The Best of Local Fast-Casual Dining
We pick our favorite dishes from local eateries. Plus: Tips for healthier ordering.
When You’re Counting
As the conventional wisdom goes, fast-casual meals are a lot healthier than traditional fast-food. But do they contain fewer calories? Often, no.
A study published last year in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that on average, entrées at fast-casual restaurants contained 200 more calories than those at fast-food places. Using database nutrition information, the researchers from the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina analyzed 3,193 entrées at 34 fast-food restaurants and 28 fast-casual establishments. They calculated that “significantly more” fast-casual entrées exceeded 640 calories, the median number of calories of the entrées. The authors did not compare nutritional quality at the two types of eateries.
That’s the conundrum surrounding the fast-casual trend, which serves up fresh vegetables, greens and whole grains, and all the fiber and other nutrients that go with them. But fast-food meals likely have fewer calories because they are served in smaller, standardized portions, and there are fewer options for customization, says Potomac-based dietitian Faye Berger Mitchell, who offers the following tips for navigating fast-casual eating:
? Watch out for the “more the merrier” mentality. With the plethora of choices, it’s tempting to load up on toppings, but generally the more you add, the greater number of calories. Be particularly mindful of sauces, dressings and cheeses.
? Consider the “lightly dressed” option if asked how much salad dressing you’d like, and don’t be timid about requesting smaller quantities of other high-calorie toppings. They also can be ordered on the side.
? Check websites for nutrition information. Several chains, such as Cava, Chipotle, Roti and California Tortilla, offer nutrition calculators on their websites that add up the calories, fat and more in your customized selection.
? If possible, opt for kids meals, which come in smaller portion sizes.
? Load up on all types of veggies—this is where many fast-casual restaurants shine. In fact, if your fridge at home isn’t stocked with vegetables, fast-casual dining may help you get your “5 A Day.”
? Choose whole grains when you can, such as brown rice and whole-grain tortillas and pita breads.
? If you’re concerned about calories, substitute greens for grains or go half and half.
? Be judicious about healthy fats such as olives, avocados, olive oil and nuts. They’re beneficial in small amounts, but too much of a good thing can jack up the calories.
? Remember, however, that nutrition isn’t all about calories. If you’re looking for healthier options, fast-casual restaurants are a good choice. Just be aware of portion sizes and toppings.
Carole Sugarman is a contributing editor at Bethesda Magazine.