Eating out can be challenging when you're trying to lose weight or watching what you eat. But the recent addition of menu nutritional labeling in some cities — where larger chain restaurants have to list the calories, fat grams, sodium, and other nutritional facts for each item they sell — seems to be having an effect. Well, at least in one city, and at least in regards to what restaurants put on their menus.

Researchers recently looked at the real-life impact of menu labeling in King County, Wash., over the course of a year. Published in the August issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the researchers looked at the menus of 11 sit-down restaurants and 26 quick-serve chains before and after the the regulations went into effect. What they found is that over time, the nutritional values of the entrees served decreased in calories, saturated fat, and sodium. The sit-down restaurants studied also began offering more healthy alternatives. Despite this, the majority of entrées were still found to be very high in calories, saturated fats, and sodium, as compared to dietary guidelines.

Registered dietitian Lisa De Fazio says that menu labeling laws are a good idea; however, it's not a quick fix.

"It is a good idea for people to know what they are eating, and hopefully the thousands of calories and milligrams of sodium will shock customers into making healthier choices," De Fazio says. "However, even though the nutrition facts are listed, many entrees are still supplying more than one day's worth of calories in one meal!"

Another issue is that the average person doesn't know how many calories per day they need and how much sodium and fat is too much, she says. Not to mention that people want to eat what they want to eat and may not care if a meal is 1,800 calories and 60 grams of fat.

"If they are in the mood for fettuccine alfredo or a meat lover's pizza, they are still going to eat it, regardless of what the menu says," De Fazio says.

But what about for those of us who are looking to eat healthy when dining out? De Fazio has a lot of suggestions! At Olive Garden, she recommends using the olive-branch icon on the menu to find low-fat "Garden Fare" items, such as venetian apricot chicken. You can grab some whole-grain goodness, too, by choosing the whole-wheat linguine at dinner as a substitute for any pasta. At Denny's, go for the "Fit-Fare" dishes, such as the grilled-chicken-breast salad, and tilapia with rice and veggies, which each have less than 15 grams of fat. Applebee’s Low-POINT appetizers, desserts, and entrees are good choices, as are Chili's "Guiltless Grill" selections that are lower in fat.

If you're dining out at Chipotle, skip the chicken burrito and try a burrito bowl with chicken, minus the rice, cheese, and sour cream. Her top pick at Panera Bread is the strawberry poppyseed salad, and if dining at T.G.I.Friday's, she recommends checking out the "Better for You" section of the menu that has meals that contain no more than 500 calories and 10 grams of fat per serving.

You can even find healthy food options at Starbucks! De Fazio suggests ordering the protein plate, the hummus plate, oatmeal, or a yogurt parfait. And, of course, avoid the big sugary drinks.

Do you like menu labeling? Does it change what you order? We'd love to know!

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