I love On The Border – a southwest casual dining restaurant owned by the same company as Chili’s, another of my favorites. In college, I would go there with my friends and share relationship gossip over margaritas and burritos. It’s always been one of my favorite places to eat. I never worried much about the calories I was consuming during these outings. Eating out is a special treat, so what’s the big deal if I go a little over my recommended daily intake? And there’s another reason why I ignored the potential health impact of my food choices. As much as women may feel pressured by media images and messages telling them to be thin, there is also a backlash pressure to not give in to society. Especially when out for a meal with friends, I never wanted to seem like the kind of woman who can’t let loose and relax, who is obsessed with every calorie and terrified to gain an ounce of weight. I’m not that person.
When I started this blog, I began paying more attention to my food consumption - not just where the food came from and how it was cultivated, but also how much nutritional quality it provided and whether it could fuel my body through my intense half-marathon training. As I have reported here before, I determined a daily caloric intake goal to maintain my current weight and support a desk-job lifestyle. On days in which I work out, I eat a little more to compensate. My daily goal is 1847 calories. It’s definitely not a restrictive number, and I have had no trouble staying below that limit even with a glass or two of wine with dinner, having popcorn or cookies for dessert, or indulging in the occasional plate of nachos for lunch. The main reason this hasn’t been very difficult is that I usually prepare and eat breakfast and dinner at home and bring my own snacks to work. I am in control of what and how much I eat. Going out to dinner has become even more of a special occasion, which made me extra excited for my next trip to On The Border.
Recently, chain restaurants in California began offering nutrition information inserts (not of their own accord – a law was passed). It gives you the calories, macronutrients (fat, carbs, and protein), sodium, and a few other details for all of the food on the menu. It can be tricky, however, because the information for salads doesn’t always include the dressing, and calories listed for an entree don’t always include the side dish. For this trip to On The Border, I wasn’t planning on relying too much on the nutrition information. I ate a light lunch, since I knew I’d be going out, so I figured I could afford to relax. Then I started looking through the menu. It was actually my husband who pointed out that there was an icon for healthy food options. To qualify, the menu item had to have no more than 750 calories and be under some limit for fat. That got me pretty concerned, since 750 is about 40% of the calories I am supposed to consume in the entire day. And that's for the “diet” option! He went on to point out that only one item on the menu had this icon. I gave in and asked for the nutrition info.
It was horrifying! My usual entree, the Big Borduritto with chicken and side salad (dressing not included) is 1780 calories, 85 grams of fat, and 4870mg of sodium. Now the calories alone are pretty bad, over 96% of what I should consume in a day. However, the fat and sodium are off the charts: 140% and 220% of my daily-recommended intake, respectively. On occasion, I have eaten half the Borduritto (saving the rest for another meal) and instead split the guacamole appetizer with a friend. Sadly, this does not improve the situation. One serving of the Guacamole Live appetizer (listed without chips!) is 570 calories, 50 grams of fat, and 2330mg of sodium. Adding half a basket of chips gives me a grand total of 1675 calories, 114.5 grams of fat, and a ridiculous 5202mg of sodium! It’s less total calories, although still 90% of my daily goal, but even more fat and sodium. And that’s all without the margarita!
In the end, I opted for the Mahi Mahi fish tacos (as served they’re 1200 calories) with some healthy substitutions. I ordered them without sauce and with the special healthy grilled vegetable side. The meal was tasty, but the whole experience felt awful. From having to ask the waiter for the nutrition information to scouring the info sheet for a complete meal within my caloric budget to ordering my meal with a bunch of special requests (the healthy veggies have a specific diet-sounding name), I felt really self-conscious. Not only did I give off the impression of being exactly the kind of person who obsesses over every calorie, I still over-consumed! It made me really angry. How can I enjoy a meal out when the options are so much worse than I could have ever imagined? It’s not a matter of going a little over my calories for the day in the spirit of fun. No average person should be eating this volume of food during one meal. I am forced to be vigilant, to be a calorie-counter and a high-maintenance consumer, just to avoid doubling my intake for the day! Someday, I hope menus will be made up of mostly reasonable options (say, 400-800 calories) and a few diet entrees that really are for dieters (say, under 400 calories). Perhaps they can have one item on the menu for the super-eater rather than one item with less than 750 calories. Then I actually could choose to splurge on a special occasion and have the ability to make healthy choices rather than being restricted to one marginally healthy option.
I hope that the next time you walk into one of these places, you won’t turn your nose up at the nutrition information, perhaps thinking that you shouldn’t have to limit yourself on your evening out or that you’re not dieting so it doesn’t apply. I think restaurants are counting on customers to adopt that attitude because it means they will never have to change. They won’t have to offer entrees with a reasonable number of calories or reduce the sodium contents of their foods. They can continue to profit while we all wonder why so many Americans have heart disease or diabetes or continue to gain weight. It’s easy to look at fat people and assume they just make poor choices, but how can we expect people to make good choices if none are offered, or worse, the information with which to make the choice is unavailable or incomplete? It’s up to us to force a change. That’s why I will continue to ask for the nutritional information, order the diet veggies, and simply avoid restaurants that won’t offer healthy options. Even if it’s embarrassing; even when the waiter is judgmental; even when I’m out with my friends… Ultimately I am responsible for what I put into my body, and I’m not letting anyone push me around.