Years ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest shocked lots of people by exposing the ghastly number of calories in Kung Pao chicken and movie popcorn. Then came the film Super Size Me, which revolted moviegoers with the fat-laden, sugar-drenched realities of a McDonald’s meal. Just thinking about it was enough to make your pants feel tight.
But what about a sit-down meal at a good restaurant? According to a Zagat survey, Americans in big cities eat out, on average, four times a week. What exactly are we consuming when we sit down to a restaurant dinner?
We set out to find out. We dispatched staff to pick up three-course meals from five restaurants, each with a different cuisine. Then we packed the food up in containers filled with dry ice and shipped it to a lab in Des Moines, Iowa, for burning—yes, burning—to measure its caloric content. We also had it tested for proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
The results: Who knew that a three-course sushi dinner has more carbs than a three-course French dinner? Going out for Thai sounds like an excursion into light, bright cooking, but a meal at a Thai restaurant can be nearly as caloric as one at the Cajun restaurant Acadiana. Note to all the lobbyists who chow down on the latter’s shrimp and grits and beignets several times a week: In one dinner you may be taking in more than a day’s worth of calories.
Lab results in hand, we invited two experts to help us make sense of the numbers. Walter Scheib, who as White House chef under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush was tasked with finding out the nutritional content for every meal he served to the First Family—and who went on diets with First Ladies—commented on each dish. Katherine Tallmadge, a DC nutritionist who has been a guest expert on TV shows from Food Network programs to Good Morning America, offered commentary and alternative recommendations for each meal.
Our hope is not that you’ll come away from this vowing to steer clear of these restaurants. Rather, we hope you’ll come away a wiser, healthier diner.
Thai: Sala Thai (2016 P St., NW)
Vegetable Spring Rolls With Sweet-and-Sour Sauce
Roasted Duck With Red Curry Sauce, Side of White Rice
Thai Coconut Custard With Sweet Rice
Carbs: 307 grams
Fat: 82 grams
Protein: 65 grams
Walter Scheib says: “[Spring rolls] are little grease sponges. But there are wonderful things called summer rolls, which are basically spring rolls that are fresher and lighter—and without the deep-fried part.”
“Thai desserts are based on rice and coconut. Go for sorbets or fruit ices—just not coconut ice cream, which is basically frozen butter. Ask if they’ve got a fresh mango with a squeeze of lime.”
“Most people think of Oriental cuisines as ‘light.’ When I worked at the White House, this is what Mrs. Clinton used to call gratuitous fat—fat in your food that you don’t necessarily see. You’ve got coconut milk, which is straight fat, and then the duck skin.”
What to get instead: Coconut milk is the biggest source of calories and fat on this diet-busting menu. Often you don’t even know it’s there. Instead look for dishes that get their flavor from citrus juices, spices, vinegars, and herbs.
Katherine Tallmadge, a Sala Thai regular, orders lemongrass soup, beef salad, and steamed whole fish: “If your main dish is a lot of food, you probably don’t want the extra rice. A cup is 200 calories.” If you’re going to have noodles, get cellophane noodles, made with mung beans instead of flour. And keep in mind that at many Asian restaurants, portions are served family-style and meant for sharing.