Food News

Healthy Dining Finder Web Site Leads You Straight Into The Lion's Den

A new website, Healthy Dining Finder, apparently aims to facilitate healthy choices for people who eat out. From the home page, a visitor can enter a ZIP code and get dining recommendations within a 20-mile radius. A test search using 75219 turns up 22 restaurants. Among them? McDonald's, Hooters, Jack in the Box, Panda Express and other chain restaurants.

I'm sure my vital organs are thrilled.

Digging deeper does reveal something close to healthy eating. Clicking on each restaurant takes to you a page that details healthy options for each: Twenty-two healthy dining options are listed for McDonald's, including a number of smoothies, a hamburger Happy Meal with Apple Dippers, and salads, among others. The worst item on the McDonald's list is the grilled chicken club sandwich, which clocks in at 460 calories, 16 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol and 1030 mg sodium.

Other restaurants are more difficult to navigate. Panda Express lists a two-entree plate of mushroom chicken and broccoli beef with mixed veggies at 400 calories, 17 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol and -- here's the kicker -- 1970 mg sodium. Guidelines from the Mayo Clinic, also listed in Healthy Dining's site, recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day. Hope you didn't already eat lunch.

The dishes, as listed, are not terrible for you -- some could even be considered genuinely healthy -- but the entire concept is more or less a disaster.

I checked out Healthy Dining's criteria for including a dish on their website ...

1. Entrées (or full meals) must include at least two of the following:

• fruits and/or vegetables • lean protein (skinless white meat poultry, fish/seafood, tofu, etc.) • 100% whole grains

2. Menu items must meet the following three criteria:

Entrées (or full meals):

• 750 calories or less • 25 grams of fat or less • 8 grams of saturated fat or less

Appetizers, side dishes and desserts:

• 250 calories or less • 8 grams of fat or less • 3 grams of saturated fat or less

Whenever possible, menu items that are lower in sodium and cholesterol are featured. Entrées containing 2000 mg of sodium and side dishes, appetizers and desserts containing 750 mg of sodium or more are not featured on this site.

3. Deep fried items (i.e., egg rolls, chicken fingers, tostada shells, etc.)

These items are excluded from the website, except for very small amounts of garnishes, such as wonton strips.

The algorithm technically works, but it assumes people eat like robots, and turns temptation into a myth. Allowing 86 percent of our daily recommended sodium intake may still allow for healthy eating on the whole, but it's reckless.

Blindly ordering from the list of choices supplied by Healthy Dining will not really result in a healthy diet and, more important, it will also steer you dangerously close to menu items that are absolutely terrible for you. Have fun with that low sodium mixed vegetable stir fry at Panda Express while the guy next to you chows down on Hunan Chicken and deep-fried pork egg rolls.

It's all built on the misconception that eating healthy has to be boring. Eating healthy is hard when it feels like a consolation prize, and it's even harder when the guy next to you is wiping special sauce from his chin with the back of his hand while taking a big pull from a super-sized holiday pumpkin milkshake.

But healthy choices that don't totally suck aren't impossible. And they're certainly easier when you're engrossed in a menu that truly embraces inspired, wholesome cooking featuring cuisines and recipes that are inherently healthy.

Many authentic Indian and Thai dishes are low in saturated fat because that's how they were originally designed -- not because fatty meat has been replaced with lean protein and flavorful cheese has been replaced with a low-fat cheese "product." Foods from the Middle East are typically healthy too. Hummus, tabbouleh and lean grilled meats were good for you before nationally funded and corporate food scientists tried to squeeze the life out of them. They actually taste good, too.

Certainly there are areas in this country where Middle Eastern tapas and vegetarian Indian cuisine are not a readily available option. But in promoting healthy choices amongst America's most unhealthy restaurants, Healthy Dining sends its users a mixed message. What people seeking wholesome food really need are real choices -- not a processed salad that's healthy because an affixed sticker on the wrapper is shaped like a heart.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz