Restaurant Calorie Traps Revealed

Americans dine out about five times a week, and when we do we eat more. That may come as no surprise, but even if you're trying to eat healthfully you may unknowingly be downing hundreds of hidden calories. Here are four reasons why:

Calorie Counts May be Based on Two Servings Per Entrée

Recently before going out to dinner, I hopped online to check the digits on my favorite entrée. I was surprised to see that the calorie count was much lower than I suspected, but there was a reason - the number was based on 'one serving' and bingo – the 'servings per dish' listed for my Buddha's Feast was two, not including the rice. That means if I scarfed down all of my dinner along with half of my brown rice, I would actually be ingesting 520 calories rather than the 220 listed at first glance - a hidden 300. Oh, and by the way, the menu lists five servings in a bowl of wonton soup and four for a lettuce wraps appetizer.

Lesson: don't assume than one portion equals one serving.

Entrees May Omit Essential 'Extras'

Fajitas are one of my hubby's favorite entrees to order when we dine out, and the set up is always the same: sizzling skillet accompanied by three corn or flour tortillas, rice and beans, and a side of toppings, typically guacamole, sour cream, shredded cheese and pico de gallo; pretty standard stuff. Well guess what? The 330 calories listed for his usual chicken fajitas only covered the skillet itself - the rest tacks on a whopping 960 hidden calories for a grand total of 1,290.

Lesson: even if you don't pay extra for them, a menu's nutrition facts may not include a meal's side components.

Salad Nutrition Info May Not Include the Dressing

While scanning a menu's nutrition facts for entrée salads I came across two surprises – first the sodium contents were off the charts, with some as high as 2,000 mg, nearly a day's worth in a single salad (talk about water retention, yikes!). Secondly, the menu clearly stated 'no dressing unless indicated' and 2 oz of the seemingly healthiest choice, citrus balsamic vinaigrette, tacked on an additional 350 calories, 200 more than the avocado ranch. That means a grilled Caribbean salad with vinaigrette clocks in at 790 calories, just 10 shy of a burger without the fries.

Lesson: check the dressing's digits separately - you may need to add them on, or you may find a lower calorie option.

You May Be Getting More Alcohol Than You Bargained For

One standard drink equals a 1.5 oz shot of 80 proof distilled spirits, 5 oz of wine and 12 oz of regular beer. Each of these provides about the same amount of alcohol, so they'll generally raise your blood alcohol concentration equally. However, a recent study found that the average amount of wine and liquor served at restaurants and bars is about 40 percent more than these amounts. Calorie-wise that's not astronomical, but alcohol can be an appetite stimulant and lower your inhibitions, so if your two glasses of wine or BOGO vodka sodas are really closer to three, you may be more likely to clean your plate.

Lesson: unless you see the bartender precisely measure the amount, assume your drink portion is at least slightly inflated, which may spike your appetite.

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

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