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Is fast casual food healthier than fast food?

A growing number of restaurants seem to offer a better alternative to fast food. These restaurants, dubbed "fast casual," include restaurants such as Schlotzsky's Deli, Baja Fresh, Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain.

These places offer salads, soups and a variety of sandwiches, among other items. Because the food is rarely deep-fried, you might assume that almost any choice is a good one. While healthier choices are more plentiful at fast casual restaurants, calories, fat and sodium can still add up quickly, unless you're savvy.

The half-size healthy option
Many of these restaurants sell fresh baked goods to project an upscale healthy image. But the words "fresh" and "multigrain" don't mean that the products are whole-grain, which would be much more nutritious. Like regular fast food, most breads and bakery products are refined grain items.

Sandwiches, however, can come in half or full sizes. The half-size option offers an excellent way to control calories, because many of the full-size versions contain 600-900 calories, which is the same as a Big Mac and some fries. If half of a sandwich is too little food for you, order half of a salad or a cup of soup with it to strike a better nutritional balance in your meal and control calories. Some of the soups can provide the equivalent of one or two vegetable servings. Tomato-based soups, even with beans, contain only about 100 to 120 calories per serving.

The variety of salads at fast casual restaurants can be a great way to get more vegetables in your diet. The salads that contain chicken, cheese, or seafood can even make a complete meal. However, you need to select a full-size salad carefully to control calories, especially if you want a chunk of bread, half-sandwich, or soup, too. One way to reduce calories is to ask for a reduced-fat dressing or dressing on the side. A quarter cup of dressing adds 150 to 300 calories.

The big drawback: Sodium
Through smart choices, you can keep calories and fat in check at fast casual restaurants. Limiting excessive sodium, however, is a much tougher task. Fast casual or traditional fast food should be all right, if you seldom eat out and don't have any type of medical problem that makes sodium control a daily priority. But salads can have 500 to 1,000 milligrams (mg) of sodium and soups 800 to 1,000 mg per serving. That's almost a quarter to one-half of the recommended limit for a whole day. A full-size sandwich could have a whole day's worth of sodium. The amount of sodium ranges from 1,000 to 2,500 mg. To restrict sodium, try a vinegar and oil dressing on your salad to cut 100 to 1,000 mg. You could also order a half-sandwich without cheese. Bypass soups, unless you check their nutrition information first to identify the best choices.

There are more eating out tips in the free brochure A Pocket Guide to Healthy Dining Out. Call the American Institute for Cancer Research at 1-800-843-8114, ext. 111, to request a copy.

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