How the FDA’s New Menu Law Can Affect Your Diet

North Texans love to let someone else do the cooking, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics nearly half of our food budget on average is spent on dining outside the home. If you’re part of the frequent diner club, chances are good that you’ve noticed a change on the menu at your favorite neighborhood restaurant: calorie counts next to each item.

The change results from a new U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) ruling requiring restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to give consumers access to calorie and nutrition information. In addition to printing calorie counts on menus, restaurants are also required to provide nutrition information when customers request it. Let’s say you’re curious about the fat content in your favorite muffin. Just ask your server, and they’ll provide you with a sheet listing the calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, fiber and protein of the restaurant’s food items.

Opinions may differ on whether seeing the number of calories appearing alongside a savory entrée or delectable dessert will be a benefit to diners. However, Emily Bullard, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Texas Health Fitness Center HEB, believes that information is powerful because knowing the calorie content — and other nutritional information — may lead you to a healthier choice.

Now that you know about the changes on the menu, there are ways you and your family may benefit from being better informed. We sat down with Bullard and she shared six tips for restaurant diners — fast food fans and fine dining foodies alike — in light of the new focus on nutrition and restaurant dining:

 

Do Your Homework

“I always suggest doing a bit of research beforehand to see if your go-to item at your favorite restaurants fits within your meal plan,” Bullard advises. “You may also discover new options in the process.”

You can search for the restaurant nutritional information online or with your favorite meal tracking site. Also check out www.healthydiningfinder.com, a great tool for finding healthy restaurants based on your ZIP code. Diners armed with nutritional information ahead of time may better avoid distractions like good smells wafting in from the kitchen or spying the sky-high pile of nachos at the next table.

 

Don’t Be Shy

Servers today are usually pretty informed about how meals are prepared. Want to know if today’s soup special is cream- or tomato-based? Be sure to ask. The difference in preparation can make a big difference in calorie, fat and other nutrition counts. And don’t be shy about asking for dressings and sauces on the side — they can be loaded with extra calories, fat, sugar or sodium. Use less dressing by dipping your fork into it before picking up the salad. You’ll get all the flavor without loading up on too much of your favorite dressing.

 

Portion Size Matters

“Portion control is half the battle,” Bullard explains. “A dish may have great nutritional value but eating too much of it in one sitting is not wise. Many restaurants today serve meals on over-sized plates our parents and grandparents would have called platters.”

Because many of us have been groomed to finish everything on our plates, Bullard suggests splitting a meal with your partner or tablemate, or even ordering from the section of the menu for kids or seniors. If it’s dinner time, ask if the restaurant will prepare a smaller lunch-sized portion.

 

Decoding Menu Buzzwords

Look for descriptions as your guideposts in making healthy choices. For example, steamed or poached items are likely smart choices because water and heat are used to cook the item without added butter or other oils. Baked and roasted items, as well as broiled and grilled foods, are good choices. Also look for seared or pan-seared descriptions, and proteins cooked in their own juices. Skip menu items styled as crispy or fried, creamy or scalloped, breaded or battered, buttery or laden with special sauces. Likewise, stay away from gravy or au gratin preparations. And if a menu item is touted as deluxe or super-sized, be sure to split it or take half home for a meal later

 

Beverage Choice:  Friend or Foe

Bullard recommends always being mindful of the beverage you order along with your meal.

“Water is always the best and most economical choice, and it also has an added benefit of filling you up before a meal,” she says. “Unsweetened tea with lemon is another good choice.”

Bullard suggests limiting sweet drink refills, and always remember to count drink calories and other nutrients if you’re tracking calories or nutrients of your meals. If you’re thinking about a glass of wine or cocktail, limit your intake to either one drink or one dessert — not both.

 

Foods on the Go

Let’s face it. Fast food often is an easy choice for diners on a budget and in a hurry. Remember not all fast food is created equally and there are better choices like choosing a salad with grilled or lean meats. If a sandwich is the best option, order one loaded with tomatoes, peppers and other veggies. Skip the fries and swap them out for a side salad or fruit. You’ll be glad you did!

We couldn’t complete our session with Bullard without asking her advice on many North Texans’ favorite restaurant craving — Tex-Mex. Thankfully, she didn’t rule it out entirely but did make a few recommendations to steer us toward better options. Portion control is key here — especially when it comes to tortilla chips and guacamole. Healthier choices include soup and grilled fajitas with extra veggies, as well as black beans (not refried), ceviche and grilled fish tacos.

One last tip: slow down and enjoy your dining experience. Remember that it takes 20 minutes for your brain to let your stomach know that it’s full. So take time between bites for conversation with your dining companions. You’ll be healthier as a result.

 

Are you curious about your own nutritional requirements? Check out the Texas Health Resources Wellness Tools, including this nutritional needs calculator, and follow this link if you’d like more information about the FDA’s new nutritional regulations.

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