“We gotta order a pepperoni pie,” my friend Jeff said Sunday afternoon. “And some of those cheese sticks.”
Seeing him salivate over the cheesy come-ons, I couldn’t help but be struck by how much food marketers are like football teams, since they both employ a lot of misdirection. In the NFL, the quarterback shouts out confusing signals like “Red 74 Oklahoma hut hut!” and the running backs act like decoys, pretending to carry the ball as the QB drops back.
Restaurants do the same thing when marketing their food, filling their menus with chicanery and deception, especially when it comes to “healthy” offerings. Eat This, Not That! took a hard look at the healthy head-fakes restaurants use. Here’s how to muster your defenses and win the weight loss game when you eat out.
1. Healthy Words Describing Unhealthy Food
Take two popular menu items: A Carrot Walnut Muffin or the Chocolate Croissant. Which one’s healthier? Surely your health-conscious conscience jumps at the thought of starting your day with carrots and walnuts, yet the truth is fuzzier. Au Bon Pain’s healthy sounding muffin offering packs 540 calories—plus 7 grams more fat, double the carbs (73 g vs. 34 g), and the four times the sugar of a 300-calorie Starbucks Chocolate Croissant! Remember, “muffin” is just a way to get you to eat cake for breakfast.
Best Defense: Find the unhealthiest word on any menu item, and let that be your guide. After all, the calorie count of a fish fry is not about the fish, it’s about the fry. (Arm yourself in the grocery store, too—avoid these fattening 14 ‘Health’ Foods Worse Than a Donut.)
2. Foods on the ‘Low-Carb’ Menu
Anything “low” in one thing is usually high in something else. Consider Applebee’s Low Carb Breakfast Bowl, which is super low-carb but starts your day with 52 grams of fat—nearly an entire day’s worth. This 660-calorie meal is like dumping an entire farm’s worth of animals into one heart-stopping combination of eggs, sausage, bacon and cheese. Their Ham, Egg & Cheese Biscuit won’t make Dr. Atkins happy, but it will save you 210 calories and 28 grams of fat.
Best Defense: Eat for balance. Don’t be fooled by eating only “low-carb” or “low-fat.”
3. A Menu Calls Meals ‘Snacks’
Your restaurant may call it a “snack,” but your dietician would call it “dinner.” Earlier this year, Dunkin’ Donuts made headlines after calling a 660-calorie bacon ranch chicken sandwich a “snack,” part of a rebranding campaign—”We’re not moving into lunch,” the CEO told AP. “We’re in snacking.” (With a snack like that, who’d need lunch?) Meanwhile, Arby’s offers a “Snack and Save” menu with alleged snacks like the 550-calorie Crispy Onion Mighty Minis, which also come with 30 grams of fat and half a day’s sodium.
Best Defense: Snack, but snack healthy. A recent Nutrition Journal study found that nutritious snacks promote weight loss. The key word there is nutritious. Fruit and nuts are snacks, but two mini onion burgers? Not so much. A good snack is in the 100-250 calorie range. Indulge guilt-free in any of these 50 Best Snack Foods for Weight Loss.
4. The Salad ‘Decoys’ Trick
Restaurants have discovered a brilliant way to get you to order cheaper, more caloric food—they give you the option to order something else. It’s called “decoy marketing” in the restaurant trade. The idea is that punctuating a menu with healthy items like salads gives customers permission to order larger, junkier, more caloric meals than they would otherwise. A study at Boston University demonstrated how this worked; researchers saw French fries orders triple when salad was also an option. It’s a phenomenon experts have dubbed “vicarious goal fulfillment.” In other words, by simply acknowledging a healthy option, diners feel they have satisfied their dietary goals and can order whatever they want.
Best Defense: Remind yourself before you look at the menu that you’re on a mission to eat well. Remember that a burger has the same calorie count whether it’s next to the spring salad or the spring lamb.
5. Good-for-you Foods with Bad-for-you Toppings
When a restaurant chain makes its mark serving massive slabs of fat and calories, even their attempts at “lite” foods can be corrupted by an instinct to slather and garnish. Take, for example, Ruby Tuesday’s Avocado Grilled Chicken Sandwich. How bad could this be? Well, by serving you a jumbo portion and topping it with bacon, Swiss and mayonnaise, the chain has built a 1,311-calorie monster with 2,833 mg of sodium and 64 grams of fat.
