Which Is Worse? Lite Menus at Chain Restaurants

They promise to save you fat and calories, but do restaurant lite menus really deliver healthy options? Find out what to pick and what to skip at The Cheesecake Factory, Chili's, Denny's and Applebee's













The Cheesecake Factory SkinnyLicious Menu

SkinnyLicious Shrimp Summer Rolls vs. Chicken Samosas 
The Cheesecake Factory has more than 50 items on its SkinnyLicious menu that deliver less than 590 calories each. As an appetizer, should you choose the Shrimp Summer Rolls stuffed with vegetables, shrimp and rice noodles, or the Crispy Samosas filled with spiced chicken and served with a cilantro dipping sauce? Which is worse? 

Worse: Shrimp Summer Rolls 
“When you’re talking about a lite menu, appetizers are an oxymoron,” says Nicolette Pace, R.D., president of Nutrisource, a nutrition education and counseling service in Great Neck, N.Y. Based on the calorie counts, 410 for the summer rolls and 380 for the samosas, your best bet is to skip the appetizer or at least share it. “You need to keep your calories as low as possible. An appetizer should just take the edge off your appetite.” 

Ahi Carpaccio vs. Chicken Pot Stickers 
Ahi Carpaccio is made with raw tuna, wasabi pesto, creamy avocado and a togarishi aioli. The Cheesecake Factory’s pan-fried chicken dumplings are paired with soy-ginger sesame sauce. Which is worse? 

Worse: Chicken Pot Stickers 
The cooking process often adds calories, as is the case here with the oil used to pan fry the dumplings. And the sauce is loaded with sodium. The Ahi’s high protein content makes it a good choice for an appetizer, she adds. It’s just enough to ease your appetite and the protein will fill you up, which might help you eat less once your main course arrives. 

Crispy Crab Bites vs. SkinnyLicious Salmon Rolls 
Which is worse: Mini crab cakes or salmon and spinach in a fried, crisp wrapper? 

Worse: SkinnyLicious Salmon Rolls
The crab bites win because they’re just that -- bites, says Pace. The order of salmon rolls has 430 calories and the crab bites 360. Split either of these with a friend to stay within Pace’s recommendation of no more than 200 calories for your appetizer.

Santorini Farro Salad vs. Beets with Goat Cheese
Farro, a whole wheat grain, is paired with cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, feta and tzatziki sauce. The beet salad comes with apples and pecans. Both are topped with vinaigrette. Which is worse? 

Worse: Beets with Goat Cheese
The beet salad is lower in calories but Pace was won over by the farro. “The farro salad has got a lot of nutrients,” she says.” It’s got a substantial amount of fiber, some protein, magnesium.” 

Asian Chicken Salad vs. Mexican Tortilla Salad 
A pyramid of greens topped with snow peas, carrots, bean sprouts, almonds and sesame seeds versus grilled chicken, black beans and greens on a crispy corn tortilla. Which is worse? 

Worse: Mexican Tortilla Salad 
The two are identical calorie-wise: 560 in the tortilla salad and 580 in the Asian salad. All those crunchy greens make the Asian Chicken Salad Pace’s preferred pick. The Mexican salad has a lot of high-fat add-ons -- a fried tortilla, sour cream and avocado cream sauce. So go with the Asian salad and ask for the dressing on the side for even fewer calories. 

Turkey and Avocado Sandwich vs. SkinnyLicious Soft Tacos 
Should you order the turkey and avocado sandwich (topped with bacon and mayonnaise) or three soft tacos filled with your choice of chicken or shrimp and avocadoes with vegetables and rice on the side? Which is worse? 

Worse: Soft Tacos 
Both meals have the same calories: 580. But Pace likes the sandwich because you can easily cutcalories without sacrificing much flavor. “Technically the avocado is a vegetable fat,” says Pace, “so you don’t need a fat overload from the bacon, the mayo and the avocado.” Pick one and tell the waiter to hold the others to save a couple hundred calories. The soft tacos are harder to modify because the ingredients are mixed together, says Pace. 

SkinnyLicious Chicken Enchiladas vs. Grilled Turkey Burger 
Do you order chicken wrapped in a tortilla covered with red chili sauce and melted cheese or satisfy your need for a burger with a mushroom-infused turkey patty topped with grilled onions and mayo? Which is worse? 

Worse: Chicken Enchiladas
The calories on these two are identical: 590. But whenever Pace sees “melted cheese” she thinks “added fat.” Ask your server to hold the cheese and it’ll be the healthier choice. You can cut the calories on the burger by saying no to mayo and asking for raw onions instead of grilled, which are almost always fried in butter or oil. 

Denny's Fare Fit Menu

Fit Slam vs. Banana Pecan (Wheat) Pancake Breakfast
The Fit Slam comes with scrambled egg whites with spinach and grape tomatoes, an English muffin, fruit and a side of turkey bacon. Or you can order wheat pancakes topped with bananas and a side of scrambled egg whites, turkey and bacon. Which is worse? 

Worse: Banana Pecan Pancake Breakfast
Sorry, pancakes. Even on a fit menu you just can’t stack up to an egg white omelet. “The pancakes have more than twice the calories and are loaded with sugar,” says Erin Palinski, R.D., a private practice dietitian in Franklin, N.J. She’s not exaggerating. There are a whopping 62 grams of sugar – that's 15.5 teaspoons -- in the pancake breakfast. The Fit Slam has only 390 calories (compared to 780), only 16 grams of sugar and half the sodium of the pancakes. You might wonder how the pancakes even qualify as a “Fit” choice. According to Denny’s, its meager 15 grams of fat and 10 grams of fiber qualify it as a healthier choice.

