Walking into a restaurant these days is like stepping onto a nutritional minefield. Safe passage is elusive, and dangers abound on all sides: sandwiches made with fried chicken instead of bread, pasta that packs over 1,500 calories in a single bowl. The edible enemies that hide in the shadows, masquerading as wholesome dishes, are even worse. The danger of a misstep? An exploding waistline.
The fact is, most restaurants are dangerous to your health. Every meal we eat out adds an average of 134 calories to our daily intake. And if you eat out as often as the average American man does (at least three times a week), those calories could tack on at least 6 pounds of mass every single year. Let’s be clear: That’s flab—not muscle. And if you eat out more, you gain more.
So what’s the solution? We’re not going to give up restaurants anytime soon. In 2009, 49 percent of the money the average American spent on food went toward dining out—that’s about nine times what we spent in 1975. We’re also not interested in spending our hard-earned cash on bland diet fare. A 2009 consumer research report found that even though most of us want to see healthier items on menus, only 20 percent of us actually order food based on nutritional considerations—probably because few of the options billed as “healthy” are as appealing as the other choices. Restaurants need to offer alternatives that are not only good for you, but also tasty enough to rival the calorie bombs ticking alongside them.
And that’s where this list comes in. We’re naming the best restaurant chains, the ones that make scoring a healthy meal a deliciously easy task. We’re also exposing the worst ones, where finding a decent entree is an achievement worthy of a bloodhound. Follow our lead, and you’ll enjoy the tastiest lean meals from America’s biggest restaurants—and save your waistline and tastebuds from mutually assured destruction.
Best: Red Lobster
Red Lobster not only ranks highest in the seafood category, but our nutritional analysis also taps Red Lobster as the best all-around sit-down restaurant. And it’s not just the Lobster’s abundance of heart-healthy seafood that helps it edge out the competition. See, even though seafood chains like Bubba Gump’s and Captain D’s also offer fish prepared in healthier ways, their options are typically limited to just a few varieties of seafood. At Red Lobster, on the other hand, you can always order any one of a dozen or more varieties of fish on the menu. And the chain relies primarily on simple cooking techniques, like broiling, blackening, and wood-fire grilling, to accentuate the fresh flavor. One caveat: Unless you order from the Fresh Fish Menu, expect a heavy dose of sodium. Sorry, can’t win ‘em all.
Blackened Rainbow Trout with Fresh Broccoli and Coleslaw
34 grams (g) fat
830 milligrams (mg) sodium
Rainbow trout is a sustainable fish with low contamination levels. Wood-fired or broiled both work fine, but ask for it blackened—you’ll enjoy a robust coat of smoky spice without extra calories.
Worst: Long John Silver’s
It’s fitting that this seafood chain was named after a nefarious pirate. Long John is perhaps the biggest villain in the restaurant industry. Why? Because of the restaurant’s preferred method of cooking seafood: boiling nearly everything in a hot bath of partially hydrogenated soybean oil. That means any heart-health benefit you might receive from the seafood is negated by a boatload of nasty trans fats. Order a Fish Combo Basket and you’ve just dropped a 12.5-gram trans fat mortar shell right into the depths of your belly.
If it’s fried, you don’t want it. You can head off the relentless trans fat assault (and save on calories) by ordering from the Freshside Grille menu, which pairs grilled seafood—salmon, tilapia, or shrimp scampi—with rice and vegetables.
Here’s some good news: The leanest sandwiches in America come from the chain that’s easiest to find. More than 23,700 Subway shops are spread out across the nation, which means your ride to work is about 59 percent more likely to swing you past a Subway than a McDonald’s. Walk into any Subway and you’ll find at least ten 6-inch subs that come in under 400 calories—and that includes the cheese toll. Plus, you can embellish your sub with as much produce as you like. You won’t find heirloom tomatoes or fresh-picked arugula, but by fast-food standards, the Subway counter is a veritable farmers’ market.
Roast Beef and Swiss on 9-Grain Wheat (6-inch)
9 g fat
890 mg sodium
No other sandwich on the menu—not even the oven-roasted chicken—manages to pack 30 grams of protein into so few calories. Just don’t ruin it with mayonnaise; Subway’s soybean-oil spread will cost you 110 calories per tablespoon. Instead, opt for mustard or marinara sauce to give your sandwich a kick.
