Winners & Losers

What to Order When You Eat Out

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Soup or salad? Bagel or muffin? Pancakes or omelet? Here’s what to consider when you eat out. Our examples are from chain restaurants, but the winners and losers should hold up elsewhere.

Article written by Lindsay Moyer and Bonnie Liebman. The information for this article was compiled by Jennifer Urban. Photos: fotolia.com: © Joshua Resnick (pancakes), © HandmadePictures (omelette), Jennifer Urban/CSPI (all others). 


LOSER: Pancakes

A stack of five IHOP Original Buttermilk Pancakes with butter brings 670 calories and a pile of white flour to your table. With a quarter cup of syrup, you’re looking at 890 calories and about a day’s added sugar.

The Harvest Grain ‘N Nut Pancakes may look better, but even if they’re 100% whole grain—IHOP won’t say—a buttered four-stack without syrup has 990 calories and about half a day’s added sugar.

WINNER: Omelet

Build your own. Fill it with veggies (not steak, bacon, ham, or ground beef). Nix the cheese. And ask for one whole egg plus whites (or just whites).

With a side of fruit, you’re talking roughly 300 calories, 30 grams of protein, and no white flour or added sugar.

Not too shabby!


Chains like Panera let “You Pick Two.” Which one should you skip: the soup, the half salad, or the half sandwich?

LOSER: Soup

Salt assault! At Panera, each cup of soup has more sodium (roughly 650 to 950 milligrams) than almost any half salad or many half sandwiches.

And cream and butter means about a quarter of a day’s saturated fat (and 200 calories) in the Vegetarian Creamy Tomato and three-quarters of a day’s sat fat (and 370 calories) in the New England Clam Chowder.

Exceptions: bean soups and chili. Panera’s Turkey Chili delivers a nice 10 grams of fiber and 11 grams of protein (from turkey, chickpeas, kidney beans, and edamame). Balance its sodium (810 mg) with half a Seasonal Greens Salad (75 mg).

WINNERS: Salad & Sandwich

Salads have the whole package: nutrient-rich veggies, healthy unsaturated fat (from the dressing), and more.

The best salads are topped with nuts or seeds or avocado (not cheese) and whole grains (not fried wontons or croutons). Panera’s Ancient Grain & Arugula with Chicken, for example, adds apple-cabbage slaw, grapes, a sprinkle of farro and freekeh, and pumpkin seeds. Yum!

For your half sandwich, look for one—like Panera’s Tuna Salad, Turkey, Napa Almond Chicken Salad, or Mediterranean Veggie—that’s mostly tuna, turkey, chicken, or hummus and veggies (not cheese, steak, bacon, or ham). Ask for the (partly) whole-grain bread.

Tip: Pick the apple, not the chips or bread, for your side.


LOSER: Cocktail

Most mojitos, Moscow mules, and margaritas deliver 200 to 300 calories. Chili’s Strawberry or Mango Patrón Margarita hits 360. (A classic margarita—tequila, lime, triple sec—in a small glass cuts most of the sugar and hovers around 200 calories.)

Frozen blended drinks like piña coladas typically range from 500 to 900 calories. That’s what alcohol, sugar, and ice cream or coconut cream will do. A TGI Fridays mudslide (760 calories) or Cheesecake Factory Strawberry Creamsicle spiked milkshake (930) packs more than a day’s sat fat and an estimated 10 (mudslide) or 13 (creamsicle) teaspoons of added sugar.

A few cocktails—a classic martini or Manhattan, for example—aren’t likely to do more damage than a 6 oz. glass of wine.

WINNER: Wine or Beer

Alcohol is empty calories. Wine or beer beats a cocktail because you typically get fewer calories from them.

Expect around 150 in a 6 oz. glass of red or white wine. A 9 oz. pour has 220. And sangria can hit 200 to 300 calories, thanks to the fruit, juice, liquor, or sugar.

Beer also starts at 150 calories for a 12 oz. can or bottle (100 calories for a light beer). But the calories climb to 200 to 250 in a 16-to-20 oz. draft pour.

Higher-alcohol beers, like Lagunitas IPA or Samuel Adams Rebel IPA, start at around 200 calories for just 12 oz. Ditto for many hard ciders, like Angry Orchard Crisp Apple.


LOSER: Carbonara

Carbonara means that the pasta comes coated with bacon or pancetta, cheese, and egg yolks or cream. No wonder Olive Garden’s Chicken & Shrimp Carbonara (1,590 calories and three days’ worth of sat fat) makes its Shrimp Alfredo (1,150 calories and two days’ sat fat) look light. Bonus: the carbonara packs a day’s sodium (2,410 mg). That’s bacon for you.

WINNER: Marinara or Pomodoro

The sauce is largely tomatoes and olive oil, so you can kiss nearly all of the artery-clogging sat fat goodbye. It’s still pasta, though, so you’re looking at 500 to 1,000 calories. Take home half?

