Eating out at restaurants is something we all do at one time or another.
Whether we stop by a fast food chain while we are traveling to get a quick bite to eat or we choose to eat out at a restaurant because we have no idea what to have for dinner (I've been there, lots of times).
While it may be convenient and easy to just get in the car and drive down the street to your local chain restaurant, there may be some things you want to think about before choosing your next meal out.
Just because you have to go in and sit down at a restaurant, doesn't make it a healthier choice over the drive-thru window. The food may sound and look fancier or healthier, but there are simply some chain restaurants you should never think about eating at in the future.
Chain restaurants, or casual dining options, are places where you go in, are seated by a host/hostess, waited on by waitstaff and often include a bar service and meal deals to make dining easier on your wallet. These restaurants can be found around malls, shopping centers and highway strips and are located in almost every city around the country.
You probably know them well, places like Applebees, Olive Garden, IHOP, Cheesecake Factory, Chili's, P.F. Changs, TGI Fridays, etc. One of these may even be your go-to or favorite place to dine when given the option.
One of the main problems with chain restaurants like these is that they often give the illusion that they’re healthy.
Most people know that if they’re stopping by a Burger King, their meal isn’t going to be healthy - at all. But with carefully chosen, descriptive words on the menu like “fluffy,” “fire-roasted” and “hand-crafted,” an illusion of health is created.
That’s not the only problem, of course - there is PLENTY to be concerned about when it comes to chain restaurants.
Just take a look at some of the ways chain restaurants take shortcuts to make it seem like they are offering healthier options, when in reality it's no different than the drive-thru window.
GMOs. Unless explicitly stated otherwise on their menu, you can be pretty sure that the ingredients you’re eating at a chain restaurant are full of GMOs.
These genetically modified organisms have been altered to withstand pesticide use (yum). Eating GMO foods has been linked to an increase in allergies, an increase in antibiotic resistance, disorders in the reproductive system and more.
The most common GMO foods are corn, soy, canola, alfalfa and sugar beets. Corn and canola oils are often used in chain restaurant cooking and corn is often used as a filler in low-quality foods. Your chain restaurant French fries are almost certainly made with GMO oils.
Antibiotics. Factory-farmed animals live in terrible, squalid conditions. Animals who are depressed and living in this manner are much likelier to become sick than animals living in humane conditions. But a sick animal isn’t a useful animal. Enter antibiotics.
The World Health Organization has named antibiotics resistance an increasingly serious threat to global health. Life-changing drugs that were once effective are now powerless against bacteria that’s learned to modify itself in order to survive antibiotics.
“But I don’t take antibiotics!” you protest. Unfortunately, the meat that you’re eating at a chain restaurant was once likely treated with medication. And as the old saying goes, “you are what you eat.”
Some fast food restaurants are tackling antibiotics use, but this tactic isn’t spreading as fast as it should.
Farmed fish. Fish is often considered a healthy alternative to other meats. For example, wild-caught salmon is one of my favorite brain foods. However, that’s not what you’re getting at chain restaurants.
Farmed fish is cheaper than wild-caught varieties. In this case, you get more than what you paid for, mainly toxins and pesticides. Eating farmed fish actually contributes to overfishing and shrinks our ocean’s biodiversity.
And if the factory-farmed fish includes fish like swai, which isn’t subject to the same inspection as other types of fish, you could be ingesting antibiotics, pesticides and microbes behind shellfish poisoning. YIKES! No, thank you!
Gluten galore. So. much. gluten. If you have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, a chain restaurant is probably not for you. That’s because even in foods that might not normally include gluten, other ingredients are added in to improve the taste and texture of inferior products. In fact, if you have any type of food allergy or intolerance, I’d steer clear of chain restaurants altogether just to be safe.
Excessive calories. One chain restaurant meal can easily weigh in at your entire day’s worth of calories, and that does not include a heap of veggies. But these foods aren’t going to keep you full all day. In fact, you might be hungry shortly after eating them.
