You know to pass on the deep-fried onion, and the slice of cheesecake the size of your head—but what about the green smoothie, or the yogurt parfait?
Restaurants have a way of loading calories and sugar into even healthy-sounding orders. And then there arefood safety issuesto consider: Some menu items carry a higher risk offoodborne illnessthan others.
To help you order smarter the next time you eat out, we’ve compiled this list of dishes to rule out.
MENU ITEMS TO AVOID
When ground beef isn’t cooked to theproper temperature(160 degrees F) nasty bacteria may remain (think: “fecal contamination”). Anundercooked burger is riskierthan an undercooked steak, according to a recent Consumer Reports study, because harmful microbes tend to be mixed throughout ground beef—whereas with whole cuts of meat, the microbes are more likely to stay on the surface and die off when exposed to heat. Ask for your burger cooked to at least medium.
RUM(OR VODKA)AND DIET SODA
Pairing booze and a diet drink may actually enhance theeffects of alcohol, a small 2015 study from Northern Kentucky University found. Subjects who drank that combination had a 25%higher breath alcohol concentrationthan when they drank cocktails with a non-diet mixer. The researchers point out that the lower calorie count isn’t worth it. In addition to the obvious risks, eating while buzzed makes it harder to resist temptations (like the breadbasket).
Small cuts of meat, like bone-in pork or chicken breasts, are harder to cook thoroughly because their outsides easily char. This often translates to crispy on the outside and raw on the inside. Unlike undercooked beef—say, a rare burger or a steak tartare—undercooked pork and chicken are highly dangerous and could causes food-borne illnesses, according to theCenter for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, bone-in means less meat.
THE VALUE MEAL
It can be tempting to order off the value menu at a fast food restaurant to get the most bang for your buck. But one double cheeseburger, fries and drink could add up to 1,100 calories and nearly 50 grams of fat. And chowing down may have immediate consequences. After healthy people ate a high-fat meal, their blood pressure was higher whenfaced with a stressorcompared to when they ate a low-fat one, found research from theJournal of Nutrition.
By working in one expensive ingredient in small batches (i.e. truffle oil, fois gras), many customers are cheated into believing they’re getting a taste of highbrow fare for a relatively low price. Beware: Most commercial truffle oils are created by mixing olive oil with a lab-produced chemical. Zagat ranked truffle oil as one of theeight most overrated ingredients, comparing the oil to trendy fashion labels: “it’s obnoxious, overpriced, and made with cheap material.”
WATER WITH LEMON
Order the water—but you may want to hold the citrus. In a study published in theJournal of Environmental Health, researchers tested 76 lemons from 21 restaurants and found that 70% of them werecontaminated with bacteria. Ick. The Family Health Team at the Cleveland Clinic recommends that unless you actually see the bartender prepare your lemon wedge safely—meaning, she’swearing gloves and using tongs—stick to plain H2O. Save thelemon water trendfor home, when you can be sure your lemons are properly washed.
The iceberg wedge salad is one of the industry’s biggest rip-offs. Take into account that iceberg lettuce is about 98 percent water, and it’s easy to see why. “It’s marked up at least 20 times,” says Peter Chastain, executive chef and owner of California’s Prima Ristorante. Plus, germs can hide inside lettuce’s cracks, corners, and edges. “You think lemons in water are dirty? The salads are filthy,” Chastain says. Even if restaurants do decide to wash their greens, the lettuce is often served soggy, which is big red flag—standing water mixed with lukewarm, mayo-based dressing is a disaster waiting to happen.
BREAD WITH OLIVE OIL
If you can dip responsibly, feel free to ignore this tip. But most of us are mopping up olive oil with hunks of bread, polishing off hundreds of calories before the meal even starts, says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a clinical associate professor at Boston University and the author of the textbookNutrition & You.Because olive oil is good for your health, you may think of it as a “free” food, she points out. However, tablespoon for tablespoon, it contains more calories than butter. “And you tend to go easier on butter,” she says.
THE ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT PASTA DINNER
“Be careful about ‘bargains,’” says Blake. “Pasta is inexpensive and it’s easy for restaurants to make a profit, but that comes at the expense of your waist.” If you’re tempted to get a refill, you’re better off avoiding restaurants that offer that deal (and making a healthier version at home). Still, any place you order spaghetti, the portion will likely be huge—remember, one serving of pasta is the size of half a baseball—so aim to take half the dish home in a doggie bag. Think of it this way, if it was so delicious, wouldn’t it be fun to enjoy it again the next day? You want to stretch it to two wonderful eating occasions rather than having memories from just one.
A DOGGIE-BAG: IF YOU’RE NOT HEADING STRAIGHT HOME
“Cooked foods should not be at room temperature longer than two hours,” says Blake, who is also a food safety expert. When cooked foods are between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, that’s when “bacteria rapidly multiply to the point where you can get sick,” she explains. If you’re going out to a concert or a movie after dinner, don’t bother packing up your leftovers. Leaving the doggie bag in the car is just asking for trouble.
