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Healthy Living: What's New on the Menu?



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After the Buffalo wings and chicken quesadilla appetizers, the beef fajitas and blue cheese-topped sirloin with pork rinds and creamed spinach, the waiter didn't even ask the obligatory question.

But we did want dessert. With cheesecake only 6 carbs a slice and the two of us sharing, why not? It's diet food, after all, right?

Thousands of cardiologists are gasping in outrage right about now. Truth be told, we knew better, too, and didn't come close to cleaning our plates.

It's easy to lose sight of calories, though, with so many tempting goodies labeled as diet food.

Americans are embracing low-carb diets, and restaurants are rushing to change menus to attract them.

Fast-food restaurants have rolled out bunless burgers and low-carb wraps. Casual chains like Ruby Tuesday, Chili's and T.G.I. Friday's have introduced dozens of appetizers and entrees served without starches or breading, from grilled fish served with a lemon-butter sauce to chicken covered with bacon and cheese, and billed them as "smart eating," "modified to help you meet your needs" or "for people who are following a low-carb lifestyle."

If all this sounds too good to be true, that may be because it is. Although fast-food chains have been quick to provide complete nutritional information on their new low-carb items, it's a more mixed picture with family-style chains. Diners can get carb counts easily, but it's tougher, and at times impossible, to get calories or fat grams. Many carb counters say they're not concerned about calories, but most nutritionists emphasize that calories can't be ignored when trying to lose weight.

Friday's, which developed its menu with Atkins Nutritionals, says calorie and fat information isn't available. A Chili's spokesman says the chain hasn't computed them yet for its low-carb offerings; it does list fat grams next to the low-fat menu items. Ruby Tuesday and Applebee's provide nutritional information on request through their customer service departments. None posts them online or makes them available in brochures in restaurants.

What aren't they telling you about the new low-carb foods? A serving of 10 Buffalo wings, for example, has about 600 calories or more, half from fat. Going just by carb counts on the menu or table brochures, you could eat as many wings as you like: Servings ranged from 0 to 5 carbs.

A quarter-cup of sour cream is 125 calories; we estimated that the Chili's fajitas came with about a half-cup, plus an equal amount of calorie-laden guacamole and a generous heap of cheese. But that's only a guess, and that's why eating out can be such a challenge for dieters. Without knowing what's in a dish and what the portion size is, it's hard to make smart choices. Applebee's

Unlike most of its competitors, Applebee's is sticking with traditional low-fat choices. A partnership with Weight Watchers will add about 10 appetizers, entrees and desserts to the menu later this year, all to be listed with Weight Watchers points, as well as fat, fiber and calories.

Current lower-calorie choices are nicely thought out, like the grilled tilapia brightened with vibrant mango salsa, served with a big side of white rice and steamed squash and carrots. Some version of the tilapia is likely to make the new menu, an Applebee's spokeswoman says.

Other choices show care, too. Blackened chicken salad, strips of breast meat on an enormous bowl of crisp romaine, comes with a nice mix of lower-fat versions of salad goodies: hard-cooked egg whites, reduced-fat cheddar, no-fat honey mustard dressing. Ordering low-fat is no guarantee against supersizing, though. Our waitress pushed the full size salad, promising we'd get more meat. We would end up carrying half home.

The chicken quesadilla appetizer is drizzled with low-fat chipotle ranch dressing rather than sour cream and stuffed with bits of broccoli, carrots, red bell peppers, mushrooms and scant amounts of reduced-fat cheese. It's got that good-for-you taste, right down to the whole-wheat tortilla, that's nothing like a gooey, cheesy quesadilla made from white flour. Still, it might satisfy a craving for Mexican. Chili's 

With low-fat and low-carb choices, dieters can indeed have it their way. The question is, why would they want to? Except for a cup of black beans, nothing tried on two visits at different locations was worth returning for. Salty and processed, it wasn't any better than most fast food. Vegetables on the "low carb classic" chicken fajitas were overcooked and the chicken strips were tough and dried out. Buffalo wings had a bitter aftertaste and we had to read the menu to tell that the cup of dressing was blue cheese. Monterey chicken, topped with two strips of applewood-smoked bacon, a blanket of cheese and barbecue sauce, tasted waterlogged. Sensible grilled salmon is available, but many of the low-carb choices seem so drenched in fat and calories that to position them as diet food appears cynical.

Low-fat ziti with marinara sauce was an enormous pile of pasta --- about 2 1/2 cups, at our guess --- topped with a metallic-tasting sauce and slivers of basil with blackened edges. The guiltless pita, grilled chicken on pillowy bread, is a better choice from the low-fat menu and comes with black beans with a pleasantly smoky taste. Ruby Tuesday

You can eat healthfully from the salad bar or by making wise choices from the low-carb Smart Eating menu. You also can load up on high-fat, calorie-laden food from that same menu. A table brochure lists carb counts, but they're not printed on the main menu, which has more than 30 low-carb choices.

Aside from the usual steamed broccoli as a side, Ruby Tuesday offers a small salad, barbecued pork rinds, creamed spinach and equally decadent tasting mashed cauliflower. The waiter didn't know what was in the cauliflower, saying it arrived in a bag, already prepared. A company official later told us it contained leeks, butter and cream. If it's billed as "smart eating," shouldn't the menu give more information about its ingredients so guests can make smart decisions?

Steak and Buffalo wings resembled its counterparts at other chains: acceptable but not out of the ordinary. Beef fajitas came with whole-grain tortillas, a nice change from low-carb offerings at other restaurants. Low-carb cheesecake with a nut crust, the only "diet" dessert offered among the four chains, tasted gummy and artificial, not sweet or creamy. At a cost of 6 net carbs (and 360 calories), why bother? T.G.I. Friday's

It's hard to escape signs of Friday's partnership with Atkins Nutritionals, starting with the stand-up poster in the foyer. It's also on the place mats and occupies a prime spot in the menu book, right after the specialty drinks.

By aligning itself with the most well-known low-carb diet plan, Friday's picks up credibility with Atkins dieters and some restraint on what's offered. No mix-and-match side dishes of butter or cream-sauced vegetables here to sway a tempted dieter; most entrees come with steamed broccoli. There are no giddy excesses like meat topped with cheese and bacon.

The Tuscan spinach dip was warm and gooey, enlivened by Parmesan and chunks of artichokes. Fresh snow peas, red bell pepper strips, broccoli and celery replace the traditional tortilla chips, and even carb addicts probably won't miss them. Not much, anyway. The dip comes with the suggestion to share with a friend and split the 17 carbs.

Grilled salmon was moist in the middle, dried out elsewhere. Chicken Caesar salad, with salty chicken and black olives instead of croutons, was standard-issue stuff, fresh but not remarkable. Still, it seemed healthier than the blue cheese-topped New York strip or the double, bunless cheeseburgers.

The 4-year-olds in our group, meanwhile, were loading up on carbs. Macaroni and cheese and a breadstick, a typical choice from the kids' menu here and at the other chains, tasted like it came out of the Stouffer's box. The next generation of carb addicts seemed not to notice. SOME SAMPLE MENUS > Want to know more about the low-carb craze? Check out our package of news stories, information and more online at ajc.com/health/content/health/lowcarb.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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