So you gave in and ordered that burger you’d been eyeing on the menu. It’s cool, you tell yourself, because you won’t get fries with it. You’ll pick a healthier side, something that’s easier on the calorie count. Heck, it might just give you a balanced meal!
Not so fast. Some of those supposedly smarter, healthier side dishes are stuffed with calories, cholesterol, fat and sodium. Some of them are actually worse for you than the French fries you sought to avoid.
The Baseline: Nutrition Info for a Typical Side Order of French Fries
How bad are fries? We looked at the menus of a number of popular restaurant chains. On average, a side of French fries contained 430 calories, 22 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 762 milligrams of sodium. Definitely not a profile of good nutrition, but fries aren’t the worst thing in the world, either. In fact, the following five substitutes are worse.
1. Side Salad With the Wrong Dressing
Salads are healthy, right? Well, sometimes. A healthy salad is all about the toppings and dressing that you choose. The standard caesar salad at a chain restaurant comes in at 358 calories, 26 grams of fat, 7.5 grams of saturated fat and 942 milligrams of sodium. Although its calorie count is lower than fries, the salad packs more fat and saturated fat, and slightly more sodium. Salads topped with bacon or cheese drive the numbers even higher.
To keep your bowl of greens lean and mean, avoid fatty dressings such as ranch and bleu cheese in favor of light vinaigrette or low-fat Italian. Or go with plain old olive oil and vinegar. Order the dressing on the side and use only what you need, since most restaurants tend to have a heavy hand with the ladle.
RELATED: 7 Ways Your Salad Is Making You Fat
Your mom always gave you soup when you were sick, so it has to be healthy. Right? Wrong. No offense to your mom, but some soups are flat out bad for you. An average bowl of baked potato soup comes in at 487 calories, 33.5 grams of fat, 18 grams of saturated fat and 1,270 milligrams of sodium. With those numbers, you might as well slurp a chocolate milkshake. Obviously, not all soups are nutritionally equal, and veggie-based or bean soups are much smarter options than a cheese- or cream-based bowl like broccoli cheddar or clam chowder.
3. The Loaded Baked Potato
Common sense dictates that a baked potato is healthier than a bunch of French fries. After all, fries are potatoes that have been submerged in boiling oil and coated with salt. But most chain restaurants don’t offer plain baked potatoes. They serve the baked potato loaded with sour cream, cheddar cheese, butter and bacon. Guess what else it’s loaded with. Calories. The average loaded baked potato comes in at 432 calories, 21 grams of fat, 9 grams of saturated fat and 615 milligrams of sodium.
4. Mac and Cheese
Macaroni and cheese sounds like a healthier substitute for fries. And it has nostalgia going for it. Who doesn’t have fond childhood memories of mac and cheese? But this dairy-laden pasta is just as bad as French fries when you look at the numbers. The average side order at chain restaurants has 436 calories, 24 grams of fat, 12 grams of saturated fat and 1,082 milligrams of sodium. You could regard mac and cheese’s 18 grams of protein as a plus, but really, your protein should come from your main dish.
5. Onion Rings
The most commonly available substitute for French fries, onion rings are an equally poor nutritional choice. An average side in the chain restaurants we reviewed was nearly identical in nutritional value to a side of fries: 400 calories, 22 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat and 726 milligrams of sodium. The granddaddy of them all, Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion, packs 1,953 calories, 161 grams of fat and 3,700 milligrams of sodium. Just thinking about it should fill you with kale cravings.
At this point, you might think you’re stuck with steamed broccoli and vegetable medley as your only healthy side dish options. But don’t fret! Other alternatives to fries are not as nutritionally nefarious. Rice pilaf is a good option, as is applesauce (low in calories and fat, and a good source of vitamin C). Surprisingly, cole slaw can be healthy if it’s prepared correctly. And remember, the salad or baked potato can be a solid pick if you control what goes on top of it.
Learn more tricks for eating healthy at a restaurant.