Tip: Linguine di mare is a mix of seafood like shrimp, mussels, scallops, and clams in a tomato sauce without all the butter in shrimp scampi or the cheese in almost any other Italian dish. Olive Garden’s version—with whole-grain linguine—has just 570 calories and 2 grams of sat fat.


LOSER: Fajitas

At a Mexican restaurant, fajitas beat cheese-laden, carb-heavy dishes like burritos or enchiladas. But they’re no health food.

Take Chili’s Chicken Fajitas (chicken, veggies, flour tortillas, cheese, guacamole, sour cream). They add up to 1,200 calories, nearly 1½ days’ worth of saturated fat (27 grams), and a two-day supply of sodium (4,800 milligrams). Why all the sat fat? The butter that Chili’s adds doesn’t help. The side of rice and beans tacks on another 250 calories and 1,240 mg of sodium.

You can do better. Lose the butter, cheese, sour cream, and rice. That’s how On The Border’s lightened-up Border Smart Chicken Fajitas get down to 610 calories, 2½ grams of sat fat, and 1,370 mg of sodium.

WINNER: Tacos

Unless your fajitas are “light” or “smart,” you may be better off with a few tacos. Three Chipotle Chicken Tacos (with crispy corn tortillas, salsa, lettuce, and cheese), for example, have 520 calories, 9 grams of sat fat (4 grams if you get them sans cheese), and 1,050 mg of sodium.

Tip: Three crispy or soft corn tortillas typically have 50 fewer calories than three soft flour tortillas. Who knew?


LOSER: Coconut curry

Most Thai curries—green, yellow, or red—are swimming in calories and saturated fat, thanks to their coconut milk. At Pei Wei, the Supergreen Thai Coconut Curry bowls range from roughly 600 calories (shrimp) to 800 calories (steak) and from 22 to 26 grams of sat fat. That’s before you add the side of rice (another 350 calories).

At P.F. Chang’s, the Coconut Curry Vegetables—yellow curry sauce, crispy (fried) tofu, mushrooms, peanuts, rice—pack 1,490 calories and 36 grams of sat fat, spiked with 2,800 milligrams of sodium. Mayday!

WINNER: Stir-fried veggies

Try a stir-fry like pad pak (mixed vegetables), pad king (ginger, mushrooms, onion), or pad prik king (green beans, curry paste). And get it with sautéed chicken, shrimp, or tofu. Our estimate: your plate will contain roughly 500 calories without the rice (200 calories per cup).

Tip: If you order a stir-fried noodle dish like pad thai, drunken noodles (pad kee mao), or pad see ew, you’ll end up with a pile of oil-soaked white-rice-flour noodles, fewer veggies, and about 1,000 to 1,500 calories.


LOSER: Whole or Coconut milk

Getting your Starbucks grande (16 oz.) latte with whole milk means 230 calories and 7 grams of saturated fat. Coconut milk has only 140 calories, but 8 grams of sat fat and just 1 gram of protein.

WINNER: Nonfat milk, Soy milk, or Almond milk

A Starbucks grande latte with nonfat milk clocks in at 130 calories and no sat fat, and about the same protein (13 grams) and calcium as whole milk. Don’t like nonfat? Ask for 1% (or half nonfat and half 2%) milk.

Non-dairy milks have pros and cons. A Starbucks grande latte with soy milk (190 calories) has 10 grams of protein, but 4 teaspoons of added sugar. Get your latte with almond milk (100 calories), and you’re down to just 1 teaspoon of added sugar, but only 3 grams of protein.

Panera’s almond milk is unsweetened, but a medium (16 oz.) almond milk latte at Dunkin’ Donuts will set you back 4 teaspoons of added sugar.

Tip: Skip the syrup. A Starbucks grande vanilla or mocha latte has 4 pumps of syrup. That’s about 4 teaspoons of added sugar. If you can’t live without syrup, ask for a single pump.


LOSER: Muffin

At Panera or Dunkin’ Donuts, almost any muffin delivers roughly 500 calories (most of them from the white flour and 10-or-so teaspoons of sugar).

And some uber-muffins at Whole Foods can rack up 700 (Vegan Double Chocolate), 790 (Good Morning), or even 920 (Chocolate Chip) calories. Think of them all as unfrosted cupcakes.

At least Au Bon Pain’s 430-calorie Bran Muffin is whole grain. (Dunkin’ Donuts’ mostly white-flour Honey Bran Raisin Muffin has 440 calories.)

WINNER: Bagel (maybe)

Most bagels hover around 300 calories, though each two-tablespoon shmear of cream cheese tacks on another 100. It’s essentially white flour and saturated fat for breakfast. (Cream cheese is low in protein.)

Instead, ask for peanut butter, egg whites, or (if you don’t need the protein) avocado or hummus on half a whole-grain bagel. (Eat the other half tomorrow.) Just keep in mind that “whole grain” or “multigrain” often means “part whole grain.” Better than none!

Tip: For more whole grains, get oatmeal instead.