In this case, Q stands for queasy. That’s how the Quiznos menu—bloated with mayonnaise-spiked salads, oily dressings, briny bacon, and other waistline-threatening accoutrements—makes us feel. Sixty-five percent of the regular-size sandwiches carry more than 500 calories along with unhealthy overages of sodium. And the chain’s tuna melt is quite likely the worst in the country: A large contains 1,260 calories. Even the regular-size version packs 870 calories, as many as you’d take in from two McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with cheese. These submarines will sink your diet.
Stick to the chain’s Roadhouse Steak Sammies, a line of modestly sized flatbread sandwiches. Two Sammies make for a decent lunch of about 500 calories. If that’s not enough to fill you up, order a bowl of chili or chicken noodle soup on the side.
Chick-fil-A manages to pull off one feat that no other fast-food chain can match: Not a single entree on the menu—not the Spicy Chicken Deluxe nor the Sausage Breakfast Burrito—packs more than 600 calories. In fact, only three entrees breach 500, an accomplishment bolstered by the fact that Chickfil- A’s grilled chicken sandwiches taste just as good, if not better, than the fried versions. The cast of sides also scores points, since many of them, like the fruit cup and the carrot-and-raisin salad, don’t visit the deep fryer on their way to your plate. Even the chicken salad and the coleslaw, while heavy on mayonnaise, make decent upgrades from fries.
Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich with a Large Fruit Cup
3.5 g fat
1,120 mg sodium
Protein accounts for more than a third of the calories in this sandwich, and when you eat it with a side of fruit, you’ve satisfied 16 percent of your day’s fiber needs—and filled your stomach. Bottom line: You won’t find a better meal at any fastfood joint in the country.
Worst: Church’s Chicken
Shockingly, Church’s is one of the few remaining fast-food purveyors still pumping partially hydrogenated oil into its fryers, a fact that’s even more unsettling when you consider the chain’s specialty—fried chicken. In case you forgot, partially hydrogenated oil is the primary source of trans fat in the American diet, so anything submerged in the stuff becomes an instant hazard to your health. If you eat just one spicy fried chicken thigh, you’ve taken in more than double your trans fat limit for the day. It gets worse if you build a full meal around the chain’s chicken. A half dozen boneless BBQ wings with a large side of fries will deliver a full 15 grams of trans fat—about 7 1/2 times the recommended level. But wait—there’s more bad news. Those six wings and fries also serve up 1,155 calories, 50 grams of fat, and a whopping 3,000 milligrams of sodium.
Choose wisely and you may just make it out alive. Go for the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, which carries a reasonable 456 calories. Coincidentally, it’s also among the few items on the menu that’s not polluted with artery-clogging trans fat. Make it your go-to entree, and for a side dish, choose a regular-size portion from the following nonfried options at Church’s: mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, Cajun rice, or coleslaw. That will keep your meal hovering right around 600 calories if you skip the soda.
Best: Romano’s Macaroni Grill
Check out this story of restaurant redemption: Macaroni Grill used to be one of the most fattening sit-down chains in America. But things took a sharp turn for the better when the company recruited a new CEO in 2008. What followed was a multiphase plan to improve the nutritional quality of the entrees, and the chain has since become the caloric conscience of the red-sauce restaurants. In December 2008, a basic Fettuccine Alfredo at Macaroni Grill had 1,220 calories—the same amount you’ll find in the Fettuccine Alfredo at Olive Garden today. Now the Mac Grill’s Fettuccine Alfredo has a mere 770 calories. That’s a 37 percent drop! During that same time, the chain trimmed its Seafood Linguine from 1,230 calories to 650, its Lobster Ravioli from 1,350 to 710, and its Chicken Marsala from 1,180 to 810. Everything became, well, reasonable—exactly as it should be. The food tastes great, too, so it’s well worth the sauce stains on your shirt.
30 g fat
1,470 mg sodium
“Bolognese” means meat sauce, and at the Mac Grill, ordering it on your pasta instead of choosing spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce will save you 260 calories and 16 grams of fat. Want something lighter still? Try the meatless Capellini Pomodoro, a tomato-based pasta with angel-hair noodles, which weighs in at only 490 calories.
