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Diner beware

When I was growing up, eating out or taking out was a special event. Now for ever-growing millions of Americans, restaurant-prepared food has become a way of life. And it shows _ on the scale and around the waistline.

But even for those who manage to maintain a reasonably normal weight on restaurant fare, there is the chance that hidden health damage is occurring.

These days, many Americans seek foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

And to guarantee that patrons will think that they are getting their money's worth, the sizes of portions in restaurants have continued to increase.

Because this eating trend is unlikely to end anytime soon, it makes sense to know what hides within your favorite offerings and how to choose, order and eat them.

In a new book, Restaurant Confidential (Workman Publishing, $12.95), Michael F. Jacobson, who holds a Ph.D. and is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Jayne G. Hurley, a registered dietitian at the center, have compiled an invaluable guide for those who dine out.

Assisted by their staff at the center, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, they have investigated the fare at nearly every type of eating establishment, from sandwich shops to steak houses, movie theaters to pizzerias, fast-food restaurants to dinner houses.

Their 381-page paperback provides health-essential nutrition information _ calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar, where relevant _ for most popular edibles. They also have included guidelines on ways to improve the choices or make more sensible selections.

The average American eats out more than four times a week.

As the authors note, "Portions of meat have gotten larger, layers of melted cheese have gotten fatter, salt and sugar are abundant, and even salads have been corrupted" by fatty additions and dressings so rich and generous they often overwhelm the flavor of the wholesome salad ingredients.

According to data gathered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, restaurant meals are, on average, 20 percent fattier and 15 percent higher in saturated fat than home-cooked meals.

They are also higher in sodium and cholesterol and much lower in calcium, fiber and iron.

A decade ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest began calling attention to the nutritional shortcomings of restaurant fare, cuisine by cuisine, by analyzing and publicizing the calorie and nutrient contents of popular restaurant and takeout foods.

The center started with meals served in Chinese restaurants, and the findings shocked many diners, who assumed they were choosing healthier foods than, say, their friends who frequented steak houses or fast food establishments.

For example, the lab analysis revealed that most Mexican restaurant food platters added up to more than 1,500 calories, rich in fat and saturated fat.

For example, a serving of beef and cheese nachos with sour cream and guacamole contained 1,360 calories and 89 grams of fat, including 28 grams of saturated fat, and a single chicken burrito supplied 720 calories and 29 grams of fat, 8 of them saturated.

And, those who decide on the seemingly healthier taco salad with sour cream and guacamole probably will consume some 1,100 calories and 71 grams of fat, 20 of them saturated.

But perhaps the worst trend in restaurant fare is the steady increase in portion sizes.

At the Cheesecake Factory, for example, a single slice of carrot cake weighs nearly 1 pound and supplies 1,560 calories.

Muffins, once 200 calories, now are so huge that some contain 800 or 900 calories. Even bagels, also once 200 calories, now may exceed 400.

Tips for more healthful dining out

The book Restaurant Confidential offers these suggestions for eating out more healthfully.

+ Check the menu before you walk in. Many establishments post their menus in the window; others have them near the entry.

+ Ask the waiter to describe menu items you are considering. The poached fish could have been cooked in oil, not water. The Caesar salad with grilled chicken might not come with dressing on the side, allowing you to dribble, rather than pour it on.

+ Look for "light" or "heart-healthy" selections on the menu. A small but growing number of restaurants are now offering lighter fares for the health-conscious diners.

+ Don't hesitate to request changes. Ask for sauces and dressings on the side, a baked potato instead of fries or more vegetables than meat in a stir-fry, an egg-white omelet instead of one made with whole eggs.

+ Watch for hidden fats. Salad dressings can add 300 calories to a salad served as a main dish. Depending on the cut, steaks can be very fatty (prime rib) or quite lean (filet mignon).

+ Share or ask for a "people" bag. Take home half of a large serving and have it for lunch or dinner the next day. Or, ask a dining companion to share an entree or dessert.

+ Beware of buffets. If you have no willpower, best to stay out of them completely. The restaurant may also have menu-based offerings, which can provide more built-in control.

+ Eat out less frequently. Instead of having lunch every day at a restaurant, bring a brown bag lunch every other day or select from the salad bar at a local supermarket, greengrocer or health food establishment. On long car trips, pack a cooler. On planes and trains, bring something from home.

+ Be an advocate. Ask staff members or the management at your favorite restaurant to offer light dressings, whole wheat bread or greens that are more nutritious than iceberg lettuce. Ask that menu items be described in greater detail. And pressure government representatives to require that information about nutrition be readily available to the consumers at chain restaurants.

_ JANE BRODY, New York Times