Regulating dining out– what do you think?

It’s not news that NYC has some of the most progressive (or, depending on how you look at it, regressive) food service laws in the US. They were among the first to ban trans fat, and now they mandate that chain restaurants include nutritional information on their menus. I do indulge in the occasional chain restaurant, and am appalled at the nutritional information I have found. Chipotle is a pretty bad one– their food is purported to be healthy (lots of veggies, no antibiotics in their chicken, the only thing that is fried are the chips) and compared to, say, McDonalds, it is (though McDonalds can be applauded for adding fairly healthful salads to their menu, as well as adding fruit to the choices for their Happy Meals. I’m not saying a standing ovation, but golf claps will certainly do)– however, I discovered the Chipotle Fan website, which has a nutritional calculator. Oof. Scary. I usually (“usually” translates to twice in a year) get a salad — for me, substandard tortillas aren’t worth the calories– and the salad, though heavy with veggies, is still about 885 calories. Let’s not talk about the sodium, which is atrocious, and the fat, most of which comes from the salad dressing. There is no reduced calorie or low fat option.

If I made the same salad at home– with a fresh vinaigrette, marinated grilled chicken, and homemade (or perhaps store-bought from someplace like Trader Joe’s or Fresh Market or Madison’s) fresh salsa, I know I could cut the calories in half. I think that’s the problem– most people in America now don’t know how to or desire to cook and don’t know what actually is involved in the ingredients of food. All of that salt, fat, and any artificial stuff that might land in there doesn’t NEED to be there, but the mass production of chain restaurants needs salt and artificial stuff for preservatives and to match the palate of the average American, which is generally oversalted.

For me, banning might not be the road to go down (I have a libertarian streak, I guess), but education is. At a chain restaurant, where everything is standardized, there is no excuse for not having nutritional information on a website. A book I picked up recently,Eat This Not That: Thousands of Simple Food Swaps That Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Pounds-or More! , has healthful choices vs. really horrible choices at various chain restaurants. Outback, for example, argues that its meals are so “fresh” that they can’t quantify nutritional content– probably because they have an appetizer that has 2900 calories. Ouch. I would never, ever expect a non-corporate restaurant to have the resources to provide nutritional information, but a restaurant that develops their food in a corporate test kitchen has no excuse.

Do you make choices at restaurants based on health or caloric content? I’ll admit that lately I haven’t, but when I lost a bunch of weight in 2006, it’s all I did and found places like Panera, that had nutritional information online, a godsend. Counting calories can be a bear, but for many it works and at the very least allows the diner to go in knowing what they’re in for. So what do we need? Calorie counts? A more educated public? I’d argue for both– not on the menu, per se, but at least available on websites. As Americans, our perception of portions has become distorted (“value” = “big portions”), but we’ve also got a major collective fear of fat (both in foods and on our waistlines) which leads to some nutritional schizophrenia. What are your thoughts?

14 thoughts on “Regulating dining out– what do you think?”

  • I am a bit of a food freak – I don’t like to compromise on taste when I’m dining out and have long said I’d rather be fat and happy than thin and miserable. That said, I do give more than a passing glance to the nutritional info – I agree with you about Chipotle. The guac is my favorite part and yet it can claim responsibility for extreme caloric intake.

    I’ve got to get that book – I am looking to trim my waistline and diet and yet not compromise on flavor…

  • The other nice feature is a menu “decoder”– hidden fat or calorie or sodium traps on various menus like Indian, Italian, French, etc. It’s great for someone who might not cook and know the ingredients. The book is just plain fascinating in itself. I actually used it today when I went to Jimmy John’s. Instead of the Italian Night Club (horrible, calorically) I got the Turkey Slim with avocado spread– really yummy and only about 400 calories. I forgot how much I’m not a fan of sprouts, though– I’ll keep those off next time.

    I’m with you– the most miserable I’ve been in my life has been when I had nothing to control BUT my food– and now that I’m pretty happy, I’m a little heavier, but I’m totally OK with that. I will never be stick-thin, it’s just not in my nature. Curvy girls unite. 🙂

  • I occasionally get a salad from Chiptole and instead of dressing I make them give me lots of salsa.

    I think our lives are so rushed now, mine included, that we see eating as more of a thing to do as opposed to an enjoyment. I think the best advice for people is to eat slowly and stop when they are full! When ordering out, I try to eat things as close to their original state as possible.

    With my marathon and cycling training, I can defnitely tell a difference in my performance based on what I eat. I like to remind myself when I want to eat nachos for dinner that “junk in, equals junk out”

  • Regulating eating places is definitely a no-no for me. (When does it stop?) I think that educating ourselves and our children about responsible food choices are just what we need. I do stay at home with my boys, and so I do have time to cook, but even with that there are extremely unhealthy choices we can make at the grocery store. I think you have to make a concerted effort to decide what to do. And I also think that anything in moderation is okay.

