You may have noticed some new healthy dining options at the fast-food drive-thru recently. Concern about bleak statistics—like the 25.8 million children and adults who have diabetes in the United States—and the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, one-third of the American adults are obese, is finally translating into real change. This year, we’ve seen remarkable steps in the right direction from big-name food companies like Red Lobster, McDonald’s and Boston Market, who are all making significant improvements to their offerings and messaging to the public. Here are five menu makeovers that made healthy dining easier in 2012.
1. Red Lobster
Menu Makeover: The seafood chain has added more non-seafood options like chicken and salads and some lighter (under 510-calorie) dishes to its menu. Chain restaurants typically operate with extreme portion sizes—a serving tends to be two to three times larger than the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-recommended portion. So items like the more calorie-conscious Island Grilled Mahi-Mahi and Shrimp and Roasted Vegetarian Skewers are welcome changes for healthy dining. “Restaurants like Red Lobster that are now offering lower-calorie options are attacking the portion distortion issue of our obese nation—it is up to us to select those healthier items, or else take some food home,” says registered dietitian Ilana Katz, of Optimal Nutrition for Life (www.onforlife.com).
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Menu Makeover: The iconic chain is displaying calorie counts front-and-center on its menu, and offering more healthy dining choices like fruit and veggie side dishes, egg-white McMuffins and grilled chicken in kids’ Happy Meals. “With McDonald’s publically revealing the calories of every item on their menu, it allows the weight-conscious to permit themselves to have the occasional fast-food treats without jeopardizing their consistent efforts at positively changing body composition, and makes those people not so in-the-know more aware as to what needs to be worked off to avoid consistent fat gain,” Katz says.
3. Applebee’s and Chick-fil-A
Menu Makeover: Both chains joined the Kids LiveWell program through the National Restaurant Association, which encourages more healthful children’s menu options of fruit and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. To join the program, restaurants have to agree to offer and promote a selection of items that meet the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines standards for healthy dining. “Children need the most help in becoming aware of their health and their options from their role models, such as parents, teachers and coaches,” says Katz. “This program not only makes children more responsible for their own health, but presents awareness to the adults around them.”
4. Burger King
Menu Makeover: The King of burgers is now offering a new menu with more salads, snack wraps and fruit smoothies. “Although the calorie count for some of the healthier options may still need some work to get even lower, I applaud the chain making an effort to offer a wider range of healthy dining options. It is still up to us as individuals to be aware of calories taken in, though,” advises Katz.
5. Boston Market
Menu Makeover: The fast-casual chain has not only moved salt shakers off the tables at its 476 locations, but it also plans to lower the sodium level of menu items across the board by 15 percent by the end of 2014, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. The company has already reduced sodium in several items, including its original chicken recipe by 20 percent and turkey gravy by about 50 percent. “Sodium is the greatest contributor to hypertension, increasing heart attacks and strokes. To remain within the ranges of the recommended daily allowance for sodium (about 1700 mg) is in fact very difficult, and that is even without any added sodium,” says Katz. “Cutting back anywhere helps.”