The surprise in your ‘health’ restaurant meal

These days, counting calories gets a bad rap. It’s been admonished as an archaic form of dieting and has taken a back seat to new diet philosophies. After all, it’s really the quality of the calorie that matters, not the quantity…

For example… there is no doubt that an apple with a spoonful of almond butter is better for your health and weight than a heaping handful of barbecue chips, even though they’re both under 150 calories. That said, there is still some benefit to keeping your calorie intake at a reasonable level.

But did you know that calorie restriction has a crazy long list of other health benefits? It slows the aging process, fights cancer, improves your gut health, prevents diabetes, and more.

And who doesn’t want to experience these amazing benefits?

But if you want to see firsthand how cutting calories can improve your health, you should know that some of your favorite restaurants — ones you actually consider “healthier” options — are the biggest culprits at sneakily boosting your caloric intake.

In fact, the entrees at these “healthy” restaurants are even higher in calories than your typical burger and fries from McDonald’s…

If you’re like most people, you probably frequent what are known as “fast casual restaurants” (such as Panera, Chipotle, Corner Bakery, Cosi, Noodles & Company, Jason’s Deli and Potbelly) a few times a week.

That’s why fast casual restaurants have become all the rage— they’re quick, convenient and they seem like a healthier option than your typical fast food chain.

And in many ways they are. Most fast casual restaurant, like Panera and Chipotle, make an obvious effort to market their food as healthy.

Chipotle, for example, has stood out from the pack by eschewing GMOs and offering pasture-raised pork.  And the Panera menu is filled with healthy-sounding ingredients like quinoa, kale and antibiotic-free chicken.

But recent research from the University of South Carolina found that, on average, entrees at fast food restaurants contained 561 calories, while entrees from fast casual restaurants contained a whopping 760 calories.

“We were surprised that there were higher calories at fast casual restaurants, but one of the main takeaways from the paper is that there are a lot of high-calorie options at both kinds of restaurants,” said Danielle Schoffman, the lead researcher.

Now this is the type of information that could easily be misconstrued (by those who don’t know better) as a free pass to eat at your favorite fast food joint. But that is still a really bad idea, even according to researchers…

“A burger on a white bun may have fewer calories, but when you’re talking about cancer prevention or other chronic diseases, you have to look beyond calories,” Turner-McGrievy said. “We don’t want the message to be, ‘Go eat hamburgers and don’t eat guacamole and beans and brown rice.’ ”

So obviously going to fast food restaurants is still not an option if you’re concerned about wellness.

And if you still want to frequent your favorite fast casual restaurants, it all comes down to making good choices. Look at your options with a discerning eye rather than assuming everything on the menu is good for you because you are at a “healthy” restaurant.

You can also do your research online before you order. Most restaurants provide the calorie information for their menu items on their websites.

Of course, if you really care about cutting calories and improving your health, your best bet is probably to cook at home instead.

  1. E. Schoffman, C. R. Davidson, S. B. Hales, A. E. Crimarco, A. A. Dahl, G. M. Turner-McGrievy. “The Fast-Casual Conundrum: Fast-Casual Restaurant Entrées Are Higher in Calories than Fast Food.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine,, and