heart disease. In other words, avocado stands to make you smarter, leaner, and less likely to die of the number one killer of men.
So it's no wonder that the number of restaurant items featuring avocado increased by 58 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to the Hass Avocado Board. This year, Carl's Jr. launched a Guacamole Turkey Burger (created in collaboration with Men's Health), and Denny's developed a new Chicken Avocado Sandwich. T.G.I. Friday's, Cheesecake Factory, and California Pizza Kitchen also feature avocado in some of their latest salads. One of the most exciting developments of this past summer: Subway offered avocado as a sandwich topping in all of its 24,188 U.S. stores. That sure beats a swipe of mayonnaise.
What to look for: Avocado can bolster flavor and nutrition, but it can also distract you from noticing other, less healthy fats. So don't be fooled by items like California Pizza Kitchen's 1,224-calorie Avocado Club Egg Rolls. The avo's a nice touch, but the cheese, bacon, fried shell, and oily sauce combine to create serious waistline repercussions.
Subway Oven Roasted Chicken
with lettuce, tomato, onion, green peppers, cucumber, and avocado (6-inch sandwich)
24 grams (g) protein
50 g carbohydrates
(7 g fiber)
12 g fat
640 milligrams (mg) sodium
The creamy texture of avocado makes it an excellent stand-in for mayo. Plus, it saves you 40 calories on a 6-inch sub.
HEALTHY TREND #2
More guy-friendly meals, fewer calories: A low-calorie menu used to mean offerings like cooked cabbage and lentils; an iceberg wedge with hard-boiled egg whites; or a soggy, skinless chicken breast (hold the joy).
But heartier healthy menus have arrived. Smart-nutrition initiatives began in fast-casual chains like Subway and Starbucks. Now they're followed by sit-down restaurants offering hearty, wholesome, and sturdy dishes with reasonable calorie counts. Within the past couple of years, Ruby Tuesday launched its Fit & Trim menu, Denny's crafted a Fit Fare menu, and Applebee's created its Under 550 Calories menu. And not one of those chains sells cabbage. They feature gutsy entrees like Tex-Mex omelets topped with pico de gallo, grilled jumbo shrimp in teriyaki sauce, and sirloin steaks draped in melted cheese.
Perhaps the biggest low-calorie victory came in August, when Cheesecake Factory, a chain with no shortage of 2,000-calorie entrees, launched its SkinnyLicious menu with nearly 50 low-calorie items. Granted, the name needs work, but the food isn't as dainty as it sounds. The new menu delivers under-600-calorie versions of hamburgers, tenderloin, and barbecued chicken.
What to Look For: Lean protein is always a safe bet. If you end up at a restaurant without a low-calorie menu, go for a 6-to 9-ounce sirloin with a side of vegetables, and have them both prepared without butter. That will earn you plenty of protein at only 400 to 600 calories.
Outback Steakhouse 5 oz Filet and Grilled Shrimp served with broccoli
45 g protein
17 g carbohydrates
(6 g fiber)
26 g fat
872 mg sodium
Outback introduced its under-500-calories menu in 2010, including this surf-and-turf combo with enough robustly seasoned protein to satisfy any appetite.
HEALTHY TREND #3
Oatmeal conquers breakfast: Until recently, whole-grain options at chains were weak—the so-called whole-grain bread and buns from Panera and Burger King, for example, use whole wheat in addition to white flour, not instead of it. Skipping out on whole grains is a shame—in an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, men who ate the most whole grains were 81 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure.
But we've entered the era of the whole-grain oatmeal breakfast. Starbucks introduced oatmeal in 2008, and the next year Jamba Juice raised the ante with heartier steel-cut oats. Soon after, Caribou Coffee, Cosi, Au Bon Pain, and Pret a Manger all added oatmeal. This year, McDonald's entered the race and Chick-fil-A began selling a hearty multigrain oatmeal. We're still waiting for whole-wheat sandwiches, but this is a good start.
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What to Look For: Stick to oatmeal, but beware of the toppings. Together, the dried fruit and brown sugar toppings offered at Starbucks add 33 grams of sugar—more than the amount in three Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts. Skip the brown sugar and go with just the fruit.
Chick-fil-A Multigrain Oatmeal with toppings
6 g protein
44 g carbohydrates
(5 g fiber, 21 g sugar)
11 g fat
45 mg sodium
With a range of whole grains, this oatmeal is the most robust of the lot. Cut back on calories by holding the brown sugar, and boost protein with a bottle of milk.
HEALTHY TREND #4
Kids' menus grow up: Here's a dire picture: Roughly 20 percent of children today are obese, up from 6.5 percent in 1980, according to the CDC. Restaurants haven't helped. The most common foods on kids' menus are fried chicken and burgers, according to a 2008 Center for Science in the Public Interest survey. The most common side and drink: fries and soda, of course. No surprise that the survey found that 93 percent of kids' meals exceeded U.S. dietary guidelines on calories.
But change is coming. This year, with encouragement from Michelle Obama, the National Restaurant Association launched the Kids LiveWell campaign. Nineteen chains signed on, agreeing to limit calories on at least one entree; make produce, whole grains, lean protein, or low-fat dairy more available; and promote their healthiest offerings. Chains like Olive Garden and McDonald's have already made improvements (the kids' Fettuccine Alfredo at Olive Garden was cut by almost 300 calories).
What to Look For: A moderately active 8-year-old needs 1,000 to 1,400 calories a day, so any meal over 500 is too big. A European Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that over 90 percent of overweight children carry extra weight into adulthood, so make sure they know a meal is lean protein and produce. Anything else is a treat.
McDonald's McNuggets Happy Meal with small fries and low-fat milk
20 g protein
53 g carbohydrates
(4 g fiber)
26 g fat
645 mg sodium
McD's is currently rolling out new Happy Meals that replace half the fries in every meal with a serving of apple slices, an upgrade that cuts 115 calories.
HEALTHY TREND #5
Prudent portions: Starting in the '70s, restaurant portions slowly ticked upward, and even restaurant employees hardly noticed. In a Penn State University study, 76 percent of chefs thought they were serving normal-size portions. In truth, 90 percent were serving more pasta than the USDA-recommended serving size, and 83 percent were serving a larger-than-recommended portion of meat.
But portion bloat came to a standstill a few years ago and now appears to be undergoing a reversal. Motivated by the recession, T.G.I. Friday's and Cheesecake Factory both introduced reduced-portion, reduced-price menus in 2007. The maneuver proved successful, and soon other chains followed. In 2008, Au Bon Pain launched its Portions menu, and in 2010 California Pizza Kitchen came out with a Small Cravings menu. Boston Market offers half-portion combos of salads and sandwiches, and recently Starbucks revealed a line of small-scale Bistro Box meals.
What to Look For: In restaurants, "small" portions are actually the right size. If portions aren't already downsized, order a half sandwich or a half order of pasta.
Starbucks Chipotle Chicken Wraps Bistro Box
26 g protein
35 g carbohydrates
(6 g fiber)
15 g fat
970 mg sodium
All of the Bistro Boxes are under 500 calories and include protein and fiber from foods like nuts, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and lean meat.
READ MORE, WEIGH LESS
For more insight into eating out, check out Eat This, Not That! 2012, by MH editor-in-chief David Zinczenko with Matt Goulding. Also visit EatThis.MensHealth.com for more great nutritonal wisdom.