Soup or Caesar salad? How many calories in a doughnut? Today’s healthy food selections may surprise you. Read on to learn how to choose healthier fast foods…
While skimming the menu the other day at our favorite café, my husband asked, “Which is more fattening: pancakes or French toast?”
I had no idea.
If you’re aiming to lose weight or eat more healthfully, some restaurant food choices are no-brainers. Tomato-based marinara sauce or cream-based Alfredo? Marinara, of course. French fries or baked potato? The potato, assuming it’s not drenched with butter and sour cream.
But often the best choice isn’t obvious at all.
“A lot of people will choose a muffin over a doughnut, not realizing the muffin is twice as bad calorie-wise – and sometimes not even better in saturated fat,” says Katherine Tallmadge, R.D., a Washington, D.C., nutritionist and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Consider this: A Dunkin’ Donuts glazed doughnut contains 260 calories, with 14 g of fat. It’s no health food, but it’s still a better bet than the chain’s wholesome-sounding pumpkin muffin, which is larger, sweeter and weighs in at 600 calories and 26 g of fat.
A new federal law requires chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to include calorie information on their menus, but it’s unclear when those rules will take effect – and even then, you may have to search to find other nutritional data.
Until then, knowing what you’re really eating will help you make better decisions.
Here’s the lowdown on 9 common dietary dilemmas, including my husband’s recent breakfast predicament. He ordered French toast. Was it a wise choice?
1. Pancakes vs. French toast
French toast may seem like a virtuous choice because it’s coated with egg and milk. But jumbo restaurant servings of the breakfast treat often dwarf pancakes, or even waffles.
The eggs’ “added bit of protein won’t make French toast a winner,” says Tallmadge, especially because the milk is often full-fat and the toast is fried in shortening.
At IHOP, the Original French Toast contains 920 calories and 15 g of artery-clogging saturated fat.
You should get no more than 7% of your daily calories from saturated fat, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). On a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 16 g per day.
By contrast, five IHOP buttermilk pancakes weigh in at 770 calories and 9 g of saturated fat. (Three pancakes have 490 calories and 8 g of saturated fat.) A plain Belgian waffle: 360 calories and 8 g of saturated fat.
But there’s added damage, depending on how much syrup (about 50 calories per tablespoon) and butter (50 calories per tablespoon of whipped margarine) you use.
2. Bacon vs. sausage
Forget the sausage.
“Bacon isn’t a health food, but portions are smaller. And with crispy bacon, a lot of fat is cooked off,” says Chicago nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw-Hill).
For example, two IHOP sausage links contain 180 calories and 6 g of saturated fat; two bacon strips have 80 calories and 2 g of saturated fat.
At Denny’s, four sausage links contain 370 calories and 13 g of saturated fat – far worse than the 140 calories and 4 g of saturated fat in four bacon strips.
Ordering turkey sausage or turkey bacon saves in the saturated-fat department, but you’re still not doing your arteries – or waistline – a favor.
“Turkey has such a health halo, but there’s no guarantee [a restaurant serves] lean turkey,” Tallmadge says.
At Denny’s, four strips of turkey bacon contain 10 more calories than four strips of pork bacon (150 to 140). And while you’ll get more protein, you’ll also get more sodium and cholesterol.
Dietitian Gidus’ advice: Skip both the bacon and sausage.
“Go for the tomato slices,” she suggests.
3. Toast vs. bagel
Toast almost always wins because bagels are thicker, Tallmadge says. Both are about 70 calories per ounce, but a standard slice of toast is just 1 ounce. A bagel is around 4 ounces.
“Most women shouldn’t have more than two servings of starch per meal – about 200 calories’ worth, or half a bagel,” Tallmadge says.
Some restaurants, however, serve extra-large toast slices. In that case, an English muffin, if offered, is better for you.
“An English muffin will trump them all, because it’s standard size,” Blatner says.
Plus, with English muffins, you have two halves, so you feel like you’re eating more, she notes.
But then there’s the topping.
At Denny’s, the standard serving of two slices of toast with margarine contains 270 calories, an English muffin with margarine has 130 calories, and a bagel with cream cheese has 428 calories.
4. Butter vs. jelly
“Jelly has no redeeming qualities – you’re not spreading on fruit – but that little dose of sugar is probably better for most people than artery-clogging saturated fat,” Blatner says.
Plus, she says, jelly sits atop the bread, so you can more easily control the portion.
“When spreading butter, you don’t know how much you’re using because it melts into the crevices,” Blatner explains.
5. Soup vs. salad
You’d think salad is the better choice. And you’d be wrong.
“Put on dressing, croutons, cheese, nuts, dried fruit and candied nuts, and what started out at 80 calories may edge up to 800,” Blatner says. “Surprisingly, soups are often the lower-calorie choice.”
Even cream-based soups are often more filling and lower in calories than salads.
At Applebee’s, for example, a lunch-combo Oriental chicken salad has 410 calories, 90 calories more than if you ordered the broccoli cheddar soup.
At Outback Steakhouse, a side, blue-cheese-and-pecan chopped salad has 523 calories and a side “classic, blue-cheese wedge salad” has 357 calories, both substantially more than a cup of creamy broccoli soup, with 281 calories. (But watch out for that 546-calorie cup of baked potato soup!)
The lowest-calorie salads are typically called “house salad,” “green salad” or “garden salad.”
However, when asked, “Soup or salad?” there’s more to consider than just calories.
“Soup can be a bowl of sodium,” Gidus says.
Applebees’ chicken-tortilla soup has just 160 calories, but packs a 1,380-mg dose of sodium – more than half of the 2,300 mg recommended as a daily maximum by current U.S. dietary guidelines.
And it’s near the maximum daily total – 1,500 mg – recommended by the Centers for Disease Control for people ages 40 or older. (The average American consumes 3,436 mg of sodium per day, according to the AHA.)
Some soups are triple whammies: loaded with sodium and saturated fat, and relatively high in calories.
For example, at Outback Steakhouse, a mere cup of onion soup delivers 300 calories with 1,287 mg of sodium and 12 g of saturated fat.
If black-bean soup is on the menu, “that’s the best choice in a heartbeat,” Gidus advises.
6. Fried rice vs. chow mein or lo mein
Even a nutritionist was fooled by this one.
Blatner figured rice was the easy right choice. “But I guessed wrong,” she says.
At both Panda Express and PF Chang’s, noodles win over rice in both calories and saturated fat.
“It’s probably [due to] a surface-area issue,” Blatner says. “There are more pieces of rice to absorb oil.”
At Panda Express, chow mein noodles have 400 calories and 2 g of saturated fat, though the 1,060 mg of sodium is high.
The fried rice, by contrast, contains 570 calories, 4 g of saturated fat and 900 mg sodium.
The best option, if available, is steamed brown rice. At PF Chang’s, it contains 190 calories, no sodium or saturated fat, and 3 g of fiber per serving.
Blatner also recommends steamed veggies and steamed dumplings.