Best Defense: Customize it. If you like the sound of a grilled chicken avocado sandwich, then ask them to serve you exactly that—and maybe ask for a little mayo on the side.
6. Sugary Foods Masked as Nutritious Drinks
Mangos are healthy. Bananas are healthy. So a Mango Banana Smoothie at Baskin-Robbins must be a better choice than their ice cream, right? Yet a large has 880 calories and 192 grams of sugar—more than half a dozen Snickers bars. Liquefying foods gives restaurants plenty of opportunities to “improve” their healthy image. Yet you could get the Soft Serve Cookie Sandwich and save 700 calories!
Best Defense: Don’t trust any smoothie that lists added sugar as the main ingredient, like these belt-busting Smoothies Worse Than a Big Mac.
7. A Piece of Fruit on a Pile of Sugar
There’s a reason why you’re willing to take a dietary leap of faith on that Cheesecake with Strawberries, and it’s not just for the fruit flavor alone: According to research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, people tend to subconsciously subtract calories from an item when it’s topped with something healthy.
Best Defense: Remember that fruit toppings add calories, they don’t subtract.
8. It’s Grilled
“Grilled” chicken at your local chain may be healthier than the breaded and fried option, but it’s nowhere near as healthy as the same version made on your own backyard grill. Most restaurants use a “grill” that’s actually a griddle—basically a giant frying pan, which requires a generous oil slick to prevent sticking; often it’s the bacon fat saved from breakfast. If you’re on a strict diet and “flame grilled” options aren’t available, ask for your food to be prepared to your liking. (Learn more weight-loss secrets with our vital report: 10 Biggest Nutrition Myths Ever!)
Best Defense: Ask if “grilled” means “flame grilled.” If not, ask for it broiled, which will give you a similar effect—with less of the grease.
9. It’s ‘Natural’
Wendy’s Natural-Cut Fries are promoted as a healthy alternative to typical fries—the chain’s Web site boasts that they’re “naturally cut from whole Russet potatoes” and seasoned with “a sprinkle of sea salt.” But there’s more to it than that. A quick skim through Wendy’s ingredient statement is all it takes to expose these fraudulent spuds. They contain preservatives, added sugars, and hydrogenated oil. Last we checked, there was nothing remotely natural about infusing vegetable oil with hydrogen. Technically, Wendy’s isn’t lying when it says that these fries are “natural-cut.” But it makes one wonder: What would be the unnatural way to cut a potato?
Best Defense: Understand that the word “natural” does not mean “organic” or “no additives” or, in fact, anything, either in the restaurants or the supermarkets. Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Frito-Lay have all faced lawsuits over their use of the term.
10. Veggie Calorie Bombs
In order to satisfy their need to offer nutritious-sounding foods, many restaurants put veggie sandwiches on the menu. Yet in more than a few cases, you’re better off opting for red meat. At Quiznos, a large Veggie Guacamole Sub (served with heapings of mozzarella and cheddar) weighs in at 1,060 calories and an insane 2,210 mg of sodium. That’s 80 calories more than their Double Swiss Prime Rib!
Best Defense: It’s all about the toppings. Remember that even a healthy dish can be drowned in a sea of bad calories. (Often things aren’t as healthy as they seem in the world of vegetarianism; check out our list of 20 Vegetarian Foods That Surprisingly Aren’t.)
11. Sneaky Serving Sizes
At Outback, starting your meal with an order of Coconut Shrimp sounds harmless—after all, it’s only 307 calories per serving. But you’d better make sure your dining companion is hungry, because Coconut Shrimp is an “Aussi-tizer to Share,” and one plate is meant to be split by two. Meanwhile, the Medium Wings, which are also on the “to share” menu, say they’re 500 calories a serving—yet one plate packs 2,003 calories, because it’s for four people, while the Bloomin’ Onion has 327 calories, but in fact packs 1,959, because it’s meant to be shared by six. Confused yet?
Best Defense: If there’s any question, always ask how many people a dish serves. Then do a head count.