How You Can Order a Healthy Meal That Still Has Way Too Many Calories

March 24th 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

In recent years, "fast casual" or "premium fast-food" restaurants, like Panera Bread, Chipotle, and Freshii have exploded in popularity. The University of California Berkeley's Wellness page says that fast casual restaurant dining has grown a whopping 500 percent since 1999.

One possible cause for these fast casual boom times? Millennials. Research shows that the millennial generation is more health-conscious and tends to eat out more often than previous generations. Fast-casual restaurants have seemingly become a natural fit to these needs as they aim to serve meals fast, while offering higher quality food than fast food fare at a slightly lower price than a full-service restaurant. 

However, a healthy option can still have a lot of of calories in it. 

The recommended amount of daily calories each person should consumes differs based on age, weight, gender, and activity level, but the United States Department of Agriculture bases nutrition labels on a 2,000 calorie diet. An order at a fast-casual restaurant can take a big chunk of the allotted calories in a day, depending on the options chosen. 

Lauren Wagner, an abdominal transplant registered dietician at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, explained to ATTN: via email the criteria for a truly low calorie or moderate calorie meal. 

"When it comes to calories, a meal around 450 calories for a woman and 550 calories for a man would be considered low calorie," she said. "If you’re looking for a moderate calorie meal, just bump each of those levels up by 100 calories, so 550 calories for a woman and 650 calories for a man."

In a report released in May 2016, Researchers at the University of South Carolina compared standard meals on menus at 28 fast-casual restaurants and 34 fast food restaurants. Regardless of the quality of the food and the nutrients, they found that on average, meals from fast-casual restaurants had significantly more calories than the fast food meals. 

Entrees at the fast food restaurants in the analysis had an average of 561 calories and entrees at fast-casual restaurants had an average of 760 calories. 

Here's how your "healthy" order at a fast-casual restaurant could end up with the same number of calories as a Big Mac and fries, if not more. 

The calories for a Big Mac and medium fries.

The screenshot of McDonald's nutrition calculator shows that a Big Mac and an order of medium fries racks up 870 calories, without a beverage.

As you can see in the picture below, Chipotle's nutrition calculator says that ordering a salad with chicken, beans, white rice, and all the available toppings, including guacamole, cheese, sour cream, and salad dressing has an estimated 1410 calories. That's 70 percent of a 2,000 calorie diet for an entire day. 

A chicken taco salad at chipotle with all the toppings.

Scaling back on the toppings brings the calorie count down, but not into the moderate or low calorie range. The nutrition calculator says that a basic salad with lettuce, chicken, black beans, and salad dressing comes to 790 calories, about 40 percent of a 2,000 calorie diet. 

Soup can often be a solid option if you're trying to watch your calorie intake, and there are entire weight loss diets dedicated to it. However, not all soup is low in calories. Panera Bread's nutrition guide lists "vegetarian creamy tomato soup" in a bread bowl as 860 calories, only 10 less than the Big Mac and fries. Their "Broccoli Cheddar Soup" is 900 calories, when served in a bread bowl. That's 43 and 45 percent of a 2,000 calorie diet respectively. 

However, losing the bread bowl brings the calories down. The creamy tomato soup goes down to 280 calories by switching to a regular "bowl" size and the broccoli and cheddar soup goes down to 360 calories, both of which would fall in the low-calorie range. 

Calories for Vegetarian Creamy Tomato Soup at Panera Bread.

Freshii, a worldwide Canada-based chain, says it aims to "provide fresh and nutritious meal choices that energize people on the go." Many of the options on the menu are moderate or low-calorie, but some of the wraps have calorie-counts that approach those of a Big Mac and fries order. A Freshii menu from 2016 lists the the "Market" wrap at  840 calories and the "Metaboost" wrap at 850 calories, respectively only 30 and 20 calories lower than the popular McDonalds order. 

Calories in Freshii wraps. Wagner, talked to ATTN: about common mistakes people make when ordering from restaurants and she shared some tips for lowering the calorie-count. 

1. Don't clean your plate.

Wagner said the portions at restaurants are often much larger than we would eat at home. 

"The portions we get when we eat out are seriously oversized – studies reveal that the average restaurant portion is usually two to three times a 'normal' serving," she said. She said splitting an entree or ordering an appetizer and a salad instead of a meal and an appetizer can keep the calories from ballooning. 

2. Ask questions and make special requests. 

Wagner said it's helpful to ask about dish preparation so you can find ways to eliminate extra calories. 

"For example, feel free to request dressing and sauces on the side. Ask that they leave off that cheese. Opt for a side salad in place of fries," she said. "Most restaurants are more than happy to accommodate their guests."

3. If you're not sure, choose a meal with a lot of vegetables. 

Wagner said that vegetables will generally have less calories, and they're loaded with nutrition. 

"Veggies are high in vitamins, minerals and tummy filling fiber," she said. "If you’re trying to be better about watching your calories and making healthful food choices, upping your veggie intake is a must." 

RELATED: What 2,000 Calories Looks Like From Millennial Fast Food Favorites