    Two cents? Check

  • Kim, I agree– education is key, but sometimes you just want some fatty fries or whatever. Moderation is totally key, but have we as Americans forgotten how to moderate?

  • a salad with 885??!! it’s disgusting that chipotle would pass that off as healthy.

    everyone who has commented has really great ideas.

    i like to eat (so much, in fact, last year when i was training for the chicago marathon i lost no weight. just used it as an excuse to eat more), but i am becoming increasingly sensitized to the dangers of a lack of moderation. studying pharmacy really demonstrates how many problems are weight-related. i don’t think americans, as a whole, understand the concept of moderation. in everything we are taught bigger is better (the housing and automobile industries), get more for your money (super value meals, wal-mart), etc.

    sorry about the preachy tangent. what i really wanted to say was, if you haven’t seen it already, check out time magazine from june 23rd (,9263,7601080623,00.html). lots of articles on obesity in our country. it mostly focuses on children, but i think the message can be applied across the board. there is also a great section on the science of appetite (,28757,1626795,00.html) in the health tab of the time website.

  • I definitely think education is the way to go. I was 40 lbs overweight 3 years ago and started to “eat healthy” by reducing the times I ate fatty foods: eating fewer fried foods, more chicken, less beef, swapping burgers for salads. I thought less fat equaled weight loss.

    I still gained 20 lbs over the course of the next two years.

    So last May, I learned how to count calories and set a calorie goal for myself and my wife. In less than year, simply by reducing our calories, we both lost over 60 lbs. Read more about it here.

    I’m a huge fan of Chipotle – in fact, I’ve emailed them a few times in hopes of luring them downtown (I heard 4th and Race is available) – and, in their defense, they do have a nutritional guide on their site here. It’s under the speak>faq menu item. Yeah, lame place for this, I know.

    What I think all corporate restaurants should do is provide a paper copy of their nutritional information at the order counter or in the waiting area of a traditional sit-down restaurant. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen McDonald’s and/or Wendy’s do this.

    And while I’m at it, kudos to Applebee’s for adding a Weight Watchers section to their menu. I don’t care about the Weight Watchers points, but I do appreciate the calorie totals for the menu items in that section.

  • I’m not a fan of regulating and think that educating the public is the way to go (especially deprogramming the “bigger is better” attitude) and I also agree that chain restaurants should provide caloric/fat/sodium/cholesterol content both online and in-house.

    There’s a great website – based in Oakley – that helps to educate on myriad health topics like portion distortion, caloric/fat/sodium/cholesterol content, exercise, etc. It’s free to join and their meal planner and meal tracker functions are awesome.

    The site is

  • Hey! I work at SparkPeople. Come check us out…many of the restaurant foods are in our food database. It’s free, easy, and we won’t even bother you with email if you don’t want us to!

    That said, I agree that restaurants should be more forthcoming on their websites about calories, sat fat, etc. Some just simply don’t have the info. However, I don’t think mandating it on menus is the right answer.

  • Veggie Option and JKnepfle– I adore sparkpeople. That’s how I lost the weight a few years ago, and I still (uh, occasionally… not as much as I should) keep track of calories and exercise there.

    CinTwin– so true about JIJO, whether you’re training for a marathon or not.

    K– not preachy, though the obesity epidemic can often target those who really ARE eating healthfully, exercising, etc. who might be genetically predisposed to being heavier. No question that that is not true of all of those who are considered overweight, but many. I like the “healthy at any size”– instead of concentrating on how much you weigh, how good you feel. I, for one, will never ever be a super-thin 100 pounds but being a healthy weight for me is important.

    Chris– absolute props to Applebee’s. Now if only they could improve their food… and congrats on the weight loss.

  • I have managed to get my Chipotle trip down to just under 600 calories. It helps when you are splitting the chips and guac between three people and a curious 2 year old. I get one soft taco and 1/3 of the chips and guac. It is totally enough food once you are used to 1500 calories a day. I need to think about that again. I lost the first 30 and I still have 20 to go. I think exercise plays a bigger role in a healthy lifestyle than most people want to admit. If I got back on the elliptical I bet I could ease up on my caloric restrictions and still lose weight.

  • Julia Child was no waif but considering the kind of food she cooked she should have weighed 300 lbs. Someone asked her about this and she said:

    Try everything,
    Eat small portions,
    Don’t go back for seconds.

    Perhaps the best regulation is self-regulation.

  • julie- i used to dream i could be as thin as gwyneth paltrow, but i have grown to (almost) accept the fact i will always have j lo booty, so i agree with you that healthy at any size is the right way to go. too much pressure on people to thin down to a certain image of ‘healthy’ (which is not healthy at all) swings the pendulum the other way, and now 8 year olds have anorexia and/or bulemia. sigh.

    westender- love the jc quote. i should cross-stich that and hang it in my kitchen 🙂

Leave a Reply