Eating Out Healthfully: New Research from RAND Corporation

en:User:Rdikeman / Food Photos / CC BY-SA

Based on a recent study of the top 400 Chain Restaurants (by sales) published in the Cambridge University Press, it looks like eating out healthfully (at least at the most popular chain restaurants surveyed) is still a challenge.  But even where it’s hard to find a great choice, there are still some choices that are better than others.

Key findings

  1. Appetizers had more calories, fat and sodium than all other item types.
  2. Children’s menu specialty beverages had more fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates than comparable regular menu beverages.
  3. As few as 3% of entrees were within limits for sodium, fat and saturated fat.
  4. Main entrées had significantly more calories, fat and saturated fat in family-style restaurants than in fast-food restaurants.
  5. Restaurants that made nutrition information easily accessible on websites had significantly lower energy, fat and sodium contents across menu offerings than those providing information only upon request.

Better Bets

So, the message is to skip the restaurant if it doesn’t provide nutrition information.  Skip the appetizer. DEFINITELY skip the kids drinks.  And if you’re in a family-style restaurant, choose a veggie salad or share a main entree with others.

Better yet, skip chain restaurants altogether, and patronize a restaurant that offers clean, fresh, healthy food for your family – usually local establishments with owners truly invested in the health of the community they serve.

Or, cook at home, where you have full control of the ingredients.  For less than the cost of a restaurant meal, you can buy pre-prepped veggies that can be quickly steamed or sautéed  then tossed over quinoa or other grains … give a new herb or spice a try once a week or so to keep things interesting and add a boost of health!  If you’re looking for healthy, simple recipe ideas, check out list of Vibrant Health Recipes or (if you’re really out of time) our list of Super-Quick Meals and Snacks.


Study Cited:  Helen W Wu and Roland Sturm (2013). What’s on the menu? A review of the energy and nutritional content of US chain restaurant menus. Public Health Nutrition, 16, pp 87-96. doi:10.1017/S136898001200122X.

The Dirty Art of “Leanwashing”

Sugar Smacks ad from 1977 (Leanwashing has been around for a while!)

Sugar Smacks ad from 1977 (Leanwashing has been around for a while!)

Have you seen the Leanwashing site?  This website, from Enviromedia Social Marketing, founded by Valerie Davis and Kevin Tuerff, lets consumers report brands that use vague of misleading claims about health benefits that make a food seem like a smart choice when it is not.  Examples are 100-calorie snack packs of highly-processed gunk, or sugar-drenched cereals that scream “WHOLE GRAIN!” on the package.   I’m a huge fan of this site!

From one of their Advisory Panel members, former Big Food exec and healthy eating advocate Bruce Bradley, “Over the past decade or so, Big Food increasingly acts more and more like a snake oil salesman, shilling sugary, salt-laden, fatty processed foods and calling them ‘healthy.'”  Exactly – and the result is a generation of mothers – and their kids – who have come to believe that fruit actually comes “by the foot.”

Enviromedia’s guidelines for identifying Leanwashed products:

  • Does the product mislead with words?  (common Leanwashing words include “natural”, “whole-grain”, and “wholesome”)
  • Does the product mislead with visuals, sponsorship or imagery? (athletes on candy packages, for example)
  • Does the product make vague health claims?
  • Does the product exaggerate how healthy it is?
  • Does the product appear to mask information, making a product seem healthier than it really is?

Check out the site and share it with others … and be on the lookout for Leanwashing in the grocery stores and restaurants you visit.  When you see it for what it is, it loses its hold on you!