In an effort to thwart the rising obesity epidemic, last week the Ontario Medical Association called for calorie counts to be posted on chain restaurant and school cafeteria menu boards across the province.
Doing so would let adults and children know how many calories they're eating, knowledge that could prompt a healthier order.
Most of us don't have a clue how many calories are in restaurant meals. How could we? Not all chains disclose nutrition information. Among the chains that do divulge calorie counts, you need to seek it out on the company's website or ask for a brochure in the restaurant. If asked to guess calorie counts, research suggests we grossly underestimate.
I'm willing to bet if you read on the menu that Milestone's Portobello Sandwich serves up 1,000 calories or Kelsey's Taco Salad (no dressing) delivers 1,120 calories you'd rethink your order.
Appetizers are also calorie minefields. Consider 1,115 calories for the Keg's Crab Parmesan Spinach Dip or 730 calories for Boston Pizza's Thai Chicken Wings. (The average adult needs about 2,000 calories per day.) Children's meals are not much better. Research suggests that kids eat twice as many calories when they eat a meal at a restaurant compared to a meal at home. Kelsey's Chicken Tenders Kids Meal (with fries, apple juice and ice cream) is 1,369 calories - the equivalent of six Wendy's Kids Hamburgers. Hardly kid friendly.
Having to post calorie counts on menus might also prompt chains to reformulate recipes in an effort to offer lighter options.
So far a handful of American cities, including New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia, have passed menu-labelling laws. But nothing much is happening in Canada. And so far voluntary menu labelling isn't working.
The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association's voluntary nutrition information program, established in 2005, hasn't lived up to its promise of providing nutrient values for self-selected menu items through in-store pamphlets at each location - their availability to be prominently displayed on menus - and company websites.
A 2007 survey conducted by food industry watchdog, Centre for Science in the Public Interest, revealed that half of 136 outlets of 27 chains offered little or no nutrition information. And as of June, 2008, five of the chains' websites were still void of nutrition facts.
I certainly hope the Ontario Medical Association's call for calorie labelling on menus will prompt the restaurant industry - or provincial government - to take action. With 60 per cent of adults and one-quarter of kids overweight and obese, what are we waiting for? Canadians are entitled to know what they're eating in restaurants and school cafeterias - what they do with that information is up to them.
While we wait for the restaurant industry to enlighten us, the following strategies will help you navigate restaurant menus - and save calories.
Start out right
To prevent overordering and overeating, don't arrive hungry. Don't skip breakfast or lunch in an effort to save calories. Eating a mid-morning and/or midafternoon snack will also help curb your appetite for lunch and dinner.
Avoid calorie-laden starters such as creamy dips, breaded chicken wings and anything deep fried. Lower calories appetizers include soup (broth based, not cream based), side salad (minus bacon, cheese and croutons), shrimp cocktail or smoked salmon. To avoid extra calories, say no to the bread basket.
Menu items that are fried, basted, braised, au gratin, crispy, escalloped, pan-fried, pan-seared, sautéed, stuffed and butter-brushed are usually high in fat and calories. Look for broiled, grilled, poached, steamed or baked items. Choose tomato-based pasta dishes rather than ones made with creamy alfredo or rose sauces.
Avoid 'fattening' salads
Salad entrees that come laden with cheese, bacon and plenty of dressing can have more fat and calories than an all-dressed burger. Ask for salad dressing to be served on the side so you can control how much you use.
If you have a choice of sides, order steamed veggies, green salad, a baked potato, or steamed brown rice instead of French fries. Request low-fat items even if they are not on the menu - fat-reduced salad dressings, salsa for a baked potato, or fresh fruit for dessert.
Reduce portion size
Always ask if a smaller portion is available. If not, take half of your meal home. Instead of a large entree, order two appetizers, or an appetizer and a salad, as your meal. Or share an entree. Many steak dinners weigh eight to 10 ounces - a perfect share size.
Stay clear of higher sodium menu items described as pickled, marinated, smoked, barbequed, teriyaki, soy sauce, broth, miso, gravy, bacon and, of course, salted or salty. Sauces, ketchup, mustard and pickles add considerably to the sodium content of a meal. Request them separate from your meal and use them sparingly.
Slow down your pace
After every bite, put down your knife and fork and chew your food thoroughly. It takes 20 minutes for your brain to get the signal that your stomach has had enough food. Stop eating when you feel satisfied, not stuffed.
Avoid liquid calories
Pass on the sugary beverages. A typical 16-ounce (473 ml) serving of regular pop, iced tea or fruit juice will add roughly 200 calories and 11 teaspoons of sugar to your meal. Drink water with your meal to save calories and help fill you up.
Limit yourself to one alcoholic beverage and have it with your meal. For many people, alcohol triggers overeating.
Ask your server
Be assertive when dining out. If you don't know what's in a dish or don't know the serving size, ask. Most restaurant chains will accommodate your order - you just have to ask.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com