Dining guide helps you fight the fat

Published: Thursday, August 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 1, 2002 at 12:00 a.m.
By BOB CONDOR Chicago Tribune Nine years later, Michael Jacobson might not be categorized as a household name, but his influence clearly has reached millions of homes in America.
He is executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The private organization is best known for fat-busting reports on restaurant foods.
It started with Chinese takeout in September 1993. CSPI bought and analyzed 15 common types of entrees from 20 Chinese restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. Jacobson remembers feeling astonished by what he assumed would be healthy meals. Kung pao chicken, moo shu pork, orange crispy beef and fried rice all rated high in total fat, calories and sodium.
The summary on sweet and sour pork was succinct: "No amount of adjusting will make this good enough to eat. Skip it."
Four months later, Jacobson and his colleagues evaluated the more popular dishes at Italian restaurants. Creamy fettuccine Alfredo was equated to the same amount of artery-clogging saturated fat as 2 pints of butter pecan ice cream.
CSPI went on to rate movie theater popcorn (a typical small bag of popcorn without butter contained almost an entire day's recommended allowance of saturated fat because it was popped in coconut oil), Mexican restaurants ("very difficult to find a healthy meal"), steakhouses (filet mignon and sirloin are the healthiest cuts), seafood restaurants, Greek food, pizzerias (Pizzeria Uno's "Chicago Classic" rated highest in calories and saturated fat), fast-food franchises ("Subway is the only chain doing a good job with nutrition"), breakfast fare and more.
"The funny thing is, as we marched through the restaurant categories, Chinese food began looking better and better," said Jacobson, who has co-authored a new book, "Restaurant Confidential" (Workman, $12.95), with CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne G. Hurley.
"You can find some low-fat choices at Chinese restaurants. There is less meat and dairy in the dishes and most of the fat is unsaturated," which is much healthier for the heart.
Last hot dog in 1975 Jacobson, 58, grew up eating meatloaf and macaroni and cheese just like other neighborhood kids. He's ordered his share of french fries. He co-founded CSPI in 1971, then, not so coincidentally, ate his last hot dog in 1975. But he doesn't feel his mostly vegetarian diet (Jacobson eats fish) robs him of flavor.
"You learn to find different foods as delicious," said Jacobson. "Grilled salmon is not deprivation."
The new book offers helpful hints for dining out if you care about nutrition ("order half-the-cheese pizza; skip the children's menu for your kids and select a half-order of something healthful from the adult choices; if the menu is vague, ask your server to explain").
For his part, Jacobson says CSPI is not attempting to ruin America's appetite as much as recognize that we dine out more frequently. The typical U.S. adult consumes 34 percent of daily calories outside the home.
"Going out to restaurants used to be only for special treats and occasions," says. "The problem is, the quantity of restaurant food tends to be huge and nutrition quality is low."
Nonetheless, critics contend most people know what dishes are high in fat. As it turns out, maybe not.
"These facts aren't obvious," says Jacobson. "We conducted a study at the American Dietetic Association annual meeting (in 1996).
"Two hundred nutritionists estimated the fat and calorie content in five meals (lasagna, grilled chicken Caesar salad, tuna salad sandwich, hamburger with onion rings and porterhouse steak dinner). The dietitians underestimated fat and calories, on average, by 40 to 50 percent."

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