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"Healthier" Restaurant Offerings: Are They Really Better?

Fitday Editor

It seems that when the New Year rolls around, restaurants and fast-food joints begin to introduce new healthy menu options in hopes of reeling in new customers who are still trying to stick to their New Year's resolutions of losing weight or eating healthier. But are these new menu choices really healthy or just a marketing ploy to draw in customers? Let's check out the latest menu options at popular eateries.

In an effort to appeal to a more health-conscious crowd, McDonald's is rolling out its new Fruit & Maple Oatmeal. This new item blends oats, California raisins, golden raisins, diced red and green apples, dried sweetened cranberries, brown sugar, and light cream. One serving has 290 calories and 4.5 grams of fat. This breakfast does hit a couple nutrition high-notes by providing 130% of the Daily Value of vitamin C and 19% of the Daily Value for fiber. The downfall here is that it's fairly high in sugar at 32 grams, particularly from added sugar (sugar-sweetened cranberries and brown sugar). You can order it without brown sugar and shave off 30 calories. This oatmeal is definitely healthier compared to their other breakfast items, most of which are high in fat, saturated fat, and calories (several have over 1000 calories). McDonald's does have several salads on its menu, but the nutrition information listed on their website is for the salad without any dressing or croutons. They list the nutritional value of these items separately, even though they are meant to be eaten together.

Starbucks has added its line of "skinny" beverages, including Skinny Caramel Macchiato, Skinny Flavored Lattes, Iced Skinny Flavored Lattes, and Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte. These are made with nonfat milk, sugar-free syrup, and no whipped cream, and all have about 1/3 fewer calories than the original versions, which is an improvement, but you should still consider the fact these are indulgences.

Applebee's just unveiled its Under 550 Calories™ menu. Hardees is testing a new line of turkey burgers in and around its headquarters city of St. Louis, MO, but has not yet provided any nutrition information. Kentucky Fried Chicken now has grilled chicken. Will other restaurants and fast-food chains follow suit and reveal healthier menu options? More importantly, will these leaner choices be successful in a country that demands excess?

While not all restaurants are offering up new healthy options, there are some general rules you can follow when dining out that will help you avoid taking in extra fat or calories.

Avoid the "extras" and condiments. These include add-ons such as cheese, mayonnaise, spreads, high-calorie salad dressings, sour cream, sauces, and dips. Request these things on the side so that you can control how much you use, or skip them altogether.

Avoid fried fare and opt for grilled items instead--you'll slash calories and fat.

Make your server your new best friend. Often a food seems healthy but can be deceptively high in calories if it's prepared with loads of fat. Ask your server how a dish is prepared and make special requests to reduce the calorie content, including asking to have your food prepared without oil or butter. Lastly, look up nutrition information online before dining out so you're always prepared to pick healthier foods.

Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at

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