Anita Jones-Mueller founded Healthy Dining in 1990 with the aim of inspiring chefs to create healthier options for diners and allowing Americans to include restaurant dining as a part of a healthier lifestyle. The initiative’s dining and nutrition guide, HealthyDiningFinder.com, has won two Web Health Awards, including a Merit Award in the website category of this year’s annual Health Information Resource Center Winter/Spring Web Health Awards. I interviewed Jones-Mueller about Healthy Dining Finder and how it can help restaurants offer healthier choices to their customers.
How many restaurant partners does Healthy Dining have?
Close to 400 restaurant companies, coast to coast, participate in the Healthy Dining and Kids LiveWell programs on HealthyDiningFinder.com. It is very exciting to see so many restaurants of all types — fast food to fast casual to fine dining — offering a selection of qualifying menu choices that nutrition-savvy guests can appreciate and enjoy.
How does Healthy Dining help restaurants offer nutritious menu items?
Healthy Dining’s registered dietitians work one-on-one with each participating restaurant to identify menu choices that meet the Healthy Dining and Kids LiveWell nutrition criteria. These items are featured on HealthyDiningFinder.com. Qualifying menu choices emphasize healthful ingredients like lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats, and meet qualifying nutrition criteria. Most restaurants have at least some menu items that meet the criteria, and many restaurants are starting to offer an impressive variety of choices that qualify.
I think that along with the marketing benefits of the Healthy Dining Program, restaurants also really value working and talking with the dietitians. Most restaurants want to meet their guests’ nutrition needs but are sometimes confused about what steps to take first. … Some of the restaurant companies we work with not only want to offer Healthy Dining and Kids LiveWell choices, but are also committed to reducing excess calories, fat and sodium across the board, in all or most of their menu choices. Of course, they want to do that without affecting taste and guest satisfaction. That is really a win-win because it contributes to a healthier America and helps restaurants save on food costs; and the calorie, fat and sodium values of the menu items are a lot more palatable!
How does Healthy Dining promote those items to customers?
HealthyDiningFinder.com and its mobile platforms make it easy for people to find the restaurants offering Healthy Dining-approved choices. In fact, NBC’s Today Show recently featured HealthyDiningFinder.com as the best site for dining out in a segment on “smart technology for eating healthy.” Just enter a ZIP code to access a list of restaurants in the vicinity that serve Healthy Dining and Kids LiveWell choices. You can then view a full listing of the featured restaurants, along with the qualifying menu choices and corresponding nutrition information. Many restaurants are also sending us photos of their Healthy Dining choices, and we are showcasing them on the home page and the restaurant pages. These enticing photos confirm that dining out “Healthy Dining-style” can be really delicious and satisfying.
Last summer, we added the Kids LiveWell platform on the site to help parents easily find healthier options for their kids, as well. The Kids LiveWell Program was developed by the National Restaurant Association in collaboration with Healthy Dining.
HealthyDiningFinder.com also offers inspiration for healthy eating, especially as it relates to eating out, with blogs by Healthy Dining’s dietitians, recipes and e-newsletters. A new “Ask the RD” (Registered Dietitian) platform enables site users to ask the dietitians questions that will help them make healthier choices.
A recent Rand Corp. study reports that 96% of main dishes sold at top U.S. chain eateries exceed daily limits for calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat recommended by the USDA. Why do you think so many restaurants are lacking in their healthy offerings?
I think there are several points that are important to consider. First, more restaurants than ever are offering great-tasting healthier options. Since the Healthy Dining Program launched five years ago, the number of restaurants offering Healthy Dining-approved choices has grown steadily from 60 companies to close to 400 companies. And the number of Healthy Dining-approved choices has grown by more than 1,500%, from about 225 in 2007 to close to 3,500 qualifying menu choices now. That means that the industry as a whole is increasing access to and availability of healthier options. And that is a huge leap forward for public health!
Second, it is difficult for any full meal to meet recommended levels of every nutrient. And just because a menu item isn’t low in calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium doesn’t mean it is not a healthy choice. You really have to consider total daily intake. For example, a dinner choice of 6 ounces of wild salmon with an Oriental-style glaze served with quinoa and steamed vegetable medley is a healthy choice for almost anyone (barring allergies). But that item might be a bit higher in calories and fat (because of the salmon) and higher in sodium (because of the Oriental-style glaze). But if you ate a healthy breakfast and lunch, the salmon dinner easily fits into your daily recommended intake and is chock-full of nutrients. The salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids and high-quality protein; the quinoa contributes protein, fiber, manganese, magnesium, folate and phosphorus, and the vegetables add fiber and lots of health-enhancing phytochemicals and antioxidants. … We should all be as aware of the quality of the calories we consume as we are aware of the quantity of calories. High-quality calories mean that we are eating foods that give us the nutrients that help our bodies and brains to function at their best. We all need fuel from the food we eat to give us the energy, stamina and focus required to use every minute of the day productively.
And, third, sodium is often the culprit in restaurant meals and why such a high percent of the meals in the Rand study didn’t meet the USDA guidelines. As I mentioned, Healthy Dining’s dietitians are working with a lot of restaurants on full menu nutrition analysis and sodium reduction. Much of the sodium in restaurant meals is tough to instantly decrease. For example, in a turkey sandwich, the sodium might add up to 1,200 to 1,500 mg, and yet, the calories, fat and saturated fat are at recommended levels. That’s because the bread has sodium, as well as the turkey, the mustard and the cheese. So it’s not that the restaurant is dousing the sandwich with salt. It is truly the products that comprise the meal that account for the sodium. … We are finding that a lot of restaurants are working to reduce sodium by talking to their suppliers, looking for lower sodium products and decreasing amounts of high-sodium ingredients. So reducing sodium takes time and the cooperation of food manufacturers and suppliers.