What You Don't Know About Eating Out Could Hurt You

A new law suit filed against Applebee's over a false Weight Watchers Menu has people wondering if restaurant menus can be trusted. Is eating out putting your health at risk? 

What's not to like about eating out at your favorite restaurant? You're out of the kitchen, spending time with friends or family, and there's no clean up involved. That said, it's important to read the fine print when dining out. What you don't know can be harmful to your health. You can't assume the same rules apply in your home kitchen as they do in a restaurant kitchen. From fast food to high-end eateries, it's good to know why restaurant foods are so much tastier than your homemade versions, how hidden calories, fat, and salt add to this, and how to make the smartest choices. There are some basic rules that will help you avoid poor menu choices and gain some control over what you're putting in your mouth, no matter where you're eating. Here are 5 things to keep in mind the next time you eat out at a restaurant:

1. Many restaurant foods are scientifically studied and designed to optimize tastiness. It's not just the individual sugar, fat and salt content of foods. Studies show that the proportions of these combined ingredients in junk foods can be optimized to maximize a preferred taste. Sugar/fat combinations, such as those in ice cream, and fat/salt combinations, in food like french fries, boosts the flavor making the dishes taste better than the same ones you would eat at home. 

2. Calorie-controlled restaurant meals are not tested every day. While you might think that you've ordered a 350-calorie entree because the menu makes the claim, you actually may be consuming many more calories. Your meal can be off by hundreds of calories, and there could be much more fat and salt in the dish than listed on the menu. A dish is prepared once, or up to several times, to determine the specific calorie content, and content of fat, protein and carbohydrates in that particular serving, to get the endorsement of a group like Weight Watchers. It doesn't mean that every serving ever made will hold true to the claim. A finicky chef, an inattentive kitchen worker, or some other food handler might add extra fat, salt or sugar, or provide a bigger serving.

3. Restaurant food contains a lot of hidden salt. Restaurants want their foods to taste good, and salt is a major flavor enhancer. Many restaurant  dishes are loaded with salt, but don't necessarily taste salty. Even healthy foods can be loaded with salt. Some entrees contain about half the salt recommended for healthy people in an entire day (about 2300 mg). If you have high blood pressure, you've got to be even more careful of dietary salt.

4. Extra "hidden" fat is often added to keep foods moist. Just like salt, your food doesn't have to taste greasy or oily for there to be a lot of extra fat. This "hidden" fat usually has a moist mouth feel. Ever wonder why your baked fish tastes so soft and juicy in a restaurant, and a lot drier when you cook it at home? "Hidden" fat could be the culprit.

5. You can only change your own eating behavior. While lawsuits bring attention to false restaurant  claims, don't expect them to change anything. Try to keep restaurant dining to a minimum, and cook at home. When you're not tempted by all of the tasty options on the menu, it makes it easier to monitor your portion sizes and eat healthier. If you must eat out often, order simple foods, with sauces and salad dressing on the side. You may also want to ask for no butter on grilled foods and vegetables, and downsize your portions by sharing a main dish, or choosing two appetizers or small plates.

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