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A matter of health

Deciding what to order for dinner is getting tougher as more people try to pick dishes that will be good and good for them. It's a difficult choice, and many diners still aren't sure what to ask for to get more healthful food in restaurants. More than half the 1,800 diners surveyed by Suncoast Opinion Surveys for the St. Petersburg Times said they pay some or a lot of attention to eating more healthful foods that are low in salt and fat when dining out, with women and people age 50 and older showing the most concern.

Twenty-nine percent of all diners said they paid a lot of attention to the healthfulness of restaurant meals. Diners 65 and older were the most worried: Almost 40 percent said they paid a lot of attention, with women in that age group most likely to worry. (Forty-three percent of the women paid a lot of attention, while only 34 percent of the men did; 47 percent of the men paid very little attention, compared to only 37 percent of the women).

Despite the worries about nutrition, there are still big areas of disregard and ignorance about better eating.

Choosing healthful food got very little attention from at least 40 percent in each

age group, with younger people having the least worries. Half of those between 18 and 34 said they paid very little attention, and even greater disinterest was shown by people in the middle-age segment, ages 35 to 49; almost 55 percent of them said they paid health little heed in restaurants.

Those who said they did pay attention to health were asked what restaurants could do to make food more healthful. Their answer was fairly simple: Serve food with less salt, less fat and less cholesterol. While this correctly identifies the dietary culprits, it doesn't give much direction on how to combat them.

Cutting down on salt in cooking was the biggest concern voiced by 46 percent of those who responded to the question, but none requested using other seasonings.

Most urged reducing the fat content of their meals but weren't specific about how. Only 10 percent suggested more broiling and less frying, while a smaller number urged serving more vegetables, both of which are good tactics to reduce fat and cholesterol.

Very few noted that using fewer sauces, and serving more fruits, lean meats, more grains and foods with high fiber content would be more healthful.

Other ways to cut fat _ by grilling, roasting and steaming _ got little mention. They might have asked for smaller portions; less butter, eggs and cheese; more vegetarian entrees; fewer rich desserts; nutritional information on menus; and more low-fat substitutes.

Strangely, many restaurateurs have realized that some customers are hungry for healthful dishes and have complied in various ways. Even hamburger chains have added chicken, baked potatoes and salads or are searching for low-cholesterol, low-fat oils for frying. Smart restaurateurs offer healthful options or offer to fix foods to their customers' needs.

But you have to ask for it.

Only when diners do that will they get lighter, healthful foods in more restaurants.