Are “healthy choices” on restaurant menus actually healthy?

You know what makes me laugh? Seeing some of the options under “Healthy Choices” or “Lighter Fare” on a restaurant menu. Because sometimes, they’re not actually that healthy at all.

Are "healthy choices" on restaurant menus actually healthy?

I mean, who decides what is a “healthy” choice? Do they have a background in nutrition? Are they a dietitian? Did they enter the ingredients into a nutrition processing software to see its nutrition information? Do they even really understand what constitutes a “healthy” choice? Not always.

Sometimes the menu items under those headings don’t even have criteria, so its up to the discretion of whoever wrote the menu. One of my favourite examples is finding “Yogurt layered with granola and fruit with a drizzle of honey” under the “Healthy Choices” on breakfast menus. That meal is going to be packed with added sugars from the yogurt and granola, not to mention the honey. And considering that granola is often over 250 calories per half cup, this option may be even more calorie dense than one of the options on the regular menu!

restaurant table

At some restaurants there is criteria for the options labelled as a “Healthy Choice”, so at least there is some degree of discrimination behind it. Most of the time I find that criteria is based on being under a certain number of calories. On the plus side, you know that you won’t be eating an entire day’s worth of calories in one meal. But an item’s calorie count doesn’t say anything about other important nutrition considerations such as its sugar content, its fat content, how much sodium it contains, whether its made from whole grains, or whether it contains fruits or vegetables. I’ve seen some menu items labelled as a “Healthy Choice” that still have more than three quarters of your day’s allowance of sodium, and others that are basically just refined carbohydrates with little other nutritional value.¬†Essentially the “Healthy Choices” section on menus often really just means “The Least Unhealthy Options”.

Now I’m not one to say that we always need to be making health-conscious choices at restaurants. Food is meant to be enjoyed too! But for people who do want to make healthier choices when eating out, it’s important to be aware that the “Lighter Options” section of restaurant menus (while having good intentions) may not always be that healthy.

Do you agree/disagree?

20 Comments

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20 Responses to Are “healthy choices” on restaurant menus actually healthy?

  1. i definitely agree Chelsea! A lot of those menu items are either loaded with ingredients they should not be using, or they basically have used the same ingredients as the other meal…..just cut the sizing into a ridiculously small portion on that huge plate so the person is left feeling as though they did not eat enough….so what do you think they do when they get home!?

    It also makes me laugh when people go for the crispy chicken salad….completely unaware that under that fried chicken and mountain of sauce and cheese, is a calorie bomb, and they may have well gone for the meal they really wanted!

  2. I agree Chelsea! I feel like restaurants base their healthy options solely on calories. Sugar content, sodium values & fat content are almost irrelevant. I remember coming across a “healthy” granola parfait with a horrific ingredient list including thickeners, sodium and sugar (which was obviously disguised using a more scientific term). Also it’s important that “healthy” may mean something completely different depending on the client- I don’t think a vegan diner would appreciate a grilled fish dish despite it being a perfectly lean source of protein.

    • Chelsea

      It’s funny how granola parfaits tend to be perceived as healthy. They can be when you make them at home, but restaurant versions rarely are!

  3. Yep, totally agree. One of my fav ‘healthy’ options that I recently saw was this: a whole grain MUFFIN, vanilla yogurt with fruit with museli and honey. #diabetes #metabolicsyndrome

  4. I love that “the least unhealthy options”! It’s so true.

  5. Lol. Spot on buddy. It definitely is either ‘lowest calorie options’ or ‘lowest fat options’- or at least here in australia it is. When you look at the actual nutritional breakdown, it is definitely full of added sugars or mostly carbs- not that it is bad or anything but I doubt the diners would be hungry for long.

    • Chelsea

      I think it’s because a lot of people – including restaurants – are still stuck in that “fat is bad” phase. So they label low fat items as healthy, but neglect to consider sugar and other factors.

  6. Yup, totally agree. I would rather look at the ingredients used and whether there is a ton of added sugars/processed fats/refined salt, etc. I used to order the lighter fare options as a rule but that definitely changed once my definition of healthy food didn’t equal low cal/low fat!

  7. Definitely agree about it being “the least unhealthy” option… which usually has nothing to do with actual nutritional value and more to do with how many calories are in something. I guess that’s one of the perks of having allergies — it forces us to do our research and pay attention to what we’re eating when we’re out!

    • Chelsea

      Very true! Whenever I have to look at the allergen guide for a restaurant, it always boggles my mind to see some of the nutrition information for their dishes!

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  9. I agree for the most part. However, although yogurt may be high in sugar, it’s also high in calcium and vitamin D. And if there is a whole wheat pasta under the “healthy” dishes, even if it is fettuccine alfredo, it still has more fiber and b-vitamins than the enriched fettucini alredo.

    • Chelsea

      Absolutely! I have no problem with flavoured yogurt and sometimes buy it myself. But when it’s paired with a sugary granola and honey at a restaurant, I think that’s a bit much!

  10. Totally agree! I always wonder who is deeming food “healthier” on menus! My rules kind of fly out the window when I eat out so I’m no more likely to order off the healthy menu as I am the regular one but for people who want to know exactly what’s in their food it would be better if they were more transparent about it!

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