New Web site helps diners choose healthier dishes

SACRAMENTO (MCT) — Super-sized fast-food combos. Piles of pasta. Dessert. Dining out can be a disaster for those waging war against the waistline.

But a new Web site — — allows consumers to plug in a city or zip code, and up pops a list of restaurants in the area with a selection of menu items that meet certain healthy criteria, such as lower calories and fat content.

The site was produced by a San Diego company in tandem with the National Restaurant Association, and so far it’s dominated by chains — Chevy’s, Domino’s and even Burger King — that pay a fee to be listed.

But the California restaurant association, which opposes current efforts by lawmakers to force its members to provide nutritional information on menus, is encouraging others to participate.

Dietitians and health advocates called the site a welcome development in the fight against obesity and diabetes, among other growing health epidemics. But some skeptics question how many people would bother to log online for a research session before heading to Chili’s. Others suspect a public relations stunt by the restaurant industry to fend off tougher government rules.

“The timing surely isn’t a coincidence,” said California Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, the author of legislation to require chain restaurants to post nutritional information on their menus, which the Senate health committee approved last week in a 6-2 vote. “People deserve to know what they’re eating when they’re making their choices in a restaurant.”

But Jot Condie, chief of the California Restaurant Association, said the site strikes a balance between giving health-conscious diners nutritional information, and thrusting that information at others who just want a happy, guilt-free meal. He said the timing of the launch had nothing to do with the proposal in the legislature.

Some people know that eating a “deep dish cheese pepperoni pizza isn’t necessarily the path to becoming a runway model,” Condie said, “but they’re doing it because they want good food.”

Jump-started with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the San Diego company Healthy Dining has been working on the site for more than a year, but officials just began promoting it in California this month. It’s clearly a work in progress.

Many of the restaurants listed on the site are fast-food spots, such as Burger King — think Whopper Junior, hold the mayo and cheese, garden salad and bottled water. A search for restaurants in San Francisco, one of the top dining destinations in the world, turns up establishments such as Chevy’s, Bucco di Beppo, Domino’s and Hooter’s. Several restaurants (including Hooter’s) actually have no menu items listed; the site says they are “coming soon.”

A presentation on Tuesday to promote the Web site drew a top aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Belshe, who said it jibes with the governor’s crusade to promote healthier lifestyles. Afterward, people noshed on chicken tortilla soup from El Pollo Loco and pizza topped with sun dried tomatoes and kalamata from Buca di Beppo.

Whether the site can attract the people who would benefit from it most — and not just hard-core health junkies — remains to be seen.

Two diners who were digesting lunch at a P.F. Chang’s — one of the Healthy Dining’s participating restaurants — debated that question Tuesday afternoon. Count Denise Brown, a retired state worker who tends her own herb garden at home, is a fan of the idea.

Had she looked at the site beforehand, Brown said, she might have ordered the mixed veggies or the asparagus. Instead she and her husband, David, shared the calamari and the moo shu pork.

But both also said that having the health information at the restaurant would be preferable to looking it up online.

“I’d like to have the information on the menu,” David Brown said, “even though I might not pick it.”

Another lingering question is whether those inclined to check out menus ahead of time might come away disappointed with’s heavy offerings of fast food and chain restaurants.

But the site’s backers say they expect the listings to grow exponentially in the coming months, as word spreads, to include smaller independent restaurants. Currently about 250 restaurants — with 30,000 locations — are listed.

“Our vision is to include one-unit independent restaurants to large chains,” said Erica Bohm, a Healthy Dining vice president and director of strategic partnerships, “and everything in between.”

Mike Zapler

San Jose Mercury News