Worst: Olive Garden
Sure, Italian food can be rich and starchy, but a true Italian doesn’t let that stop him from looking svelte in his Dolce & Gabbana suit. The U.S. obesity rate is more than three times that of Italy’s. And why is that? Perhaps because of restaurants like Olive Garden, which combine the richness of Italian food with oversized American portions. Fully half of the dinner options on the Classic Pastas menu exceed 1,000 calories. Bottomless portions of carb-heavy breadsticks and dressing-soaked salads don’t help.
Come here for lunch, when the portions are smaller, and skip the bread and the salad. Two great options under 450 calories: Venetian Apricot Chicken and Linguine alla Marinara.
The pizza industry’s ingredient-sourcing policies aren’t worthy of praise (see “The Domino Effect,” in our December 2010 issue), but when it comes to nutritional considerations, Domino’s reigns supreme. Its plain pie ranks among the leanest available, and it boasts far more vegetable-topping varieties than the competition. Plus, unlike Papa John’s, Domino’s offers a thin-crust option for all its pizza sizes, and its pepperoni and sausage toppings are lower in fat than Pizza Hut’s.
Philly Cheese Steak Pizza thin crust, 2 slices (based on a large pie)
27 g fat
940 mg sodium
Want the leanest possible pie? Just skip the toppings and toss the cheese on the floor. But what’s the point? You might as well gnaw on the pizza box. The Domino’s Philly pie features plenty of lean beef, and the mushrooms, onions, and peppers provide a nice hit of fiber-rich vegetation.
Worst: California Pizza Kitchen
While CPK’s pies all have a relatively thin crust, their awkward sizing makes it difficult to eat a healthy portion. A 10-inch pie isn’t enough for two people, and ordering one for yourself means a 1,000-calorie meal. Turning to other items on the menu, like the dozens of salad and pasta options, usually makes things worse. You might think you’re doing yourself a favor by ordering the Waldorf Chicken Salad with Dijon Balsamic Vinaigrette, but you’re actually padding your belly with 1,485 calories. The healthy-sounding Asparagus and Spinach Spaghettini with Grilled Chicken Breast is just as bad, with 1,340 calories.
Split a pizza and a dish from the Small Cravings menu. Sharing the Four Seasons pie and the Asparagus and Arugula Salad makes for a meal that’s around 563 calories.
Best: Bob Evans
Even though the breakfast at Bob Evans is fattier and brinier than anything you’d make at home, it still beats out the other chains. Take Denny’s, for instance: Thanks to calorically careless cooking methods, a single scrambled egg packs in 120 calories and 10 grams of fat. At Bob’s, a scrambled egg has only 84 calories and 5 grams of fat. But to net a decent meal, you still need strategy, and it goes like this: Forget the premade burritos, the greasy sausage scrambles, and the stuffed French toast. Instead, construct your own healthy meal from basic breakfast elements.
2 Scrambled Eggs, Home Fries, and Fruit Dish
16 g fat
1163 mg sodium
Choose eggs for belly-filling protein, and always pair them with a side of fruit. Have home fries instead of hash browns and you’ll save 161 calories, 2 grams of fat, and 414 milligrams of sodium. If you build a reasonable breakfast foundation, you can even afford to add on turkey sausage, bacon, or a parfait.
Here’s the short stack of IHOP foibles: Nearly every combo encourages you to order bacon or sausage, every regular order of pancakes comes crowned with a scoop of butter big enough to plug the mouth of an ice-cream cone, and nearly every omelet is packed with meat and cheese and often garnished with rich toppings like sour cream or hollandaise sauce. The fat assault is so severe that your omelet can contain as much as 82 grams of it—just 10 fewer than you’ll find in a stick of butter. Just call it the International House of Pudge.
Turn to the “Simple & Fit” selections, which come in under 600 calories. Try the whole-wheat French toast topped with fresh banana—just take it easy with the syrup.
Think of Chipotle as Subway for Mexican food. The chain’s customizable approach puts you in charge of your meal, helping you avoid a surreptitious load of fat. What’s more, the chain is a major supporter of conscientiously raised meat and dairy, including hormone-free pork.
Steak Burrito Bowl with Black Beans, Cheese, and Green Salsa
16 g fat
980 mg sodium
For a robust, healthy dish with plenty of belly-filling protein and fiber, pick the Burrito Bowl instead of the regular burrito. You’ll save nearly 300 calories just by skipping the tortilla.
