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Nutritionist Anita Jones-Mueller has a lot on her plate

Anita Jones-Mueller is founder and president of a San Diego company that helps consumers have fewer regrets when eating out. She also runs a website that directs people to restaurants with low-calorie menu items.

June 19, 2011|By Sharon Bernstein, Los Angeles Times
  • If youre eating what your body needs, thats filling and its really satisfying, nutritionist Anita Jones-Mueller says.
If youre eating what your body needs, thats filling and its really satisfying,… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Founder and president of Healthy Dining, a San Diego company that aims to help consumers find more-healthful options at restaurants and to help chefs create more nutritious food. She also runs Healthydiningfinder.com, which allows consumers nationwide to input ZIP Codes to find nearby restaurants with lower-calorie menu items. Healthy Dining is also helping restaurants comply with new rules requiring them to post calorie counts on menus.

The path: Jones-Mueller, 48, grew up in Portland, Ore., where at an early age she started noticing the effect of the foods people ate. "When I was about 10, my dad would count calories. He had this little calorie-counter book. It was my job to look up what he ate for the day. I started memorizing the calories, and I became really fascinated with nutrition," she said. Jones-Mueller went on to earn a bachelor's degree in health education from Portland State University and a master's degree in public health and nutrition from San Diego State University.

The eye-opener: She opened a practice as a nutritionist and started getting patients who were developing health problems partly because of the foods they ate. Like others in the field, she recommended eating healthfully and getting lots of exercise. Then came the eye-opener: "They always said to me, 'What do I eat when I eat out?'" Jones-Mueller set out to answer that question.

Guessing wrong: Jones-Mueller figured she could eyeball the food served at restaurants and give her clients a basic idea of how many calories would be in each dish. Wrong. When she and a group of colleagues had the dishes analyzed at a laboratory, they found that their estimates were way off. "The very first restaurant that we analyzed was the restaurant that I always went to, and it was the menu item I always chose," she said. "It was a big plate of pasta with red sauce and steamed vegetables and shrimp. I estimated it was about 750 calories. When we did the analysis, it was close to 1,600 calories and 80 grams of fat. I was so shocked because I had a master's degree in nutrition and I had been counting calories all my life."

Making it happen: At first sticking to San Diego, Jones-Mueller gathered a team of nutritionists and began chatting up chefs, trying to persuade them to offer more-healthful options. Those who agreed would be featured in a guidebook, Healthy Dining San Diego, to be distributed through doctors' offices, supermarkets, rehab centers and other locations. That was in 1991. Today, the online version, HealthyDiningFinder.com, features 60,000 restaurants with menu items that meet the group's standards of fewer than 750 calories.

Beyond the guide: Jones-Mueller has partnered with the National Restaurant Assn. to promote the website and has developed a consulting business that helps eateries develop healthful options for consumers. She worked with restaurant owners in California and New York City to analyze their food offerings, and in some cases retool them, after new laws required them to post calorie counts on their menus.

Biggest obstacle: Getting laughed out of the place by restaurant owners who didn't get it. "Restaurants used to think it was a very small number of people who wanted healthier options — maybe those that are on a strict diet or those who just had a heart attack or had allergies," she said. "Now they're really seeing that that demand is growing."

Personal: Jones-Mueller is married with two daughters, ages 10 and 16. Like all parents, she sometimes struggles to get them to eat nutritious food. "They are not necessarily healthy eaters," she said. "In fact, my 10-year-old once said, 'Can you quit Healthy Dining so we don't have to eat healthy?'" Her own diet, Jones-Mueller said, is mostly lean proteins, lots of seafood, egg whites instead of whole eggs, a lot of fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. But she doesn't count calories every day. "If you're eating what your body needs, that's filling and it's really satisfying," she said. And, yes, the family sometimes eats out at McDonald's. "I'm not an extremist in any way," she said.

sharon.bernstein@latimes.com

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