When New York Times blogger Mark Bittman attacked McDonald’s oatmeal — an innocent-sounding healthy menu offering — for its high sugar content and unpronounceable ingredients, it made us question all the other supposedly good-for-you items on fast food and chain restaurant menus. We asked Diane Henderiks, RD, a nutritionist at dishwithdiane.com, for the skinny on the most popular menu items with undeserved health halos — and how to place a savvier order.
In theory, oatmeal is an ideal breakfast — you can’t go wrong with whole grains and blood sugar-steadying fibre. But some super-sized fast food versions contain added sugar and excessive calories. McDonald’s Fruit and Maple version, for example, packs 290 calories and 32 grams of sugar. Jamba Juice’s Berry Cherry Pecan Oatmeal has 340 calories and 27 grams of sugar.
Order smarter: Watch for high-calorie toppings. Skip the brown sugar to shave off empty calories, and stick with filling fruits and nuts.
A seemingly smart snack pick — with a healthy dose of protein and calcium — yogurt isn’t necessarily so at Starbucks, where a Strawberry and Blueberry Yogurt Parfait, a combo of vanilla yogurt, sweetened strawberries, and vanilla granola, contains 300 calories, 60 grams of carbs, and 39 grams of sugar. That’s almost like eating an oversized bagel. A small Vanilla Yogurt with Blueberries from Au Bon Pain has 220 calories and 32 grams of sugar.
Order smarter: You’re best off stashing store-bought yogurt in your desk at work than ordering the fast food kind. A 6-ounce plain non-fat yogurt contains anywhere from 80 to 150 calories and 12 grams of sugar. If you do order yogurt in a restaurant, pick the smallest available portion and avoid the granola, which often has added sugar.
Smoothies are synonymous with healthy, but the calorie contents of fast food versions will shock you. Many Jamba Juice Original fruit smoothies contain 300 or more calories each; many creamy original smoothies pack around 500 or more — much higher than the 100- to 150-calorie-limit many nutrition experts recommend for snacks. They’re also loaded with extra sugar, up to 100 grams or more in some cases.
Order smarter: Avoid choices with “creamy” descriptions, which are less healthy than plain fruit. Ask if your smoothie can be made with low or non-fat yogurt.
Boasting plenty of vitamin C, folate and other B vitamins, fibre, iron, and potassium, a plain-old baked potato is a pretty healthy side dish. But at Wendy’s, the Broccoli and Cheese Potato contains 330 calories — pretty high for something you’re probably eating along with a main meal — and 470 milligrams of sodium. To blame: the “cheese” sauce, which is actually a blend of more than 20 ingredients, including food starch, sugar, fillers, and colours.
Order smarter: Skip fast-food cheese and sour cream. If you’re making a baked potato at home, top it with a quarter-cup of non-fat Greek yogurt for a mere 80 calories and a healthy protein punch.
Surely a veggie sandwich must be healthier than one with sodium-, fat-, and preservative-filled deli meats. But even veggie sandwiches can be secret calorie, fat, or sodium bombs when they’re loaded with cheese and oil. A foot-long Blimpie Veggie Supreme, for example, contains 1,106 calories, 56 grams of fat, 26 grams of saturated fat, and 2,330 milligrams of sodium (far more than the 1,500-milligram daily limit experts recommend).
Order smarter: Ask for mustard instead of mayo or oil-based dressings and stick to a sensible six-inch portion.
Gourmet Coffee Drinks
A cup of black coffee — linked to a myriad of health perks, including a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s — contains a mere five to 10 calories. But be warned before you order from the fancier side of the menu. A small Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Coolatta made with cream contains 400 calories, 23 grams of fat, and 43 grams of sugar. Even the skim milk version has 210 calories and 49 grams of sugar. And while everyone knows Starbucks Frappucinos can pack major calories (we’re talking 450 or more), even a simple Iced Flavoured Latte with two percent milk has 250 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 34 grams of sugar.
Order smarter: Watch your order size (the jumbo sizes can double the calories and fat over a small cup), ask for skim milk, and avoid options with sugary syrups.
The cholesterol conscious may select turkey burgers as a heart-healthy alternative to beef. But chain restaurant versions bring unwanted calories, fat, and sodium. Ruby Tuesday’s Turkey Burger, for example, has 699 calories, 39 grams of fat, and more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium.
Order smarter: Try cutting your burger portion by a third for a more realistic meal size. You can also eat half the bun to cut unwanted calories. Also, consider a healthy frozen turkey burger as a restaurant alternative. One Applegate Farms Organic Turkey Burger patty contains just 140 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 55 milligrams of sodium.
Salads wear the ultimate health halo. But beware of crispy add-ins and fatty dressings, which can quickly turn a healthy meal into a waistline train wreck. Burger King’s Tendercrisp Garden Salad, for example, has 410 calories, 22 grams of fat, and 1,060 milligrams of sodium. Measure for measure, you’re better off with a regular burger, at 260 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 490 milligrams of sodium. Another example: Applebee’s Oriental Chicken Salad with dressing, which contains a walloping 1,310 calories, 95 grams of fat, and 1,210 milligrams of sodium.
Order smarter: Choose an option with dark greens, such as spinach, lots of raw, vibrant vegetables, grilled protein (avoid words like “crispy”), and a vinegar-based dressing on the side — no fried tidbits or cheese. Set aside half the meal to take home, since most restaurant portions are too big to begin with.