To pick the healthiest menu option every time, look for these five numbers in the nutrition data provided by the restaurant

By Mirel Ketchiff
January 30, 2015
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After a slow start, calorie counts on restaurant menus (which a New FDA Ruling makes mandatory for many chains) are finally becoming more popular. And in a study based in Seattle, the number of people who say they look at the nutritional info at restaurants tripled in the last two years. Having the info on menus seems to be working, encouraging customers to order foods with an average of 143 fewer calories, research shows.

But when it comes to eating healthy, calories aren't the only thing that matters. And once you start trying to weigh in factors like fat, fiber, and sodium, nutrition data gets a lot more confusing. So we asked Rosanne Rust, a nutrition expert and author of Restaurant Calorie Counter for Dummies for help decoding these labels.

1. First, look at serving size. This is the top thing that trips people up, says Rust. They think they're ordering something reasonably healthy, not realizing that the meal is actually two servings (and double the calories, sodium, fat, and sugar), or that the nutrition data only takes into account one part of a combo meal. (Learn 5 Portion Control Tips to Stop Overeating.)

2. Then check out calories. Aim for something around 400 calories, though anything between 300 and 500 will do, says Rust. If you're looking for a snack, go for 100 to 200 calories. (When More Calories Is Better.)

3. Figure out the fat content. Fat-free isn't always the best option, since manufacturers replace the missing flavor with other additives like sugar. But Rust does recommend placing a cap on saturated fats, by choosing meals or snacks without much more than 6 grams of fat per serving. "To give some perspective, most women should aim to get 12 to 20 grams of saturated fat a day, total," she says. (Should We Really End the War on Fat?)

4. Next, go for fiber. This one is easy-just look for a number that's greater than zero, says Rust. "If something has zero fiber and isn't a protein (like meat), it's probably just a low-fiber bread product." That means you'll get carbs and sugar from it-and not much else.

5. Finally, scan the sugars. Some healthy foods (like fruit or milk) are relatively high in sugar, so this is really about weeding out the super-saccharine options and picking smarter sides. "You know there's sugar in desserts and sodas, but it also sneaks into dipping sauces like BBQ and salad dressings," explains Rust. Use your judgment; if something seems off (50 grams of sugar in a hamburger?), steer clear. (Also, check out this Easy Guide to the Sugar Detox Diet.)