Worst: On the Border
Grilled meat, beans, and salsa make for a healthy Mexican meal. That’s why it’s such a shame that On the Border tends to favor breaded fish, fried tortillas, and creamy sauces instead. Order the cheese and onion Tres Enchilada dinner, for instance, and you’ll rack up about 1,600 calories. The dessert menu is just as bad. Pick one at random and odds are you’ll net an additional 1,000 calories or more. Just say no mas.
Remember this formula: two soft tacos with a side of beans, vegetables, or both.
Best: Ruby Tuesday
Sometimes the “best” restaurant is the one that inflicts the least damage, and that’s the situation here. The chow coming from family restaurants—think T.G.I. Friday’s, Outback, and Applebee’s—is notoriously bloated. Ruby Tuesday boasts the most numerous healthy options with its Fit & Trim menu—more than a dozen entrees come in under 700 calories. (Applebee’s a has a healthy menu, but it offers just five options.) Venture onto the rest of the Ruby Tuesday menu and you’ll find more smart choices. The chicken and seafood entrees are fairly safe, and a half rack of Memphis Dry-Rub Ribs has 460 calories—about half what the half-rack ribs at Applebee’s have.
Barbecue Grilled Chicken with White Cheddar Mashed Potatoes and Fresh Steamed Broccoli
20 g fat
2,061 mg sodium
The barbecue chicken and cheesy potatoes pack plenty of indulgence, and broccoli adds a bit of greenery.
Worst: Cheesecake Factory
No restaurant chain exemplifies America’s portion problem more than Cheesecake Factory. One of the leanest regular dinner items is a hulking cheeseburger called the Factory Burger, which delivers just about as many calories as a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. What’s more, the average full-size sandwich contains nearly 1,400 calories, and the average pasta dish clocks in at 1,835. Worst of all, you’ll find a measly four entrees spotlighted as “healthy.”
The Small Plates & Snacks menu items are generally the leanest fare.
Best: Panda Express
Given Panda’s penchant for blanketing breaded meats with syrupy sauces, it’s surprising to note how many entrees are under 300 calories. And since you can put together your own meal, it’s easy to eat healthy. Pair an entree with a side of vegetables and a chicken egg roll—a formula almost guaranteed to net a meal with fewer than 700 calories.
Broccoli Beef with Mixed Veggies (instead of rice or noodles) and a Chicken Egg Roll
16.5 g fat
1,660 mg sodium
Make Broccoli Beef your go-to entree to keep the calorie total at 400.
Worst: P.F. Chang’s
The entrees at this higher-end Chinese restaurant will cost you twice: Once when the check arrives, and again when your body deals with the high-calorie payload. It’s hard to find an entree under 600 calories. The chain tries to pass the buck by claiming that its dishes are meant to be shared, but that’s never specified on the menu. And unlike other chains, Chang’s doesn’t help you find the healthy items on the menu. You’d assume a dish called Lemongrass Prawns with Garlic Noodles would be relatively lean, but it delivers 970 calories. It’s the luck of the draw—just call it Chinese roulette.
Seafood is safest. The two salmon-based entrees are both under 700 calories. On the appetizer side, your best bets are the spring rolls and seared ahi tuna.
The Wendy’s menu is built on the same bedrock foods as every other burger joint: beef, cheese, and fat-fried potatoes. But the chain trounces the competition in two ways. First, several of its burgers, including the Double Stack and nearly the entire line of Jr. Burgers, fall below the 400-calorie threshold. Not enough beef for you? Not a big deal. The quarter-pound Single has only 470 calories, and if you add bacon but hold the mayo, you’re facing a still-reasonable 550. Wendy’s sides also surpass the competition’s. The chili strikes a perfect balance between flavor and nutrition, and customers can replace fries with chili, a side salad, or a baked potato in a standard value meal at no extra charge, a courtesy that’s rarely granted in the world of fast-food restaurants.
Jr. Cheeseburger and a Small Chili
18 g fat
1,560 mg sodium
For great flavor and smart portion control, order two satisfying favorites—chili and a cheeseburger—for under 500 calories.
