Counting on Healthy FoodApril 13, 2010
There seems to be a recent focus on the nutritional value of non-homemade food these days. I remember quite a while ago when the “Nutritional Facts” labels became a requirement for all packaged food, but then the health information craze seemed to die down for a while. But lately I’ve been hearing a lot more about discovering the real nutritional content of restaurant food. There is a recurring column on the internet exposing the calories, sugar, fat and salt contents of many dishes at national restaurant chains; there is also a new phenomenon occurring in restaurants everywhere, from sit-down places to take-out joints – they are posting the calories for each item.
I understand why some people want to know these things – it can help them to eat healthier, if that’s their desire. But some of it just seems like overkill. For example, that internet column I mentioned – I think it’s called “Don’t Eat That, Eat This.” They divulge the horrendous content of a dish at, say, Chili’s, and then suggest a healthier alternative that Chili’s offers. But honestly – do people really not know that the deep-fried bacon-smothered cheese fries with ranch dressing has a ton of fat, salt and calories? Will someone think twice before ordering the extra large pepperoni stuffed pizza roll somewhere because they now can see how bad it is for them? Maybe, I don’t know. I can only speak for myself, but when I go to the Cheesecake Factory and order the fried macaroni and cheese balls (extremely rarely), I have no illusions about how bad it is for me. But back to the “Don’t Eat That” column – they tell you not to eat the triple cheese bacon chili burger with onion rings (duh), and offer up the grilled chicken salad with low-fat vinaigrette dressing on the side as what you should order at that particular establishment. Who doesn’t know this? Who goes to a big chain restaurant and orders something like Moons Over My Hammy and thinks they’re eating healthy? Of course the skinless grilled chicken breast on green leafy things is going to be healthier than something with tons of cheese, dough, oil and processed meat products.
The column does have some modicum of usefulness, when it exposes menu items that many people might think are relatively healthy. I remember being surprised at one chain’s chicken sandwich – not a piece of fried chicken – being very high in fat and calories (it was due to the sandwich’s dressing and cheese). But don’t tell me to eat plain, gluten-free faux cookies instead of Double Stuffed Oreos. I’ll either eat the Oreos or just not eat cookies (recommended).
The calorie postings on restaurant menus I do find to be helpful for those trying to improve their dieting habits. If I’m scanning the menu and something looks good but has 500 calories, and then I see something that looks almost as good but only has 300 calories, I may decide to choose the 300 calorie option, whereas previously, I’d just choose whatever I wanted most. Even Dunkin Donuts has their calorie counts posted – again, who would be surprised that the sausage, egg and cheese biscuit has a ton of calories…but you might not know that a donut actually has less! That’s right – the Mouse House Kitchen endorses donuts as health food….just kidding.
I still think our entire society’s approach to food has to change before we become healthier overall. We demand too much instant gratification; food that can be produced, served and consumed that quickly is usually going to be unhealthy. But I think the calorie posting is a good, albeit small, start. What else should food manufacturers/restaurants do? Tell us!