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Decisions, Decisions: Healthiest Choice at Restaurant Chains Isn't Always Obvious

Nutrition Action Healthletter Makes Choosing Easier

Customers are confronted with choices as soon as they sit down at restaurants. Tacos or a burrito? Pizza or pasta? Noodles or rice? A special feature published today in the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest's Nutrition Action Healthletter compares alternative choices of meals, desserts, snacks, and drinks found at many national restaurant chains and suggests the best choice.

One might assume, for instance, that burritos are healthier than tacos, since tacos' crispy shells are typically fried. In fact, the reverse is usually true. The flour tortillas used for burritos at chains like Qdoba or Chipotle have about 300 calories and 700 milligrams of sodium. And that's before ingredients like rice, beans, cheese, sour cream, and chicken might bring the totals to about 1,000 calories and 2,000 milligrams of sodium. In contrast, three crispy corn tacos with chicken, cheese, salsa, and lettuce total about 500 calories and 1,000 mg of sodium.

Sweet potatoes are usually considered a nutritional "superstar." But that's not the case for sweet potato fries, which are sometimes more caloric than their white potato counterparts. At "all-American" restaurant chain Johnny Rockets, diners can expect 590 calories per serving of sweet potato fries compared to 480 calories in its regular "American Fries." Johnny Rockets' sweet potato fries also have 800 mg of sodium—twenty times as much as its regular fries have (40 mg).

What about choosing between oatmeal and yogurt parfait at chains like Starbucks and Panera? Either item can make a healthful breakfast, according to Nutrition Action. Nutritionally, both beat every bagel, muffin, scone, or croissant. Nutrition Action recommends skipping much of the brown sugar, cinnamon crunch, and agave syrup toppings on the oatmeal. The parfaits pack more added sugar than the oatmeal, but they usually pack a bit more protein and calcium.

Chinese food can get complicated. Is chicken automatically better than beef? Not if it's breaded and fried like Kung Pao chicken or General Tso's chicken. One of those dishes has between 1,000 and 1,200 calories, before rice, at a chain such as Pei Wei or Pick Up Stix. Beef with broccoli and other nonbreaded beef dishes have 700 to 900 calories before rice. Nutrition Action recommends brown rice over white rice but points out that both have about 300 calories for a typical serving.

"At Thai restaurants, Pad Thai is wildly popular," said article co-author and CSPI nutrition director Bonnie Liebman. "People who would never order an entrée of fried rice don't flinch at eating a plate of oily noodles. The lesser known and veggie-rich Pad Pak typically has about a third of the calories as Pad Thai."

Nutrition Action also makes recommendations between tea lattes and coffee lattes, gyro pitas and falafel pitas, and pizza and pasta.

In other articles, the new issue of Nutrition Action has three delicious, healthy, Asian-themed recipes from Healthy Cook Kate Sherwood, a review of microwave popcorns, and a cover story on multivitamin supplements. Nutrition Action Healthletter is published 10 times a year, has 900,000 subscribers, and accepts no advertising. CSPI recently launched NutritionAction.com, which offers a digital version of its print publication as well as Nutrition Action Daily Tips, a free daily e-letter about nutrition and health.