Worst: Dairy Queen
DQ is the only fast-food chain that specializes in both burgers and ice cream, and both sides of the menu are driven by the same excess that gives fast food a bad name. Granted, burger-and-shake joints are bound to have calorie-dense choices, but there’s no reason they need to inject each food item with egregious amounts of sodium and spike the desserts with trans fats. The indulgences at DQ include basket meals that rack up at least 49 grams of fat each, large malts with 1,300-plus calories, and the iconic Blizzard, a blended soft-serve sundae that averages over 800 calories for a medium serving. It’s even served from a beverage cup, the better to scarf down alongside your burger and fries.
Stick to entrees under 500 calories, like the Original Cheeseburger or any regular-sized hot dog. If you want a treat, order a small ice-cream cone.
12 Months of Restaurant Survival Strategies
Adopt one every time the calendar flips and be leaner by the end of 2011
January: Avoid the combo meals
A recent survey of New York City restaurants reveals that combo meals account for 31 percent of all burger-chain purchases, and the average calorie toll exceeds 1,200 per meal. Defend yourself by ignoring the preset combos and building your own meal with a couple of nutritious items instead.
February: Order small cups
A Duke University study found that when people order drinks at fast-food joints, they tend to pick the medium size regardless of the volume of the cup. That means restaurants can control how much you drink by deciding how big to make their “medium.” Keep portions under control by sticking with the small soda. (You’ll get at least 8 ounces, which is plenty.)
March: Eat more plants
Most restaurants offer a vegetable side other than fries. Order it. A University of Florida study that tracked the diets of two groups of young adults—an overweight and a normal-weight group—showed that both groups ate about the same number of calories. So why the difference in body weight? The thinner participants ate more calories from vegetables.
April: Drink up
If your stomach is growling as you enter a restaurant, reach for the water first. In a Virginia Tech study, two groups ate low-calorie diets, but only one group also drank 2 cups of water before each meal. Over 12 weeks, the water drinkers lost nearly 5 pounds more than the control group. The reason? Water, like food, fills the stomach, blunting appetite.
May: Ban the handouts
What do tortilla chips, dinner rolls, and breadsticks have in common? All of them are made from cheap refined carbohydrates, loaded into baskets, and doled out free of charge to patrons. Take the bait and you’ll end up with a few hundred worthless calories tacked onto your meal. The better option? Tell the server to save the basket for another table.
June: Order by number
The health-care reform law will require chains with 20 or more outlets to post calorie counts on menus. Until then, do some digging to find out how many calories are in your favorite restaurant meals. (A copy of Eat This, Not That! 2011 could help.) A study in the American Journal of Public Health shows that people regularly underestimate calories in foods by nearly half.
July: Slow down and then decide
A study published last year in Psychological Science reveals that the mere sight of a fast-food sign on the side of the road is enough to make people feel rushed, which can lead to impulsive decisions—and dangerous nutritional choices. Sidestep your impulses the next time you eat out: Plan your order before you walk through the door.
August: Don’t exaggerate the occasion
You’re 45 percent less likely to make healthy choices when you identify a meal as a “special occasion,” according to a 2008 study in the International Food Research Journal. The problem is, study participants identified “special occasions” several times a week. Unless you know what you’re celebrating, stick to your healthy habits.
September: Keep it simple
Beware of menu verbiage. The longer the name of an item, the more fattening it tends to be. IHOP’s original French toast has 920 calories, but the Strawberry Banana French Toast has 1,060. At Applebee’s, a burger has 770 calories while the Steakhouse Burger with A.1. Sauce swells to 1,190. If you can’t check calories, have the simply named entrees.
October: Avoid peer pressure
What your friend eats might be making you fat. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that your risk of obesity jumps 171 percent when a close friend becomes obese. Friends may influence your eating habits, the study authors suggest. Don’t let them dictate your meal (“Let’s share the chili cheese fries!”) when you eat out.
November: Listen to your gut
Try ordering a smaller meal—you might be surprised at how full you feel. In a Penn State study, people ate 30 percent more food when they were served bigger portions, yet felt no more satisfied than those who’d received smaller portions. Start by ordering less than usual (the Whopper Jr., say), and then gauge how satisfied you feel before ordering more.
December: Watch the alcohol
Your booze buzz just might be making you eat more. A study in the Journal of Psychology & Behavior found that drinking alcohol before a meal prompted people to consume 19 percent more calories. In the mood for a drink with dinner? Save yourself from calorie overload by holding off on your drink order until you’ve settled on a healthy meal.