Watch Your Waistline While Dining Out By Margaret Furtado, M.S., R.D.
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Dining out....a favorite American past-time. Research, however, has shown that the more we dine out, the more likely we are to get accustomed to larger portions—and to potentially larger waistlines.
So is it possible to dine out and have your cake too? According to a new report by the Nutrition Action Healthletter, the answer might be a resounding "no," especially if you dine at some of the casual, "slow-food" restaurant chains out there, with their hyper-caloric entrees, appetizers, and desserts.
One meal highlighted by the NAH report, for example, was The Cheesecake Factory's "Fried Macaroni and Cheese," which weighs in at a monstrous 1,570 calories and 69 grams of saturated fat. (The kind that clogs your arteries and can leave you at higher risk for a heart attack for up to 4 hours after a meal.) Consider these factoids:

• Many health experts recommend we eat no more fat in a single day than the equivalent of 3 pats of butter.
• A pat of butter has 5 grams of fat, so "Fried Macaroni and Cheese" contains the equivalent of about 14 pats of butter. Oops!
And the amount of sodium (as table salt) in some restaurant meals is sky-high as well. Chili's "Big Mouth Bites"-also cited in the NAH article-boasts (if that's the word) 2,350 calories, 38 grams of fat (7 ½ pats of butter)-and 3,940 mgs of sodium. Excuse me? That's about twice the amount of sodium recommended for most adult Americans, over the course of a day. How many salt-sensitive people-some of whom have high blood pressure and don't know it-are innocently gorging on these indoor salt licks?
Okay, so the news about restaurant chains isn't so good, but there are healthier options out there that will still allow you to go out once in awhile and socialize. Here's a sampling of entrées from some of the big restaurant chains. I've included one "no-no" from each establishment's menu to help you spot the "heart-attacks-on-a-plate."

 Applebee's®

The bad news: You order the "Grilled Steak Caesar Salad with toast," thinking you're eating light...after all, it's a salad, right? But guess what? If you eat the whole thing, you'll have wolfed down 1,296 calories, 83 grams of fat (16½ pats of you-know-what), and 2,200 mgs of sodium. Uh oh.

The good news: Applebee's offers a Weight Watcher's® Menu for health- and weight-conscious diners, and it includes "Garlic Herb Chicken" for 370 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 7 grams of fiber.

Applebee's even has a dessert, "Chocolate Raspberry Layer Cake," that's only 230 calories and 3 grams of fat. Pass around 1 slice of this cake and you'll be cutting calories even further. Although their "Onion Soup au Gratin" (150 calories) has fewer calories than does regular onion soup, the 8 grams of fat in there might cause a problem if your entrée was also high in fat.

 Cheesecake Factory®.

The bad news: You ordered their "Stuffed Chicken Tortillas," thinking it a fairly good nutritional choice. Wrong. You just put away 1,097 calories, 43 grams of fat (8 ½ pats) and a whopping 2,647 mgs of sodium (the equivalent of more than a full teaspoon of salt)....thirsty, by any chance?

The good news: I was surprised to find a new menu item at the Cheesecake Factory called "Weight Management Grilled ChickenTM," which was accompanied by arugula salad (my favorite!), steamed white rice, and asparagus. Per the online listing, this meal contained "less than 590 calories." The new "White Chicken Chili" also looks promising, although the nutrition information wasn't available when I looked. Their "Shrimp and Chicken Gumbo" could be healthy if you ask that the cream be left out of the Cajun-style broth.

 Chili's®.

The bad news: Chili's online info lists its appetizers under the heading "Start It Off Right," but you surely won't be doing that if you order their "Onion String & Crispy Jalapeno Stack." This before-meal snack is lugging along 2,130 calories, 213 grams of fat (I kid you not--42 ½ pats of butter!), and 1,320 mgs of sodium. (You know how some menus put a little heart symbol next to the heart-healthy meals? "Onion String & Crispy Jalapeno Stack" could just about be awarded tiny skull and crossbones.)

The good news: Chili's "Guiltless Grill" offers many healthy options too, such as the "Guiltless Grilled Salmon" at 480 calories, 14 grams of fat (with most of the calories and fat coming from those pleasant omega-3-fatty acids), and a good amount of fiber (10 grams). Another item I was curious about is the "Black Bean Burger": Although its 650 calories seem fairly steep, it does contain a respectably low 12 grams of fat (only 2 of them saturated) and a generous 26 grams of fiber.

 T.G.I. Friday's®.

The bad news: No matter how good Friday's "Pecan-Crusted Chicken Salad" sounds to you, don't do it. It's hiding 750 calories and 10 pats of butter.

The good news: With its "Right Portion, Right Price" menu offerings, Friday's became the first casual, sit-down dining chain in the U.S. to offer smaller portions at lower prices all through the day. Among the entrees are "Asian-Glazed Chicken with Field Greens," and "Cedar-Seared Salmon on Field Greens." Two other meals, the "Dragonfire Chicken" and "Shrimp Key West," are included in their "Better for You" section, which lists only those meals that contain no more than 500 calories and 10 grams of fat per serving. This saves you money as well.

 Outback Steakhouse®.

The bad news: Order Outback's "Aussie-tizers Kookaburra Wings with Sauce" and you just served yourself 1,160 calories and 75 grams of fat (15 pats).

The good news: I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this restaurant now has "Healthy Weight Loss," "Heart-Healthy Diet," and "High-Protein Low-Carbohydrate" choices. On the "Healthy Weight Loss" link, they offer options for making their traditional items healthier (e.g., ordering their "Grilled Shrimp on the Barbie" without butter, or the "Shrimp and Veggie Griller" without butter or glaze during preparation.

I feel these guidelines of Outback Steakhouse not only help diners cut calories and fat, but also provide information regarding the food's preparation. And perhaps most important, diners will most likely feel less intimidated to ask their server for these modifications since they're listed on the Web site.

 Ruby Tuesdays®.

The bad news: You just ordered "Ruby Minis," thinking, What harm could 2 miniburgers with fries possibly do? The answer: an injurious 1,122 calories and about 14 pats is what.

The good news: I found a menu option online called "Smart Eating Choices," which looks to include some healthy options, such as "White Bean Chicken Chili" (228 calories, 8 grams of fat, 5 grams of fiber) and "Grilled Chicken" at 295 calories and only 6 grams of fat. Other choices, however, were a bit higher in fat than I expected, such as the "Chicken Bella" (626 calories and 7 pats), "New Orleans Seafood" (31 grams of fat), and "Grilled Chicken Salad" (30 grams of fat). However, even these last options are most likely much lower in fat and calories than some of the traditional items on the menu, so overall they may be fairly good choices, in moderation.
I'm sure there are many more restaurants out there with healthier options, so I'd love to hear from you if you'd like to share what you've found out. I hope I've given you some tasty and healthy options so you can have your cake and eat it to!

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