Even the healthiest restaurants fail to meet national nutrition guidelines. Their secrets drive up palatability while reducing food costs and consumer health. I still can’t believe more people don’t know about this. What are their secrets? How are they impacting your health? And what should you do about it? Well, let’s get into it!

Added Sugar

I walked into Original Grain for lunch last Friday. It’s a restaurant in downtown Rochester that highlights authentic ingredients and fresh food. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the area and one of the healthiest. But like most restaurants, they cater to a large population that requires them not to push the health envelope too far. While the menu items appear straightforward and healthy, it’s hard to understand what’s behind them.

An Immune Boost smoothie has sweet potato, mango, and pineapple included. But what’s harder to grasp is a less emphasized note. All smoothies contain coconut milk, yogurt, and simple syrup. Coconut milk is one of the least healthy plant-based milks due to its high saturated fat content. It’s almost as bad as cow’s milk [1]. The yogurt is harder to analyze because its ingredients are unknown. Is it sweetened, salted, or high in fat? I’m not sure but I have a better idea of simple syrup after googling it. It’s pure added sugar.

What appeared healthy with sweet potato, mango, and pineapple, now is more a dessert. This isn’t unique to Original Grain but is prevalent in the restaurant industry. They find ways to disguise unhealthy ingredients like added sugar. It’s almost ubiquitous for retail smoothies to contain added sugar. It’s also hidden in sauces, dressings, and even vegetables!

According to the CDC, “drinking too many added sugars can contribute to health problems such as weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Most Americans need to consume fewer added sugars.” [2] Isn’t it ironic that healthy restaurants are adding what the CDC says people should avoid? Luckily, in the case of Original Grain, you can at least ask them to skip the simple syrup.

Added Sodium

Another favorite restaurant of mine is CoreLife Eatery. They’re focused on “healthy, active lifestyles” and have expanded to over 15 locations in New York. They’ve asked, what if there were a place that sought out the best foods available? Why should it be so hard for someone to find food that tastes great, without feeling like they have to give up their health to get it? That kind of place is CoreLife!

Well, according to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day. That’s more than double their recommended limit and quadruple the body’s optimal level. They recommend limiting sodium intake to reduce blood pressure and heart disease risk [3]. Surely, a place like CoreLife would help achieve this, right?

As to not cherry pick the menu and select a meaty, high-sodium meal, let’s analyze the first vegan option. Siracha Ginger Tofu & Quinoa. It’s a 400-calorie meal that meets 20% of the recommended daily caloric intake. Ideally, we’d expect a calorie-to-sodium ratio of less than 1:1 or in this case, less than 400mg. It has 606mg. That’s more than 50% of your optimal sodium intake while only consuming 20% of your daily calories. And this is one of their lower sodium items. One side of their roasted potatoes is 630mg and their Spicy Chicken bowl without dressing is 1,950mg. Why would a healthy restaurant like CoreLife add so much sodium?

Salt heightens flavor, reduces bitterness, and enhances sweetness. Not only does it taste great, but it’s cheap, extends shelf-life, and binds to water making it weigh more, so you pay more for a heavier package [4]. If healthy restaurants didn’t add so much sodium, you’d enjoy it less, and they’d profit less. It’s almost a requirement for restaurants to succeed. Luckily, in the case of CoreLife, you can build a custom bowl that avoids their higher-sodium dressings and ingredients.

Saturated Fat and Oils

Finally, I decided to google the healthiest restaurant chains in America. Number 8 on the top resulting list was Chipotle. With over 2,000 locations, they market themselves as “Real, Whole, Superior Ingredients.”

So, I decided to build my typical Chipotle order. A burrito with sofritas, brown rice, black beans, guacamole, salsa, veggies, and lettuce. It’s as healthy as it could be by avoiding meat, queso, cheese, and sour cream. But how healthy is it really? I used their nutrition calculator to find out.

1,090 calories are more than half of my recommended daily intake. 2,630mg of sodium is nearly double the American Heart Association’s upper limit. But what’s easy to forget is saturated fat. This burrito has 7g which is just over 50% of the Heart Association’s daily limit [5]. I could’ve easily surpassed this had I opted for carnitas, queso, cheese, or sour cream.

Saturated fat increases cholesterol and body fat. In general, consumption should be limited. But commonly restaurants will cook their ingredients in butter or oils. This isn’t listed on menus and is almost impossible to determine. They’ll also top their dishes with meat and cheese. This causes many “healthy” restaurants to offer options that break dietary guidelines. Luckily, in the case of Chipotle, all their nutrition facts for each ingredient are listed online. This allows you to make a more informed choice when building your next burrito.

Final Thoughts

We eat out for many reasons. Convenience, community, and novelty are just a few. And if we’re eating out, it’s obviously better to choose healthier restaurants and more nutritious meals. I enjoy Original Grain, CoreLife Eatery, and Chipotle. I eat out every week and prefer these options over many others.

But it’s important to not be fooled. Restaurants cater to a large audience whose primary determinant of satisfaction is taste. Even healthy restaurants are required to sneak in added sugar, salt, and fat to bring back customers. The only true way to meet and exceed nutritional guidelines is to eat at home. Cook, prep, and make whole food, plant-based options whenever possible. That way you know every ingredient and cooking method. That way you can eat the most nutritious meals for health excellence.

Hi, I’m Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! Every week I share habits for health excellence. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can learn more about me here.