Since they’re full of sugar, starch, refined carbohydrates and low-quality meats and cheeses, there’s not much staying power in these dishes. After the lethargic feeling that comes with indulging at a chain restaurant, you might feel hungry (and thirsty, thanks to all the sodium), much sooner than you’d expect.
As you can see, you are getting WAY more than you bargained for when going out to eat these days. In order to offer those great deals and specials, they have to cut corners somewhere, and unfortunately, they are cutting quality in their foods.
And even though some of these restaurants offer "lighter options" or "heart healthy" meals, the sodium and sugar content is still way more than you'd get if you were to prepare the same meal at home.
Yes, it's nice to indulge once in a while and going out to eat can seem like a luxury sometimes, but just make sure you are making the right choice when deciding which restaurant to visit.
Check out this list of the 10 worst offenders when it comes to dining out (from our friends at DrAxe.com).
CHAIN RESTAURANTS TO AVOID
1. Applebees. This chain restaurant specializes in overfeeding people, as quite a bit of their appetizers come in at nearly 1,000 calories. Their sweet potato fries, a food that should be relatively healthy, tops in at 1,160 calories before a main is ordered. Stay away!
2. The Cheesecake Factory. The Cheesecake Factory’s massive menu is overwhelming. The amount of cheesecakes alone is in the dozens. This chain restaurant makes an effort to appeal to health-conscious eaters with its Skinnylicious menu, where all the dishes are under 590 calories.
As long-time followers know, however, calories are only part of the story. Even this lightened-up menu is still full of refined carbs, pork and shrimp, some of the worst foods for you. And would you really go to a place named after cheesecake and not try a piece?
3. Chili’s. Another sneaky menu! A smoked chicken burrito with a quinoa blend sounds like it might be an okay option — but it’s 866 calories. A chipotle chicken bowl, another seemingly good-for-you option, comes in at 870 calories. And if you opt for the classic turkey sandwich, you’ll be enjoying 930 calories before the fries arrive.
4. Cracker Barrel. With the offerings on the menu, “homestyle” at Cracker Barrel is closer to “heart attack.” Unfortunately, it’s impossible to double-check, as Cracker Barrel’s website doesn’t offer nutrition or allergen information. A chain restaurant that’s unwilling to spill the beans on what it’s serving? I'll pass.
5. Denny’s. The late-night favorite is packed with processed ingredients, as evidenced by appetizers like “Red Velvet Pancake Puppies” served with cream cheese icing and bacon cheddar tots. The Slam Burger, one of the chain restaurant’s signature burgers, is topped with hash browns, eggs and bacon — to the tune of 1,010 calories. Do you really want fries with that? Sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen.
6. iHop. This chain restaurant uses cute pancake faces made of whipped cream to get kids excited by its offerings. Parents won’t be as happy. With sodium levels that reach 50 percent of an adult’s daily recommended value, packed with sugar and very little fiber, you’ll want to keep the kiddos out of here.
7. TGI Friday’s. When a chicken salad comes in at over 1,000 calories, you have to wonder if there’s a better option. The burgers are a calorie bomb; even the turkey option comes in at 960 calories. Alcoholic cocktails are also a huge selling point, taking the first spot in the menu, but sadly, there’s no nutrition information if you want a beverage. Plus, the only seafood on here is shrimp. No thanks.
8. Olive Garden. Bowls of white pasta, unlimited breadsticks and no way of getting calorie counts before visiting? Stick to making your own Italian feast instead.
9. P.F. Chang’s. Kudos to P.F. Chang’s for having a gluten-free menu. Two thumbs down for the insane amount of calories, fat and sodium even in these “better for you” dishes. I’m not quite sure how a gluten-free vegetarian coconut curry dish managed to reach 1,270 calories, 90 grams of fat and more sodium than you’d need in a day, but you can find it at this chain restaurant. YIKES!
