Breakfasts on the go, working lunches, drive-through dinners: These days, eating home-cooked food can be hard to plan around busy schedules.
You may think you know what the healthy eating options include on your go-to restaurants’ menus, but looks can be deceiving. While more and more restaurants have adopted healthy eating trends and redesigned their menus to make them appear healthier, not all foods are as healthy as they may seem.
Here’s the truth behind 3 myths restaurants want you to believe about heart-healthy eating.
Myth 1: Words like “organic,” “farm-grown,” “locally supplied,” and “grass-fed” mean the food is healthier.
Polls show that 68% of consumers believe organic fruits and vegetables are better for your health than conventionally grown fruits.
But this is only half true. Food can only be labeled organic when it has met certain requirements set by the government. This usually involves using techniques that remove many chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides, that are used during the production of non-organic foods.
While organic foods have much lower levels of chemicals than non-organic options, this doesn’t necessarily translate into better nutritional values. Research suggests that there are actually very little nutritional differences between conventional and organic foods, meaning organic production doesn’t guarantee lower sodium or lower fat.
Farm-grown and locally supplied
“Farm-grown” and “locally supplied” are also staples of allegedly healthy menus. But these terms are very vague and don’t really describe a specific production process or guarantee better nutritional content.
Grass-fed beef can be a very confusing term, too. Your server may recommend it to you if you ask for a healthy choice. They may say it’s leaner –– which is true, in most cases. If you compare a sirloin sold at by a big-box grocery store with one sold by a grass-fed brand, the grass-fed choice typically has significantly lower saturated fat and cholesterol levels and higher amounts of omega 3 fats. But the sodium level in the grass-fed option is usually about the same, if not higher.
And even a healthier beef can’t beat skinless chicken breast when it comes to nutritional value. A 4-ounce skinless chicken breast offers less saturated fat and calories than a 4-ounce grass-fed sirloin.
The bottom line: Don’t get carried away when you see buzzwords on the menu. If you can, take a look at the menu beforehand and check nutrition content on US Department of Agriculture website before making your meal choice.
Myth 2: Freshly prepared food = healthy food.
Your doctor may have advised you to choose fresh foods over packaged food because packaged foods can be high in sodium and additives that can increase your risk for heart disease. Many restaurants have designed open kitchens to allow you to see how your food is prepared in the hopes of adopting a similar style.
However, freshly prepared food doesn’t always equal healthy food.
And some food preparation processes can’t be done while you are waiting, simply because they take too long to not be done ahead of time. This means you may only get to see the chef prepare your salad in that fancy open kitchen, not the rest of your meal.
Your organic vegetarian house-made chili and gluten-free cornbread are likely already nearly ready to be served before you even order them. And that leaves room for questions about the freshness of the raw ingredients used in the premade food.
You can always ask for substitutions if the dish contains food that’s not good for your heart. For example, substitute bacon with shrimp, add grilled chicken in a salad, and replace any deep-fried side dish with fresh fruit or vegetables.
Myth 3: Tasting portions are better for portion control.
Restaurant foods are notorious for huge portions. This may make you feel like an entree is worth every penny you spend on it — but your stomach may not appreciate it quite as much.
In recent years, many restaurants have started to embrace smaller portions as a way to woo a growing number of diners who want to eat healthier. A new concept was born: the tasting menu. The foods offered on the tasting menu can be half the size of a traditional portion, or even smaller. That must be a good thing, right?
The answer depends on your ability to control your own portions. While it is good that each individual portion is smaller, if you order multiple items off the tasting menu, the calories could add up to a traditional portion in the end.
To avoid this portion control pitfall, share a few items from the tasting menu with your dining companions. Be conscious of how much you have ordered and make sure your order contains a mixture of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.
In the end, eating out can still be fun — and healthy — if you know how to avoid falling into common menu traps. For more information on heart-healthy eating, the American Heart Association has a list of foods you should choose and foods you should lose.