Far more people in this country die from too much food compared to those who die from too little.
That explains a lot about us. It explains why we are so fixated on the problem of eating ourselves to death in America. We know what the problem is, but we can’t agree what to do about it. It means that often science and the public are perplexed about what we should be eating. Are animal fats good, bad or indifferent? Sugar? Wheat?
It’s hard enough to navigate the list of goods and bads at the grocery store, but in a restaurant, the goal to eat healthy becomes nearly insurmountable. That’s because good foods can become bad when they involve portions large enough for a small family. A potato may be an important and beneficial food until it’s fried and laden with salt, or stuffed with five cheeses and a quarter pound of bacon. Even then, many experts say that a caloric hydrogen bomb once in a while is no big deal. But the deal is, many of us visit restaurants a lot, and the bomb starts ticking when you get to the table. Federal researchers say that about a third of what all Americans eat comes from outside our homes.
So while we probably won’t agree on what’s bad, good or better on the menu, it’s pretty easy to point out menu items that should sound loud alarms when you order them. Here are the parameters of what local experts agree upon are red-flag nutritional items:
• Lots of sodium. Many restaurant foods, and especially fast food menu items, are teaming with sodium. While there may be things nutritional experts disagree about, everyone agrees that high sodium intake is bad and sometimes even dangerous. But here’s where it’s confusing: Green olives have lots of sodium. A few are OK, but lots? Don’t go there. The bottom line here is that high-sodium load is often associated with large portions.
• Lots of saturated fat. Here’s another instance of disagreement: How much saturated fat, per day, per week, per year, is unhealthy? Where experts agree is that an overload is bad news for your body. Likely suspects include butter, cream and fats from beef, lamb and pork. Less is best.
• Highly refined sugar and flour, the carbohydrate conundrum. Same as above, small, occasional quantities of the kind of flour and sugar that make French pan au chocolate worth driving long distances for may be little more than empty calories. But in large quantities and if they’re consumed on more days than not, research continually points to this as Americans’ biggest nutritional woe.
With all that in mind, here are a few nutritional land mines to watch out for when you’re going out to eat.
• Watch out here. Small things pack big problems. Just six or seven chicken wings can wallop your diet with more than 1,000 calories and better than 4,000 mg of sodium, about twice what a healthy adult should eat in one day.
• Just a Salad: Thinking you’re doing your diet and body a favor by “just having a salad” is probably the greatest nutritional myth in the country. The lettuce and fresh vegetables are great, the damage comes in why most Americans like salads: cheese, meats, croutons and lots of salad dressing. These can easily be caloric trojan horses and even worse when it comes to sneaking in thousands of milligrams of sodium. If you’re thinking that the fat-free salad dressing helps, they’re usually filled with salt and sugar, often with just about the same amount of calories. If they’re not? They’re just vinegar. Meh.
• Tortilla Chips: Yeah, we love ‘em, too. But just a few of these deep-fried dippers have all the salt and carbs you need for a day. If they’re fried in saturated oils, they bring that baggage to your lunch or dinner, too. A night out at a Mexican restaurant can be challenging enough after a margarita or two, extra cheese on the burrito and a few bites of your spouse’s sour-cream flautas. Add hundreds of calories of chips or a full dose of cheese-covered nachos, and you’re into next week’s salt and calorie allotment.
• Dessert: You know you want it. You know you’re gonna have it. Keep this in mind. Adam’s Peanut Butter Fudge Ripple Cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory? A whopping 1,330 calories. You’re probably not surprised. Here’s a surprise, then. Carrot cake? They weigh in at about 1,500 calories per serving. The average chunk of mud pie? Drum roll: 2,000 calories. Even a healthy little hunk of tiramisu thunders with about 1,000 calories. Diet experts say share the thing four of five ways, and you can have your cake and eat it, too. Lots of diet experts say that if the occasional rich dessert keeps you on track, be reasonable. Just be aware what you’re reasoning with when it comes to most restaurant desserts, the nutritional equivalent of plutonium. Just a dot, not a lot.
Drinky Winky: This is what makes eating out a stealth operation against your diet. “What’s one glass of wine going to hurt?” Probably not much. A 4-ounce glass of white wine or session ale loads about 130 calories or so onto your day. But a sumptuous imperial stout? Tipping over 300 calories there. A rum and Coke? About the same. A brandy alexander for dessert? Try 400 calories, or better if it’s a decent size. On top of all this is the problem that researchers say calories from alcohol tend to pile on fat in places humans don’t want it faster than other calories. No reason to do without, just be aware you calorie meter runs even when your fork and spoon aren’t.
Here’s a link to a local consortium of Colorado government agencies, including the Anschutz Wellness Center, that’s working to bring local restaurants together in reporting nutritional information and making going out to eat healthier