Two women looking at a menu at a restaurant.

A mericans eat out a lot. We consume about one-third of our calories away from home, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unless you’re careful, restaurant meals can pack in calories, salt, unhealthy fats, and sugars. Here, seven common menu hazards and how to avoid them.

1. Calories Galore

By law, chain restaurants with 20 or more locations must now list calorie counts on their menus. If you haven’t eaten out in a while, be prepared for calorie sticker shock. “It’s a wake-up call when you see that a healthy-sounding entrée like eggplant parmigiana has over 1,000 calories,” says Joan Salge Blake, R.D.N., Ed.D., a clinical associate professor in Boston University’s department of health sciences. “That’s more than half a day’s calories for many folks.”

Diners who pay attention to the numbers benefit. They choose lower-calorie dishes and take in an average of 167 to 180 fewer calories over the course of a day, according to a 2018 USDA study.

But calories are just one factor to consider. Chain restaurants must also provide written nutrition information on menu items that includes total fat, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein. If you don’t see this information on signs, counter cards, handouts, and the like, ask for it or check the company’s website. 

2. Stratospheric Sodium

The daily limit for sodium is less than 2,300 mg, but you would never know it from the amount packed into restaurant dishes and even some drinks. TGI Fridays’ Loaded Chicken Nachos appetizer, for example, has a whopping 4,930 mg of sodium; its Blackberry Margarita, 570 mg. 

More on Healthy Eating at Restaurants

When diners in a Harvard Medical School study were asked to guess the sodium count of fast-food meals they had purchased, almost all adults underestimated it by an average of 1,013 mg.

To avoid overdosing on sodium, check a dish’s nutritional information before you order. “It can make you say, ‘well, I’m going to have half,’ ” Salge Blake says, “or ‘I’m going to have to really watch my sodium for the rest of the week because this is going to be a very large number.’ ”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 71 percent of the sodium in the American diet comes from processed and restaurant foods. The top dining-out sources are sandwiches, pizza, hamburgers, chicken, Mexican entrées, and salads, according to a report from the Institute of Medicine. Keep that list in mind when you’re looking at a menu.

3. Tempting Descriptions

Words like artisanal, sustainable, locally sourced, grass-fed, free-range, and gluten-free “draw people to those items when they’re not necessarily healthy or low-calorie,” says Brie Turner-McGrievy, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of health promotion, education, and behavior at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health. For instance, you’ll still get the same amount of saturated fat if you trade regular pasta for gluten-free in fettuccine Alfredo.

Ask about lighter, lower-fat, and lower-calorie options, which may be under a separate name or menu, such as “Lighter Fare” (Applebee’s) or “Fit & Trim” (Ruby Tuesday). Or eat half your entrée and take the rest home. That will cut the calories as well as sodium, fat, and sugar.

4. Splurging on Small Plates

Ordering small plates or appetizers can be a good way to cut portion sizes and save on calories, fat, and sodium. But ordering too many can backfire. “We know from studies that if you increase variety, you will increase intake,” Salge Blake says. “With a lot of little plates, you’ll keep tasting and eating.” Avoid the trigger and stop at two. And order first when you are dining out with others. If you’ve planned ahead and know what you want, you won’t be tempted by someone else’s order, says Turner-McGrievy.

5. Supersized Salads

Famous last words: “I just want something light. I’ll have a salad.” Restaurant entrée salads are rarely “light.” Take the Steakhouse Salad at Outback Steakhouse, a 910-calorie entrée with mixed greens, 5 ounces of sirloin, and other toppings, plus blue cheese vinaigrette. For 160 fewer calories you can dine on 8 ounces of the same center-cut sirloin (280 calories), a side of grilled asparagus (60), and a baked sweet potato topped with honey butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon (410).

When you order a salad as your main meal, look for one with lettuce, veggies and/or fruit, and some protein and healthy fats, says Salge Blake. “For example, leafy greens, tomatoes, carrots, sliced oranges, grilled fish or chicken, topped with some healthy fats, such as a sprinkling of nuts.” Be wary of those that contain “breaded” or “crispy” ingredients; those in particular tend to be high in calories. Another tip: Request dressing on the side, because it can add a lot of calories and sodium to even the healthiest salad. Just dip the tines of your fork into the dressing and then into the salad. You’ll get the flavor but use far less dressing. 

6. Trendy Ingredients

Kale, quinoa, and avocado are healthy on their own, but their presence in a dish doesn’t automatically make it a better option.

The same goes for trendy dishes, such as “bowls.” Many are packed with healthy whole grains and veggies, but the portion sizes can be quite large. For example, the serving size of the Harvest Bowl at Sweetgreen—with wild rice, sweet potatoes, and kale—is about 13 ounces and it contains 695 calories, 38 grams of fat, and 955 mg of sodium.

The best strategy, Turner-McGrievy says, is to do your research. “Some chain restaurants allow you to customize your meals online to determine the calorie amounts for build-your-own items,” she says. “That’ll let you know if adding that guacamole really puts your entrée over the edge on calories. In general, go for plants and avoid adding high-fat animal products like cheese, sour cream, and bacon.”

7. Liquid Calories

Calories from beverages add up. A cocktail before dinner, a glass of wine with your entrée, and a latte afterward can easily contribute 300 to 400 calories or more to your meal, not to mention all the sugar you could be downing.

Smoothies and fruit drinks sound healthy but often contain added sugars along with the fruit. For example, a grande Strawberry Acai Refresher at Starbucks has 20 grams of sugars, mostly from fruit juice and added sugars. The American Heart Association’s limit for added sugars is 24 grams a day for women and 36 grams for men. Stick with water and, if you like, one alcoholic beverage. Remember, too, that alcohol lowers inhibitions and may interfere with your eat-healthy goals. Order first, then have a drink. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the March 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.