10. Waffle House. The main offering here is waffles. Gluten-filled, syrupy waffles topped with processed meats like bacon, sausages and more. Simply avoid.
So, with all of these unhealthy options, are there any out there that are healthy for our hearts AND our waistlines?
Yes. They may not be as well-known yet, but there are some really great places that get their foods from local sources, are upfront about the ingredients in their dishes and offer organic, grass-fed and even antibiotic- and hormone-free ingredients.
Check out some of the BEST options for dining out...
Freshii. Found in 85 cities throughout the world, Freshii is redefining a healthy chain restaurant. While their lunch options are solid, including the ability to build your own bowls and salads using quinoa or kale as the base, it’s the healthy breakfast options that make this spot standout. With smoothie bowls, breakfast bites made with peanut butter and coconut along with green eggs and kale bowls, Freshii provides a great start to the day.
Noodles & Company. Noodles aren’t known for being especially healthy, but this chain restaurant is making big strides in changing that. Over the past few years, they’ve introduced antibiotic-free meats and hormone-free dairy products, and are hoping to add even more naturally raised proteins and dairy to the menu. The ingredients to every menu item are easily available but if you’re short on time, you can check out their list of prohibited ingredients instead. Among them are high fructose corn syrup, all parabens, artificial colors, artificial flavors, aspartame and more.
The menu is also divvied up into sections including gluten-free, 500 calories or less, watching sugar and sodium conscious. If you’re going to indulge in a bowl of pasta, this is the place to do it.
Pizza Fusion. This pizza place is one of the best fast casual restaurants. The menu is 75 percent organic and free of preservatives, pesticides, nitrates, trans fat and growth hormones. Their environmental initiatives are impressive, ranging from offsetting 100 percent of their energy usage by purchasing renewable wind energy certificates to building LEED-certified restaurants and hosting a monthly organic kids class that educates little ones on eating organic and recycling. There’s an emphasis on fresh veggies and herbs on their pizzas, and hearty gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan menu options.
Seasons 52. Probably the fanciest of the chain restaurants on this list, Seasons 52 is farm-to-table dining done right. They offer organic greens, grass-fed beef and desserts that won’t kill your diet, like a 280-calorie chocolate ganache brownie. The chain also offers a variety of fish, something you don’t see to often on chain menus.
Chipotle. Food at Chipotle is sourced from farms rather than factories, most ingredients are sourced locally and all the meats are raised sustainably and humanely.
Chipotle also gives you a very good chance to be healthy if you order properly. Skip the white-flour, calorie-bomb burrito and go with the burrito bowl or salad instead: specifically, brown rice, black beans, extra peppers and onions, antibiotic-free chicken (or grass-fed beef), pico de gallo, medium salsa, little bit of cheese, guacamole (of course!) and lettuce.
Bottom line: Be sure to know what you're getting into when you choose to go out for lunch or dinner. I know that when it's a last minute decision, you may not have the time to research a place before dining there, but that just means you should do your research now.
Knowing what you are consuming whether at home or away is super important to your heart health and your waistline. Visit the restaurant websites. If they are not transparent about their foods and how they are prepared or where they source their ingredients, you may want to look elsewhere.
And, while one night out at one of these chain restaurants won't kill you, continuous patronage will definitely do some harm that could have otherwise been prevented.
As always, the best option is cooking at home, where you can control exactly what you’re eating and even indulge in some favorites in a healthy way.
What are some of your favorite healthy places to dine? Let me know in the comments below!
Yours in Health & Happiness,
P.S. In order to keep you from craving sugar and leave you feeling healthy, be sure to drink 2 cups of Oolong tea each day. When you get a hankering for a piece of cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory or a fatty appetizer at Applebee's, just drink a cup of Oolong tea and that craving will be gone in no time. Don't believe me? Try it for yourself! You can find our Pure, Premium Oolong Tea, here.