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Nutritional facts on menus can be tough to swallow

No longer can you enjoy your favorite meals at chain restaurants without having the calories and fat content shoved in your face -- a new requirement in California.

August 15, 2009|SANDY BANKS

It was the sort of sticker shock that could make an innocent diner nauseated.

I'd ordered my usual IHOP special -- Swedish crepes, with a dollop of lingonberry butter and jelly -- and was feeling virtuous as my daughter tried to choose between an omelet and a stack of pancakes.

Then we discovered the menu's newest addition: detailed nutritional info.

What a revelation to discover that my four thin crepes had more calories than my daughter's stack of strawberry pancakes, bacon, eggs and hash browns.

In fact, I could have stuffed myself with a "Philly Cheese- steak Super Stacker" and had calories left over.

If you haven't eaten out recently, you may not know it, but last month California became the first state to require nutritional labeling to accompany chain restaurant menus.

That means it's easier to make healthful dining choices when you eat out. And harder to enjoy the foods you used to love, once you know how many calories, carbs, grams of saturated fat and milligrams of sodium you're scarfing down.

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I know I should appreciate the information, but I don't consider dining out an educational excursion.

I'm not sure I want to know that my favorite dessert uses up an entire day's calorie allotment, or that the Cajun-coated salmon I like is not coating my arteries with protective fish oil, but emptying a salt shaker into my mouth.

With all those calories lurking in such innocent places, I can't open a restaurant menu without hearing the theme song from "Jaws."

And my choice is no longer between a cheeseburger and a Cobb salad, but whether I want my hips to spread or my blood pressure to rise.

To help me navigate the new information, I invited dietitian Joan Levinthal to lunch. A former dance instructor, Levinthal has spent years providing menu guidance to restaurants and hospitals and counseling patients on weight loss in her Woodland Hills office.

She loves the idea of menu labeling, of course. "The reason this is good is that people have a chance to see what they're eating," she said. "When the consumer knows what they're choosing, you can make a better choice."

But she also understands the symbolic value of food in our lives and the sensitivity of our choices. She once tried to promote "a healthier Thanksgiving dinner" in a newsletter to hospital employees -- pumpkin pie is better than pecan; skip the cranberry sauce with your turkey breast; have either macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes, not both.

The response? "Everybody came down on me," she said. "They didn't want me to spoil" the holiday.

That's the reason people like me are recoiling at the new menu labels. "They don't want to face it," she said. "They say, 'I'm paying for this. I want to enjoy it. It ruins it to know how much I just ate.' "

Restaurants, sensitive to the glare of public calorie-counting, are beginning to adjust their menus, she said -- adding special sections of "spa meals" and "lite bites," and purging embarrassingly rich selections.

I suspect that's what happened to my favorite dessert, which suddenly disappeared last spring from Macaroni Grill's menu.

But the Dessert Ravioli, with its "crumbled peanuts, caramel, rich chocolate ganache, wrapped in golden fried pastries, served with vanilla ice cream and topped with caramel sauce" would be worth every one of its 1,630 calories and 1,150 milligrams of sodium if I could order it again.

At Mimi's Cafe, I followed Levinthal's lead, ordering the "petite citrus salmon with field greens and strawberries." It had 448 calories and 290 milligrams of sodium.

While we ate, Levinthal offered advice for healthy restaurant eating: Skip sandwiches on ciabatta bread, too much fat and butter, she said. Always get dressing and sauce on the side, and dribble it on your food drop by drop. Stay away from anything labeled "crispy;" it is probably loaded with oil from being fried.

I nibbled my way through a basket of muffins as I took notes; plowed through my fish, field greens and fruit while we spoke; then sopped up the leftover dressing with a sourdough roll.

Levinthal took her muffin home for breakfast the next morning.

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In the month since California's new law took effect, I've made my peace with nutritional labels. In fact, I've taken to carrying a notebook around, jotting down sodium levels and calorie counts, trying to find new favorites at my familiar haunts.

Although my new vigilance might be making me healthier, it is also making me less popular as a dinner companion.

Even my daughters are turning down my invitations. They're embarrassed when I interrogate the waiters: Can I get the avocado rolls without the sauce? How many calories do I save by leaving ice cream off the brownie?

And tired of my commentary about their menu choices: Why get the Chicken Picatta at 1,535 calories when you can have the 781-calorie Chicken Milanese?

But there's an upside to eating out alone. If I skip the salad and the entree, I can put those calories toward dessert. And I can make a meal out of a 1,400-calorie apple crisp without anyone but the waiter knowing.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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