AN ENTREE OVER 700 CALORIES
“The average person shouldn’t consume more than 700 calories per meal,” says Deborah Cohen, MD, a senior natural scientist at the policy think tank the Rand Corporation, and author ofA Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces of the Obesity Epidemic—and How We Can End It. Really, this includes beverages, an entrée,anddessert. But when you eat out it’s not hard to exceed 700 calories with just your main dish. Consider that anomeletcan ring up at 1,300 calories, and a prime rib entrée is about 2,400 calories, 700 almost seems like a drop in the bucket. “Every time you eat too much and don’t compensate [for it], you’re increasing your risk for chronic diseases,” says Dr. Cohen.
DRINKS WITH FREE REFILLS
Having seltzer? Fine. Black coffee? Also good (just limit yourself to about three cups). But soda or sweetened iced tea? Not so much. A soda at a popular restaurant chain packs around 120 calories. Not bad—until you consider it has 33 grams of sugar, the equivalent of more than 8 teaspoons of the white stuff. Get one refill or two, and you’ve suddenly sucked down 24 teaspoons of sugar. YIKES! That’s four times the amount of added sugar the American Heart Association recommends women have in an entire day.
Speaking ofsoda, diet soda is not a good idea either. There are many reasonswhy you should stop drinking diet soda: first, there’s strong evidence that diet soda doesn’t help people lose weight—in fact, it piles on the pounds. In a 2015 study from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, people whodrank diet soda dailysaw their waists grow more than three inches over nine years. Study participants who shunned the stuff gained just 0.8 of an inch over the same period.
CHIPS AND SALSA
The problem isn’t eating a few chips—or dipping them in salsa, which is actually loaded with healthful antioxidants. It’s that, at many restaurants, the basket is bottomless. “Our natural inclination is to eat and drink what is in front of us, but with such an abundance of food, we need to build in restraints that prevent us from overdoing it,” says Dr. Cohen. “We are designed to be able to consume more than we need.” Since it’s exhausting to battle biology, ask the server to hold the chips and salsa.
It’s amazing what some restaurants can do to a once-innocent pile of greens, especially when they serve your salad with the dressing on, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, author ofDoctor’s Detox Diet. Case in point: an Oriental grilled chicken salad at a popular chain clocks in at nearly 1,300 calories and 84 grams of fat. The worst offenders are usually Asian chicken salads, Cobb salads and Buffalo chicken salads, says Dr. Gerbstadt. If you order one of these, ask for the dressing on the side and take half the salad home for lunch the next day.
They dress up a sandwich nicely, but can come with a pretty miserable side effect. The warm, moist environment in which sprouts grow is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. The FDA is currently investigating two multi-state outbreaks of food borne illness linked to alfalfa sprouts—one involvingE. coli, the otherSalmonella. The agency suggestsavoiding raw sproutsaltogether when you eat out. Bottom line: If you love the crispiness spouts add to your sandwich or salad, decide if the risk is worth it to you. But know that if you’re pregnant, you’re more susceptible to illness.
MORE THAN ONE MARGARITA
We hate to be a buzzkill, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that women stick to seven drinks per week—and no more than two per day. But one margarita (which is 33% alcohol in just 3 ounces) actually counts as 1.7 drinks, according to the NIH’scocktail content calculator. Order a second and you’re already over your daily limit. Piña coladas are even stronger: A single piña colada counts as two alcoholic drinks.
There are two reasons to skip shark on the menu: First, because most types are on theSeafood Watch “avoid” listbecause of unsustainable fishing practices that put the species at risk; second, because as large predators, sharks (along with swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish) contain especiallyhigh levels of mercury. The neurotoxin, which can build up in your body over time, poses the greatest risk to pregnant women. Better choices of fish include farmed Atlantic salmon and farmed Atlantic cod.
“FROM THERE” SEAFOOD
Unless the joint is known for its seafood, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get what’s on the menu. “About 70 percent of the time, for example, those Maryland crab cakes weren’t made using crabs from the Chesapeake Bay,” says James Anderson, chairman of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island, inWall Street Journal’s SmartMoney. And while the kitchen might swap snapper for a cheaper tilapia, many times the distributors do a bait and switch, too.
Frozen yogurt has a reputation as a healthier alternative to ice cream. And you can make it a smart dessert if you do it right. However, know that a serving size is a measly 4 ounces. And that small amount can pack as many as 32 grams of sugar (the equivalent of 8 teaspoons) even before you add toppings like carob chips (another 20 grams of sugar), coconut flakes (11 grams of sugar), or yogurt chips (20 grams of sugar). Compared to a half cup of ice cream—which has just 14 grams of sugar and a similar amount of calories—fro-yo isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Slurp up this delicacy at your own risk, says Libby Mills, RDN, a nutritionist and cooking coach in the Philadelphia area. Raw oysters can carryhepatitis Aand a bacterium calledVibrio vulnificus, the latter of which can make you sick with vomiting and diarrhea. If you have certain conditions like diabetes, an infection can be fatal.The FDA notesthat oysters from fancy restaurants or slathering hot sauce on the half shell doesn’t protect you. Your best bet is to order them cooked.
