Eating out at restaurants is meant to be a splurge, but no one wants a health hazard along with the bill. Unfortunately, some of the worst restaurant foods for your health are tucked into the most innocent-looking parts of the menu. How do you know which menu items to avoid?
A shortcut: The higher the calories, the bigger the health risk.
Obviously, there are lots of ways for food to be unhealthy. Many restaurant meals contain sky-high sodium levels. Others have as much sugar and fat as a box of donuts.
But it can be daunting — not to mention depressing — to research all that.
Here’s a short cut: Just look up the number of calories. U.S. restaurants are required to provide nutrition information upon request, and calories are an easy number to find.
“In all likelihood, the more calories a menu item has, the worse it is for your health,” says Dr. St. Pierre.
A warning: Even healthy-looking foods can be calorie bombs.
Many restaurant staples could blow through an average person’s daily calories in one fell swoop.
For example, Olive Garden’s chicken alfredo clocks in at 1,570 calories. Applebee’s fish and chips serves up 1,870 calories. And TGI Friday’s bacon and egg club sandwich has 1,530 calories.
This even includes menu options advertised as healthy choices. (Here’s looking at you, Cheesecake Factory’s Chinese Chicken Salad: 1,740 calories.) If you stick to the calories rule, you can make a better choice.
“With restaurants, the menu is often one-size-fits-all, whether you’re 7’2” and 350 pounds or 4’11” and 130 pounds,” points out Dr. St. Pierre. “But diet and portion sizes are very individualized. If your selection would use up most of your daily calories, steer clear of it, no matter what section of the menu it’s in.”
A reminder: As a rule, avoid fried foods.
It’s the reminder none of us want to hear, especially when we’re going out for typical American fare. Anything that’s deep-fried is usually deeply unhealthy.
“Fried foods tend to be low in nutrients, but high in calories,” says Dr. St. Pierre. Put them at the top of your “pass” list.
- Fried chicken, buffalo wings, fried fish.
- Onion rings, French fries, hash browns.
- Mozzarella sticks, fried calamari, egg rolls.
A cheat sheet: The worst restaurant foods for your health.
Here’s a longer list of items to pass on. Hint: These are all high in calories, so you can spot them yourself if you check the restaurant’s nutrition info.
- Fried foods (see above).
- Add-ons like bacon, cheese, or double patties.
- Creamy white or butter sauces, like alfredo.
- Dips or dressings made with high-fat yogurt or sour cream, like some spinach dips.
- Cheese sauces or dips, like queso.
- Creamy salad dressings, like French or Ranch dressing.
- High-sugar and high-fat items like milkshakes and many desserts.
“Lots of times, the devil is in the details,” says Dr. St. Pierre. “You might think your chicken and whole wheat pasta is healthy because it’s a lean protein with a whole grain. But once you add the alfredo sauce, you’re eliminating those positives.”