IMAGE: Tricia Bliss (right) and friend
Candice Choi  /  AP
Tricia Bliss, 35, talks with a friend at a coffee shop in Albany, N.Y. Bliss, always logs online to check nutritional information before going to lunch with co-workers.
updated 9/3/2006 4:35:57 PM ET 2006-09-03T20:35:57

Restaurants, under fire from health advocates for too-big servings and not enough detail on nutrition, are fighting back.

The National Restaurant Association is building a Web site that will provide a hefty list of healthy meals and restaurants across the country where they can be found.

While the Healthy Dining Finder site isn’t as upfront as the onsite brochures and posters that health experts have called for, it is a step in the right direction, said Christine Gerbstadt, a nutritionist with the American Dietetic Association.

The Web site is a way to discreetly court dieters willing to do research without offending others who may not want to be confronted with shockingly high calorie counts.

“It’s a happy medium,” said Sue Hensley, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.

Arming diners with nutritional information is especially critical now, with Americans eating out more than ever before, Gerbstadt said. “People need to know what they’re consuming,” she said.

Tricia Bliss, a petite 35-year-old, always logs onto the Internet to check nutritional information before going to lunch with co-workers.

If their chosen restaurants don’t have anything she can eat, she’ll persuade her friends to go elsewhere.

That’s just the type of customer the Healthy Dining Finder — is intended to reach.

Use zip code to find healthy meals
The site is collecting nutritional information on the four to 10 healthiest dishes at restaurants in a community. Users can punch in their town or zip code and search for restaurants by cuisine or price range. It is already available for preview, but a formal launch with more than 10,000 restaurant listings is scheduled for January.

“It’s going to be the Grand Central of nutritional information,” said Erica Bohm of Healthy Dining, the company that developed the site with the restaurant association.

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Their hope is to dispel the notion that dieters must stay at home or leave their diets at the door.

“When people go on a diet, they think 'Oh, my God, I’ll never be able to eat out again,”’ said Netty Levine, a nutritionist at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

But with some help, Levine said, people can find ways to stick to their diets wherever they go. It’s a matter of doing a little research and asking servers the right questions. (Is the spinach sauteed in oil? Is the sea bass breaded?)

The Healthy Dining Finder will make that work easier, although Levine cautions that online calorie counts might not always be accurate. Two plates of chicken parmigiana, even from the same restaurant, can vary greatly.

Should information be on menus?
The Web site begs the question: Why not post the information in the restaurants or on menus?

“It’s sort of sneaky that they do it online but not in the store,” said Elizabeth Picker, a 19-year-old Albany resident. “When people go out, it’s usually a spur-of-the-moment thing, and they aren’t going to be able to go online.”

Some cafes are more upfront about what they serve. At Au Bon Pain bakeries, computer kiosks calculate calories and other details for sandwiches and pastries, and Applebee’s uses the Weight Watchers point system on its menu. Subway boasts of its sandwiches’ nutritional value — even printing the information on its napkins.

“If it’s a fine dining restaurant, there’s not going to be a poster. The type of restaurant is going to drive how the information is made available,” Hensley said.

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