Fit Fare Veggie Skillet vs. Harvest Oatmeal Breakfast 
The Veggie Skillet fills more than half of your plate with roasted vegetables, the rest with protein-rich egg whites. But oatmeal is a whole grain which is great for heart health. Which is worse? 

Worse: Harvest Oatmeal Breakfast
Oatmeal is a wonderfully healthy food. It’s what restaurants put in the oatmeal that turns this nutritional powerhouse into a dietary loser. The fresh apples aren’t the problem; it’s the sweetened cranberries and the brown sugar that come with 57 grams of sugar -- that’s 14 teaspoons! “That is just crazy,” says Palinski. “Sugar has no nutritional benefits and is stored as fat in our bodies.” To restore the oatmeal to its natural goodness, order it plain with a bowl of fresh fruit that you can add yourself.


Cranberry Apple Chicken Salad vs. Chicken Avocado Sandwich with Fit Fare Fresh Veggies
Salad or sandwich? The salad has glazed pecans, apple slices and dried cranberries served with balsamic vinaigrette. The sandwich combines avocado, Pico de Gallo, lettuce and sour cream on a whole wheat bun. Which is worse?

Worse: Chicken Avocado Sandwich 
“Both options have health benefits but the Chicken Avocado is the worst as it contains almost 150 more calories and over three times as much sodium,” says Palinski. You can make the salad a better choice by ordering the dressing on the side and using it sparingly.

Sweet and Tangy Barbecue Chicken vs. Tilapia Ranchero 
The barbecue chicken is made with breast meat and is served with fiesta corn and broccoli. The tilapia is topped with Pico de Gallo and avocado and is served with cheddar mashed potatoes. Which is worse? 

Worse: Sweet and Tangy Barbecue Chicken 
The chicken isn’t a bad choice but the tilapia’s omega-3 fatty acids make it the winner. It also has less sodium and fewer calories. “Make it even healthier by asking for a double serving of vegetables,” says Palinski. Do you really need the cheddar taters? 

Chili's Lighter Choices Menu

Grilled Chicken Salad vs. Sweet and Spicy Chicken
Chili’s Lighter Choices Menu promises to deliver no more than 750 calories, 25 grams of fat and 8 grams of saturated fat in any one dish. The Grilled Chicken Salad is topped with cheese, tomatoes, black beans and honey-lime vinaigrette; the Sweet and Spicy Chicken with an orange glaze, vegetables and rice. Which is worse? 

Worse: Sweet and Spicy Chicken 
At 670 calories, the sweet and spicy loses out to the fresh and crunchy salad’s 430 calories. But the difference in sodium is nothing short of startling. The salad has 1,060 milligrams and the Sweet and Spicy Chicken delivers 2,740, which is more than anyone needs in an entire day! So order the salad, go easy on the dressing, and ask the waiter to hold the cheese if you want to save more calories. 

6 oz. Classic Sirloin vs. Grilled Salmon 
Both the steak and salmon are grilled, always a healthy cooking choice. But which is worse? 

Worse: 6 oz. Classic Sirloin 
Calories matter, but they’re not everything. The sirloin actually has fewer calories -- 250 vs. 480 -- but salmon has heart-healthy omega-3s fat. “They’ve been found to decrease inflammation in the body and improve cholesterol,” says Palinski. “And more and more research shows that higher intake of omega-3s helps reduce belly fat.” To make this meal even healthier, tell your server to swap out the rice for a double serving of steamed vegetables. 

Margarita Grilled Chicken vs. Santa Fe Chicken Wrap 
The Margarita Grilled Chicken comes with rice, black beans, tortilla strips and Pico de Gallo. The chicken wrap is filled with corn, tortilla strips, avocadoes, tomatoes and broccoli with ranch dressing on the side. Which is worse? 

Worse: Santa Fe Chicken Wrap 
At 680 calories, the wrap has the most calories of any of Chili’s Lighter Choices options. The Margarita Grilled Chicken has just 550. Fewer vegetables also put the chicken wrap in the loser column, says Palinski. If you really want the wrap, swap the ranch dressing for Pico de Gallo. 


Applebee’s Under 550 Calories Menu 

Roasted Garlic Sirloin vs. Sizzling Chili Lime Chicken 
Both meals come from Applebee’s Under 550 Calories menu, but a healthy meal can’t stand on calories alone. So which is worse: The marinated steak with onions, portabella mushrooms and creamed spinach or the grilled chicken with vegetables and rice? 

Worse: Roasted Garlic Sirloin
These two meals are about equal in calories -- 450 for the Roasted Garlic Sirloin and 470 for the Sizzling Chili Lime Chicken -- but fat matters, too, says Palinski. The sirloin has much more fat, 18 grams versus the chicken's 10 grams. And even worse, it has twice as much saturated fat (7 grams versus 3 grams). The more saturated fat in your diet, the greater your risk of heart disease. “You want to stay at 20 grams of fat or less per meal,” says Palinski. And ideally, most of those fat grams will come from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, such as salmon, nuts, olive oil and avocados. If you’re really craving a steak, you can cut fat and calories by asking for steamed vegetables instead of the onions, mushrooms and creamed spinach. And leave half of that 7-ounce sirloin on the plate -- one serving of red meat is only 3 ounces.




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