THE CHICKEN DISH
Chefs criticize chicken entrees as “overpriced” and the “least interesting” menu choices. But Blake has another issue with them: “People think chicken is a free food, but some sizes of the breasts are huge. They can be 9 ounces!” she says. (A serving of chicken is just two to three cooked ounces—about the volume of a deck of cards.) “The key, no matter what you’re ordering, is not over-consuming portions,” she adds.
You might think best-selling items have high turnover. But to keep up with demand, fast-food restaurants and some other places pre-make their top sellers, which gives these wrapped and bagged choices plenty of time to develop food-borne illnesses. Instead, opt for the less popular options which are more likely to be prepared to order, says Howard Cannon, CEO of Restaurant Expert Witness and author ofThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting A Restaurant, who adds, “Anything sitting in holding, covered with mayonnaise, is probably not that great.”
Yep, those veggie-laden beverages can be quite deceptive. One popular chain combines kale and avocado—plus frozen yogurt, juice, and sugar. No wonder it’s got 70 grams of sugar and nearly 500 calories. “Sometimes these places will have to put so much fruit and fruit juice into the smoothie to compensate for the green flavor,” explains Mills. “This is a dessert. It’s not a snack.” A smoothie snack shouldn’t be more than 250 calories, she says.
To avoid running out of ingredients during the dinner rush, restaurants often order more food than they need. At the end of the day, surplus ingredients that haven’t expired can turn into tomorrow’s specials, disguised with sauce. “Watch out for an expensive item used in a way that’s minimizing its flavor,” says Stephen Zagor, founder of consulting firm Hospitality & Culinary Resources, inWall Street Journal’s SmartMoney. Be wary of meat that’s been cut, braised, and disguised in a pasta, stew, or soup dish.
FOODS HIGH IN TRANS FATS
You’ve heard that the FDA has banned trans fat—a type of fat harmful for your heart, found in some restaurant and packaged foods. But what you might not realize is that companies have until 2018 to get trans fats out of their foods. So some of your favorite dishes might still be loaded with this dangerous fat. A few bad offenders: Applebee’s Triple Bacon Burger (3 grams), Chili’s Guacamole Burger (2 grams), and IHOP’s Mega Monster Cheeseburger (5 grams). Notice a theme here?
First, there’s often more filler than meat, but restaurants think if they drown the dish in enough sauce and seasoning, you won’t notice. To help sell it further, many menus use descriptive words like “homemade,” “home-cooked,” “home-style,” or worst of all, “Mom’s.” Don’t insult your mama! Order a burger or a steak.
A BOWL OF CREAMY SOUP
Research shows eatingsoup before a mealleads people to consumer fewer calories overall. Make sense, since soup fills you up, so serve yourself a smaller entrée and perhaps skip dessert. But the study involved broth-based soup, Blake points out—not the creamy variety. A bowl of creamy soup is a meal altogether, and can rack up as much as 500 calories. If you’re ordering a soup for an appetizer, choose a veggie option or chicken noodle.
FREE BAR SNACKS
Since these nuts, pretzels, and other munchies are free of charge, restaurants and bars often don’t set out a fresh serving for each new customer. It’s like eating out of a stranger’s hand! Then at closing time they’re dumped back into a container, to be re-poured into dishes the next day. DISGUSTING!
Sure, you think you are being healthy by ordering the raspberry tea on the menu instead of a sugary soda. I get it. But, given how tea is dispensed in some eateries, you would be appalled at the condition of the tea dispenser that is filling your cup. A service industry blog, “I Got Stiffed,” claims that the tea dispensers themselves found in restaurants can be absolutely disgusting, and warns that the spouts of the tea dispensers can be neglected (resulting in a nasty buildup of mold and other gunk). ICK!
It’s such a bummer that we have to be so cautious when we go out to eat these days. Yes, the food may taste good, but what is it made of? How many calories and trans fat does it contain? Is it properly cooked? Are there hidden chemicals? Will I get sick eating this? So many questions to answer while scouring the menu and picking out something you’re in the mood for, all the while making sure it’s a healthy choice.
Have you had a bad restaurant food experience? Or, have you found a healthy restaurant you love? Let me know in the comments below!
Yours in Health & Happiness,
P.S. Drinking a cup of Oolong tea before heading out to eat will help keep those cravings at bay. It will also keep you from overindulging and feeling miserable. Always make sure to have some Oolong tea on hand and brew up a cup (or pop a capsule) before an evening out!
Chrissy has been researching health and wellness since 2012 and has successfully lost 40 pounds and kept it off. She is married and has a 2 year old daughter, Norah, infant daughter, Olivia, 2 dogs & a cat. Chrissy enjoys singing, traveling, outdoor activities and spending time with family and friends. She also loves finding new healthy recipes and fun ways to enjoy life.