Nutrition Articles

Know Your Menu Watch Words

Throw the Flag at Unhealthy Cooking

They are small words. They can be easy to miss. They slip off your tongue as you order your food, without even knowing what you are saying. Yet they mean the difference between a healthy or unhealthy meal. What are these unassuming potential land mines? "Menu Watch Words" -- and it pays to keep your eye on them.

Going out to eat is a lot of fun. You’re having a good time and you might not always think about what’s best for you. You can avoid the next morning "why did I eat that" hangover by planting a few gentle reminders, well-placed whispers in your ear.

Did you know that consultants travel the country helping restaurants say just the right things on their food menus? Unless you ask the server about the preparation of each item, it’s hard to know for sure what’s really healthy and unhealthy. For example, the word "breaded" can add five times as much fat to your meal as the word "grilled." You can fight back by translating the consultants’ wordcrafting into something useful.

Not all "Menu Watch Words" are bad. When you go out to eat, just go prepared. Know which words to look for and which to avoid. Below is a quick hit list of Green Flag "Safe" and Red Flag "Warning!" food options.

The watch words below are a guide. Still, food items can be very healthy or unhealthy regardless of the use of any of these words. For example, "fat free" food is often packed with sugar and calories to get it to taste better. There are times when these words are used to mislead you (which is why we call them "watch words" and not guarantees). So use this along with your good judgment to steer clear of the bad stuff. More often than not, you’ll end up making a smart decision.

Good luck and keep your eyes open.

          GREEN FLAG
(Potentially Good for You)
Fat free
High Fiber
Red sauce
Whole Wheat

            RED FLAG
(Probably Bad for You)
Au gratin
Bearnaise (or hollandaise)
"Bet you can't finish it"
Buttery / Buttered
Creamed / Creamy
Fried / Deep fried
White Sauce

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Member Comments

  • Interesting article. I think it's a little easier nowadays that chain restaurants have their nutritional info online. Starbucks really impressed me by putting caloric values on their menu board. So that really helps.
  • The low fat option doesn't necessarily mean that it is healthier or lower in calories...
    While I realise it may be helpful for some people, I eat out so rarely that it is a treat. I'm not a fan of the low-fat ideology either, but will eat healthy and balanced including butter in small amounts.
  • MAHONEY_09
    ah yes....all those adjectives that so often rope us in and leave us feeling sick later on...from here on out I'll prefer the b words...broiled, baked, least the majority of the time!!
    Ah... cheesy, crunchy, fried... all words I love :( But I'm a pretty big fan of grilled too, so I can make good choices here :D Thanks for the helpful list!
    If its a "C" word, I don't want it -- crispy, creamy, cheesy, crunchy -- okay, I'll do crispy/crunchy vegetables and fruits ;-)
  • I love this article! It made me laugh, but it is so true.
  • A wonderful article that I will find VERY HELPFUL . Thank you very much.
  • I printed all of the "Red Flag" and "Green Flag" words on a wallet sized card, laminated it and keep it in my wallet for easy reference when I am going to eat out.
    Okay...definitely helpful information! Had no idea that some of these words were trigger words! I saved this so I can refer to it later.
    When I know I'm going to go to a local restaurant that doesn't provide nutrition info, I try to plan ahead by looking up dishes that are common to that cuisine (Italian, Greek, whatever...) and try to determine what the healthier options will be. Generally, it's the entrees with fish or chicken, grilled not fried, etc., but when it's a cuisine that I'm not familiar with (like the Greek restaurant we went to a few weeks ago), it helped to look up just what "Dolma" is so I knew what I was ordering!
  • What's really hard is when you go to local restaurants (i.e., not a chain store), which usually have no website and no nutrition information available.

    Since I'd much rather support local independent businesses than the giant megacorps, the days when we happen to go to Frank's Pizza or El Tepehuan I just assume that it's like going to a potluck-- for that meal I've "eaten the untrackable". Back on the program the next day.
  • When I was in college for chef training we took a course on menu planning and were taught what words to put to make people more likely to buy a certian item.. almost all of the words on the red list are things that we were told to add to make a food seem more appealing so more people will buy it because most people go out for a night out and don't worry about what they eat.
  • Wonderful article.
    "Stewed" - maybe also because it often comes in rich sauces?

    Thanks for the list, and the disclaimer that it's not the be-all and end-all. I know I still need to do my own research. Today I went to Starbucks and forgot to check their nutrition page. Ended up with a multigrain bagel at 320 calories and that's without the cream cheese. Oi vey! But at least it was healthy (I hope).

About The Author

Zach Van Hart Zach Van Hart
Zach is a journalist who regularly covers health and exercise topics.

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