From sneaky sodium traps to dicey dishes that put you at risk for food poisoning, these are the menu items you’re better off skipping.
This story originally appeared on Health.com.
You know to pass on the deep-fried onion, and the slice of cheesecake the size of your head — but what about the green smoothie, or the yogurt parfait? Restaurants have a way of loading calories and sugar into even healthy-sounding orders. And then there are food safety issues to consider: Some menu items carry a higher risk of foodborne illness than others. To help you order smarter the next time you eat out, we’ve compiled this list of dishes to rule out.
When ground beef isn’t cooked to the proper temperature (160 degrees F) nasty bacteria may remain (think: “fecal contamination”). (That's why it's on our list of the 14 most dangerous summer foods.) An undercooked burger is riskier than an undercooked steak, according to a recent Consumer Reports study, because harmful microbes tend to be mixed throughout ground beef — whereas with whole cuts of meat, the microbes are more likely to stay on the surface and die off when exposed to heat. Ask for your burger cooked to at least medium.
Rum (or vodka) and diet soda
Pairing booze and a diet drink may actually enhance the health effects of alcohol, a small 2015 study from Northern Kentucky University found. Subjects who drank that combination had a 25% higher breath alcohol concentration than when they drank cocktails with a non-diet mixer. The researchers point out that the lower calorie count isn’t worth it. In addition to the obvious risks, eating while buzzed makes it harder to resist temptations (like the breadbasket).
The value meal
It can be tempting to order off the value menu at a fast food restaurant to get the most bang for your buck. But one double cheeseburger, fries, and drink could add up to 1,100 calories and nearly 50 grams of fat. And chowing down may have immediate consequences. After healthy people ate a high-fat meal, their blood pressure was higher when faced with a stressor compared to when they ate a low-fat one, found research from the Journal of Nutrition.
Water with lemon
Order the water — but you may want to hold the citrus. In a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health, researchers tested 76 lemons from 21 restaurants and found that 70% of them were contaminated with bacteria. Ick. The Family Health Team at the Cleveland Clinic recommends that unless you actually see the bartender prepare your lemon wedge safely — meaning, she’s wearing gloves and using tongs — stick to plain H2O. Save the lemon water trend for home, when you can be sure your lemons are properly washed.
A large popcorn
At movie theatres, the bigger the popcorn tub, the better the deal. But a large popcorn can have as many as 1,200 calories and three days worth of saturated fat, according to an analysis by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) — and that’s before you add a butter topping. If you can’t picture a flick without munching on something salty, order a small popcorn (which will probably set you back 400 to 700 calories) and share it with your date. Or make one of our healthy popcorn recipes at home, and sneak a bag into the theater.
Bread with olive oil
If you can dip responsibly, feel free to ignore this tip. But most of us are mopping up olive oil with hunks of bread, polishing off hundreds of calories before the meal even starts, says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a clinical associate professor at Boston University and the author of the textbook Nutrition & You. Because olive oil is good for your health, you may think of it as a “free” food, she points out. However, tablespoon for tablespoon, it contains more calories than butter. “And you tend to go easier on butter,” she says.
The all-you-can-eat pasta dinner
“Be careful about ‘bargains,’” says Blake. “Pasta is inexpensive and it’s easy for restaurants to make a profit, but that comes at the expense of your waist." If you’re tempted to get a refill, you’re better off avoiding restaurants that offer that deal (and making a healthy version dish at home, like this seafood pasta recipe). Still, any place you order spaghetti, the portion will likely be huge — remember, one serving of pasta is the size of half a baseball — so aim to take half the dish home in a doggie bag. Think of it this way, says Blake: “If it was so delicious, wouldn’t it be fun to enjoy it again the next day? You want to stretch it to two wonderful eating occasions rather than having memories from just one.”
A doggie bag — if you’re not headed straight home
“Cooked foods should not be at room temperature longer than two hours,” says Blake, who is also a food safety expert. When cooked foods are between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, that’s when “bacteria rapidly multiply to the point where you can get sick,” she explains. If you’re going out to a concert or a movie after dinner, don’t bother packing up your leftovers. Leaving the doggie bag in the car is just asking for trouble.
An entrée over 700 calories
“The average person shouldn’t consume more than 700 calories per meal,” says Deborah Cohen, MD, a senior natural scientist at the policy think tank the Rand Corporation, and author of A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces of the Obesity Epidemic — and How We Can End It ($16; amazon.com). Really, this includes beverages, an entrée, and dessert. But when you eat out it’s not hard to exceed 700 calories with just your main dish. Consider that an omelet can ring up at 1,300 calories, and a prime rib entrée is about 2,400 calories, 700 almost seems like a drop in the bucket. “Every time you eat too much and don’t compensate [for it], you’re increasing your risk for chronic diseases,” says Dr. Cohen.
Drinks with free refills
Having seltzer? Fine. Black coffee? Also good (just limit yourself to about three cups). But soda or sweetened iced tea? Not so much. A soda at a popular restaurant chain packs around 120 calories. Not bad — until you consider it has 33 grams of sugar, the equivalent of more than 8 teaspoons of the white stuff. Get one refill or two, and you’ve suddenly sucked down 24 teaspoons of sugar. That’s four times the amount of added sugar the American Heart Association recommends women have in an entire day.
Speaking of soda, diet soda is not a good idea either. There are many reasons why you should stop drinking diet soda: first, there's strong evidence that diet soda doesn't help people lose weight — in fact, it piles on the pounds. In a 2015 study from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, people who drank diet soda daily saw their waists grow more than three inches over nine years. Study participants who shunned the stuff gained just 0.8 of an inch over the same period.
