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CHICAGO - Just about every week, one of Roberta Clarke Jenero's nutrition clients will discuss eating a 12-inch submarine sandwich or, lately, one of those burritos available at "fresh Mex" restaurants such as Chipotle or Baja Fresh.
"People learn the hard way that eating a 12-inch sub or huge burrito can leave you feeling way past being full," said Jenero, a dietitian at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Nutrition and Wellness Center in Chicago. "Feeling like you are about to burst at the seams is a sensation you want to avoid."
Nutritionists offer different ways to avoid the sensation. One successful tactic is eating half your meal at, say, lunch, then the other half about midafternoon. It gives your body time to digest.
"Research shows the body can only assimilate about 600 calories at any one sitting," explained Jenero. "A larger person, such as a 6-foot-4 man, might be able to handle 800 calories."
Eating more than that, at any one time, encourages the body to store fat.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest-that would be the "food cops" to the restaurant industry-offers a strong argument for splitting those fresh Mex burritos in two. The whole burrito with all of the fixings is 1,000 to 1,300 calories and more than half a day's worth of saturated fat, reports CSPI, which systematically buys and sends orders of food to an independent lab for analysis. You probably have seen the consumer group's past studies about movie popcorn, Chinese takeout and Italian food.
"Fresh Mex chains cultivate an aura of healthfulness, and sometimes it's deserved," said Michael F. Jacobson, longtime executive director at CSPI. "But because Chipotle doesn't reveal calories or other nutrition information, most people wouldn't have a clue that (its) vegetarian burrito is the equivalent of an overstuffed corned beef sandwich-plus 350 calories."
These are just the sort of quotes that bother restaurant industry lobbyists. They contend that consumers can make their own decisions at mealtime.
Maybe, but the information from CSPI can help ensure informed decisions. In the case of this month's report on fresh Mex, a whole new generation of 20- and 30-year-olds might be paying attention to restaurants where they eat frequently.
A typical burrito at Chipotle or Baja Fresh will provide impressive amounts of dietary fiber, nearly half a day's recommended supply. Eliminating cheese and sour cream-guacamole is a much healthier option-can reduce the saturated fat content to a respectable range. If you can hold the tortilla, that saves you 340 calories, 2 grams of saturated fat and 860 mg of sodium. Most fresh Mex chains now offer the ingredients served in a bowl rather than wrapped in the tortilla.
CSPI gives a positive nod to the Baja Style tacos at Baja Fresh, a chain owned by Wendy's. An order of two with chicken, steak or seafood is about 400 calories with 2 to 4 grams of saturated fat.
"It makes for a reasonable lunch," said Jacobson, who noted that Baja Fresh lists nutrition breakdowns on its Internet site and recently made a summer Lighten Up menu a permanent fixture.
On the other hand, the Baja Fresh chain's cheese, chicken or steak quesadillas (basically a grilled cheese sandwich with tortillas as bread slices) average 1,230 calories and nearly two days' worth of saturated fat. That's "the equivalent of three Quarter Pounders from McDonald's with another half-day's saturated fat thrown in."
Baja's nachos check in with even more calories (2,000) and saturated fat (39 grams).
For her part, Jenero doesn't favor "perpetuating any good food, bad food scenario." She works regularly with clients who eat at places like Chipotle (partly owned by McDonald's) and Subway.
"What's important is educating yourself about what's in foods and your meals," said Jenero. "If you go to a new place for lunch, ask how much meat they put in a taco or sandwich. It will help you decide how much you want to eat for lunch, then save any leftovers. I have clients who routinely eat half of their lunch burrito at dinner."
One concern raised by CSPI is hard to dispute-or fix. Sodium content of menu items exceeds recommended amounts (optimal intake is about 1,500 mg per day, though nutritionists debate whether 2,000 mg is equally prudent).
"The sodium content is difficult to control," said Jenero. "The only way to do it is portion control," which would include eating half or dining at the restaurant less."
Marketing trends provide some insight about how fast-food chains are factoring the ongoing messages from CSPI. Subway's new TV campaign features people eating junk food but telling others it's OK because "I had Subway for lunch."
Chipotle calls attention to the heft of its foil-wrapped burritos with its multimedia campaign. The campaign includes Chicago mass-transit ads with copy lines such as "Eat lunch and lift weights at the same time" or "They beep when they back up."
To each, his or her own sensation.
(Bob Condor writes for the Chicago Tribune. Write to him at: the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.)
(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.