There Are Even Fewer Healthy Restaurant Options Than You Thought

I travel a lot. Filming my MTV show Catfish takes me all over this great country to towns big and small. After fours years on the road, I've eaten lunch and dinner at pretty much every local Ruby Tuesday’s, Olive Garden, and Applebee’s. Sometimes, when the meal options are scarce, I’ll end up at McDonald’s, Subway, or a gas station. 

Last week, I stopped at a Ruby Tuesday for lunch. I opened the menu. Hmm, I thought, what can I order that's healthy and not deep fried? A salad? It arrived under a pile of candied pecans, dried cranberries, shredded cheese and a mountain of dressing. Then I requested a baked potato. No butter, sour cream, cheese or bacon bits, just the potato, I asked. The server looked at me like I was a psychopath. Next, I ordered a side of steamed veggies which arrived slathered in a giant blob of butter now pooling at the bottom of the dish. Would I like cheese grated on top? You get the point. Why is it so hard to find a healthy meal in many parts of America?

Let me caveat this discussion by saying the following: except for my crazy strange job regarding the dark, twisted and sometimes perverse world of the internet, I’m a pretty regular guy. I’m not looking to eat organic kale with local gluten free ingredients at every meal. I work hard, get tired, and when lunch or dinner rolls around, I want food; and many times, I want it fast and easy. So, like many Americans - one in four to be exact - I visit a fast food or franchise restaurant almost every day. Ok, fine, when I’m on the road it’s usually more like twice a day. And let me tell you, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg may have tried outlawing large sugary drinks and McDonald’s may now offer salad, but on the ground, all across the country, it’s still a caloric war zone every time you enter a restaurant. I’m burnt out. Exhausted. When did we forget how great things can taste without deep frying them and covering them in cheese?

Nev Schulman and Max Joseph filming an episode of MTV's Catfish

Sure, I could go to Subway and get a Veggie Delight. Or to McDonald’s and get an iceberg salad with no fried chicken on top. That’s progress. However, let’s not lose sight of the big picture here. In the grand scheme of treating our bodies and minds with respect, and eating healthy, hearty, delicious meals, Subway and McDonald's are still not great options. For every healthy combination of items on the menu, there are roughly 250 unhealthy combinations.

With an increasing number of Americans eating outside the home; with single-parent families, and families with two working parents a growing segment of the population; why aren’t our options better? Just because Americans are going out instead of sitting around the family dinner table for a home cooked meal, it doesn’t mean they have to eat crap. Does it?

Well, the more digging I do, the more I realize that big business says yes: Americans will eat crap and like it.  For example, there’s an organization called Dairy Management, a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture, who works with restaurateurs to develop more cheese products and then sell them to consumers. For example, Domino’s extra cheesy pizza or Taco Bell’s Steak Quesadilla are both creations of Dairy Management and both boosted their fast food chains' sales tremendously. Dairy Management has an operating budget several times as large as the government’s healthy eating initiatives. And if Dairy Management is pushing cheese so effectively on menus across the USA, you bet there is some sort of Corn Management, Canola Oil Management, etc.  Ok fine, but what’s so bad about cheese, oil, and corn syrup ? Nothing in moderation, but at the levels they are found in fast food, they can lead to a significant increase in risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, endometrial cancer, and a host of other medical problems.

Not to mention, do you seriously not think the food you eat has a direct effect on how you feel and how your brain works? Your brain needs good food or it will not work well. It’s also amazing how resilient your body is but good luck with that after you turn 25. It may seem fine for now, but get into the habit of eating healthy now because otherwise… well it won’t be a pretty picture. The statistics don’t lie: one in three children and nearly 40% of adults are obese in America.

Nev Schulman spends a lot of time on the road filming his TV show Catfish

So what can you do? As we go into 2015, let’s start the year off right by thinking a little more about what we’re eating. For starters, seasoning your food doesn’t have to mean covering it with cheese or the devil semen that is ranch/blue cheese/thousand island dressing. You can ask for your salad dressing on the side. Then you aren’t reversing all the potential benefits of the salad with a 400 calorie tablespoon of saturated fat. Instead, here are some things you can do to season your food: olive oil and vinegar, balsamic vinaigrette, salt and pepper, or lemon juice. Most restaurants will give you lemon wedges when asked, and you’d be amazed what fresh squeezed lemon can do for food.

If you are going to go to a franchise restaurant, here are some ways to improve your experience: ask for your food to be grilled instead of fried, and have them use olive oil instead of butter, ask for the sauce on the side, ask for steamed veggies instead of mayonnaise drenched coleslaw. Get a baked potato instead of French fries, and just say no to cheese. Thirsty? Instead of soda, get an iced tea or club soda with cranberry. Don't add sugar. And, if possible, be judicious about dessert. Because there really is no good way to eat a giant slice of chocolate cheese cake after lunch. 

In between meals, it’s hard to find good snacks, but here are some ideas: try carrots and hummus, fruit, or a banana with peanut butter. If you’re at the gas station go for the whole grain cereal cups like Cheerios or mixed nuts - preferably lightly or unsalted. All this said, I’m a big fan of everything in moderation. Go have some chicken nuggets once in a while, or grab a coke at the gas station for a special treat. I’m not saying you can never eat a burger and cheesy fries but just remember that for everything you put into your body, there is a consequence. Oh, and drink more water! I know that if I drank more water I would have more energy, feel better, and be happier so I need to constantly remind myself to carry a water bottle, or reach for water when I’m tired. 

I want to end this editorial with a challenge to the restaurants. Recently, CVS made the brave choice to stop selling cigarettes because they kill people. Shout out to you, CVS. Guess what. Sugar and saturated fats kill people too and it’s messed up to push it upon people. Hey YOU, Olive Garden, Apple Bee’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, you are buying in bulk. Why can’t you buy healthy stuff? Why does everything on the menu have to contribute to the cycle? Only seven items on the McDonald’s menu don’t have sugar in them. Seven. It’s 2015. We can do better.