Lunch Break: Potbelly

What’s healthy at Washington’s favorite sandwich spot? Scott Kahan of the George Washington University Weight Management Program has a few suggestions.

Dr. Scott Kahan is the co-director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program, a community-based clinic aimed at helping overweight people learn healthy-eating habits and prevent or reverse obesity-related health problems. He earned a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from Columbia University, a medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University. He’s written 14 books on medicine, nutrition, and public health, and he edits medical textbooks that are used around the world. Kahan’s also on the faculty at GW, where he teaches courses in the School of Public Health and Health Services.

All this to say: Dr. Kahan knows his stuff.

When we asked him to participate in our Lunch Break series, he was intrigued. “Fast food is a driver of the obesity epidemic,” says Kahan. “All restaurants—but especially fast-food ones—tend to be much higher in calories, fat, and sugar than we realize, and in most cases, we don’t know what’s in the food we’re eating.”

Kahan helps patients make better choices when it comes to eating, but he stresses the importance of not sacrificing taste or what he calls “the enjoyment factor.” The biggest complaint people have with dieting, he says, is feeling deprived. “We teach people how to have their cake and eat it too,” he says.

Before you dine out, Kahan says it pays to do a little homework. Lots of restaurants, including Potbelly, have nutrition information on their Web sites or posted in their dining rooms. “It allows you to see exactly what you’re eating and can help you make a more informed decision,” he says. If the information isn’t available, work backwards: Look at the ingredient list and make an educated guess. Calorie-heavy condiments such as mayonnaise or creamy dressings should be red flags. The same goes for cheese: “If you see an entrée that has cheese, assume that it’s a high-in-calorie cheese, and assume that they’re going to pile it on,” says Kahan. “Instead, choose an entrée that doesn’t have cheese, or ask them to put it on the side or to put a little less on.”

That’s the beauty of a restaurant like Potbelly: The food is made to order right in front of you, so it’s easy to control what goes on and how much. Of course, some options are inherently healthier than others. Here’s what Kahan—a once-a-month Potbelly customer—recommends ordering, and what he says to stay away from.

Do Order . . .
• Turkey-breast and roast-beef sandwiches: “It’s not a surprise that turkey breast would be low-cal, but the 7-grams-of-fat roast-beef sandwich was a nice discovery,” says Kahan. He says while red meat in general is usually higher in fat, a lean serving of beef can actually be lower in calories than a fattier serving of turkey or chicken. A serving of Provolone cheese adds 5 grams of fat—the lowest-fat cheese option on the menu. And with all sandwiches, a smear of mustard, rather than mayo, is the way to go. Mustard adds just 14 calories; mayo adds 100.
Another tip: When ordering a sandwich, make it a “Skinny.” These lighter sandwiches use thin-cut bread and 1⁄3 less meat and cheese than the Originals. Kahan says they can easily save you 100 calories, without sacrificing a bit of taste. “That adds up to a lot of weight over time,” he says.
• Chickpea Veggie and Farmhouse salads: Both of these salads are chock-full of tasty ingredients: hard-boiled eggs, blue cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions. There are even bacon bits in the Farmhouse salad. The Chickpea is the healthiest choice, clocking in at just 283 calories and 13 grams of fat (without dressing). Remove the cheese (or ask for it on the side) and you’re down to 173 calories. The Farmhouse, which comes with grilled chicken, has 434 calories, but if you remove the bacon and cheese (or ask for less), you’ll drop more than 200 calories from the total. No matter your salad choice, opt for the non-fat vinaigrette dressing, which has 1⁄8 the calories of the heavier dressings.
• Garden-vegetable soup: With just 103 calories and no fat, a bowl of this veggie-loaded soup is practically sin-free. The soup is made with tomatoes, potatoes, navy beans, red peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. If that doesn’t fill you up, you could order it as a side item with one of the Skinny sandwiches. A smaller cup has just 69 calories.
• Mini oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookie: When your sweet tooth calls, order one of these 100-calorie cookies. Says Kahan, “It’s perfectly portioned so you can have your dessert with out feeling deprived.”

Stay Away From . . .
• Big Jack’s PB&J and the vegetarian sandwiches: “Far and away, the most unhealthy option is the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich,” says Kahan. “At 861 calories, you could have a turkey and roast-beef sandwich for fewer calories.” It also has eight times as much fat (39 grams) and 11 times the sugar (46 grams) compared to the turkey-breast sandwich without cheese. As for the vegetarian sandwich, says Kahan, “You’d think it’d be the healthiest, but it actually has more calories than almost all of the others.” The sandwich, which consists of mushrooms and three kinds of melted cheese, clocks in at 577 calories and 24 grams of fat.
• Uptown salad: This salad tips the scale at 508 calories and 25 grams of fat. Kahan blames the candied walnuts and blue cheese for the high numbers. “There’s nothing wrong with having some walnuts and cheese, but in restaurants they can really pack these things on, and you don’t realize how much fat and how many calories they’re costing you,” he says.
• Southwestern chicken and broccoli-cheddar soups: Compared to the garden-vegetable soup, these two are whoppers: Both have three times the calories. A bowl-size serving of the creamy Southwestern chicken soup has 15 grams of fat, while the broccoli-cheddar has 24.
• Shakes, malts, and smoothies: “Across the board, these are not great options, and most have as many calories as the entrée sandwiches,” says Kahan. Even the smoothies, which seem like healthy choices, are loaded with sugar and have around 500 calories. Kahan says if you must indulge, your best bet is a vanilla smoothie—it has 430 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 13 grams of protein. The worst? “The Oreo malt,” says Kahan. “It has about half the calories an average adult needs in a day and more than a full day’s serving of saturated fat.”

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Well+Being on Twitter

More >> Health | Top Doctors | Well+Being Blog