Welcome back to the Lunch Break series, where we examine the menus of common lunchtime destinations and help you make the best choice from your options. Today we take a look at the ever-popular Panera Bread. Plenty of people love Panera, but does it love them back? We called on Rockville trainer and public health expert Michelle Wong to walk us through the chain’s very thorough nutrition and ingredient stats.
“The beauty of Panera is choice. It’s very interchangeable; you can have things as you want them,” says Wong. Overall, she was impressed with the offerings. Check out her diet-friendly picks below.
• “You pick two”: Any sandwich or soup and a Greek or classic salad: While not all of Panera’s soups and sandwiches are conducive to weight loss, the “pick two” option has the advantages of balance and portion size. “Weight management is more about balance than calories,” Wong says (though it’s worth noting that many of Panera’s offerings are 500 to 600 calories, which is ideal for a good meal). The two salads are the lightest of the menu—don’t forget to get dressing on the side.
• Fuji apple chicken salad: The chicken is all-natural and antibiotic free, which is more than most lunch chains can say for their meat.
• Mediterranean salmon salad: With its salmon, almonds, and olives (good fats), plus fruits, vegetables, and just a sprinkling of cheese, this is one of the most well-rounded options on the menu. Wong explains, “The biggest thing [for weight loss] is looking for a balance of healthy fats, lean proteins, fiber, vegetables, and whole grains. You want nutrient-dense foods.”
• Mediterranean veggie sandwich: This vegetable medley is both flavorful and chock-full of nutrients (in fact, it has more than a recommended day’s worth of calcium). Even the tomato-basil wheat bread it comes on provides 25 percent of your daily iron. Salt and pepper are typically added to the sandwich, so opt out of the salt to keep your sodium intake in check.
• Bacon turkey bravo sandwich: It’s 800 calories and has more than a full day’s worth of sodium—upward of 2,300 milligrams. The bacon doesn’t help, either.
• Signature mac and cheese (large): “Most of the things on the menu that are calorie-dense are so because they have a lot of cheese,” Wong says. Mac and cheese of course, is exactly that—and at 980 calories (more than half from fat) and loaded with sodium, it’s one of the items you should just pretend isn’t even on the menu.
• Italian combo sandwich: The description reads: meat, meat, meat, meat, cheese . . . the lettuce, tomato, onions, and pepperoncini can’t compete. Though high in vitamins and protein, this sammie is also high in sodium and carbs. “A lot of weight management issues stem from excess carb intake more than excess fat intake,” Wong explains. It’s simply too much of everything for one meal.
Our expert says that in general, weight management is about paying attention and actively thinking about what you eat. Also, be wary of things labeled low-fat (“that means the taste has to come from somewhere else—usually sugar,” she says). Try to create well-rounded meals and snacks every time you eat, and “always look up the menu before you go out, or ask for nutrition facts.”
Michelle Wong is the personal training assistant department head at Life Time Fitness in Rockville, where she leads a team of personal trainers and dietitians. You can contact her at email@example.com or at 240-599-2957.