Chips and salsa
The problem isn’t eating a few chips — or dipping them in salsa, which is actually loaded with healthful antioxidants. It’s that, at many restaurants, the basket is bottomless. “Our natural inclination is to eat and drink what is in front of us, but with such an abundance of food, we need to build in restraints that prevent us from overdoing it,” says Dr. Cohen. “We are designed to be able to consume more than we need.” Since it’s exhausting to battle biology, ask the server to hold the chips and salsa.
It’s amazing what some restaurants can do to a once-innocent pile of greens, especially when they serve your salad with the dressing on, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, author of Doctor’s Detox Diet ($17; amazon.com). Case in point: an Oriental grilled chicken salad at a popular chain clocks in at nearly 1,300 calories and 84 grams of fat. The worst offenders are usually Asian chicken salads, cobb salads, and Buffalo chicken salads, says Dr. Gerbstadt. If you order one of these, ask for the dressing on the side, and take half the salad home for lunch the next day.
They dress up a sammie nicely, but can come with a pretty miserable side effect. The warm, moist environment in which sprouts grow is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. The FDA is currently investigating two multi-state outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to alfalfa sprouts — one involving E. coli, the other Salmonella. The agency suggests avoiding raw sprouts altogether when you eat out. Bottom line: If you love the crispiness spouts add to your sandwich or salad, decide if the risk is worth it to you. But know that if you’re pregnant, you’re more susceptible to illness.
More than one margarita
We hate to be a buzzkill, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that women stick to seven drinks per week— and no more than two per day. But one margarita (which is 33% alcohol in just 3 ounces) actually counts as 1.7 drinks, according to the NIH’s cocktail content calculator. Order a second and you’re already over your daily limit. Piña coladas are even stronger: A single piña colada counts as two alcoholic drinks.
There are two reasons to skip shark on the menu: First, because most types are on the Seafood Watch “avoid” list because of unsustainable fishing practices that put the species at risk; second, because as large predators, sharks (along with swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish) contain especially high levels of mercury. The neurotoxin, which can build up in your body over time, poses the greatest risk to pregnant women. Better choices of fish include farmed Atlantic salmon and farmed Atlantic cod.
Frozen yogurt has a reputation as a healthier alternative to ice cream. And you can make it a smart dessert if you do it right. However, know that a serving size is a measly 4 ounces. And that small amount can pack as many as 32 grams of sugar (the equivalent of 8 teaspoons) even before you add toppings like carob chips (another 20 grams of sugar), coconut flakes (11 grams of sugar), or yogurt chips (20 grams of sugar). Compared to a half cup of ice cream — which has just 14 grams of sugar and a similar amount of calories—fro-yo isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. If you want a frozen treat that's actually low-calorie and good for you, try this recipe for dairy-free chocolate and banana "ice cream."
Slurp up this delicacy at your own risk, says Libby Mills, RDN, a nutritionist and cooking coach in the Philadelphia area. Raw oysters can carry hepatitis A and a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus, the latter of which can make you sick with vomiting and diarrhea. If you have certain conditions like diabetes, an infection can be fatal. The FDA notes that oysters from fancy restaurants or slathering hot sauce on the half shell doesn’t protect you. Your best bet is to order them cooked.
The chicken dish
Chefs criticize chicken entrees as “overpriced” and the “least interesting” menu choices. But Blake has another issue with them: “People think chicken is a free food, but some sizes of the breasts are huge. They can be 9 ounces!” she says. (A serving of chicken is just two to three cooked ounces — about the volume of a deck of cards.) “The key, no matter what you’re ordering, is not over-consuming portions,” she adds.
Cheese fries with ranch dressing
Aside from the obvious problems (calories, fat), this side is a salt bomb. According to the CSPI, it can contain nearly 5,000mg of sodium. (The American Heart Association recommends most adults consume no more than 1,500mg of sodium per day.) And the effects can be immediate: One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that blood vessel function is impaired within 30 minutes of eating a high-salt meal.
Yep, those veggie-laden beverages can be quite deceptive. One popular chain combines kale and avocado — plus frozen yogurt, juice, and sugar. No wonder it’s got 70 grams of sugar and nearly 500 calories. “Sometimes these places will have to put so much fruit and fruit juice into the smoothie to compensate for the green flavor,” explains Mills. “This is a dessert. It’s not a snack.” A smoothie snack shouldn’t be more than 250 calories, she says.
Foods high in trans fats
You’ve heard that the FDA has banned trans fat — a type of fat harmful for your heart, found in some restaurant and packaged foods. But what you might not realize is that companies have until 2018 to get trans fats out of their foods. So some of your favorite dishes might still be loaded with this dangerous fat. A few bad offenders: Applebee’s Triple Bacon Burger (3 grams), Chili’s Guacamole Burger (2 grams), and IHOP’s Mega Monster Cheeseburger (5 grams). Notice a theme here?
A bowl of creamy soup
Research shows eating soup before a meal leads people to consumer fewer calories overall. Make sense, since soup fills you up, so serve yourself a smaller entrée and perhaps skip dessert. But the study involved broth-based soup, Blake points out—not the creamy variety. A bowl of creamy soup is a meal altogether, and can rack up as much as 500 calories. If you’re ordering a soup for an appetizer, choose a veggie option or chicken noodle.
The breakfast special
A classic diner breakfast might include eggs, bacon, toast, potatoes, and a side of pancakes. That’s an awful lot of carbohydrates in just one meal, Gerbstadt points out. Plus, those foods make for a pretty beige plate — which is a sign you’re missing out on the vitamins and minerals in colorful produce. Gerbstadt recommends subbing the potatoes and pancakes for sliced tomatoes, a side salad, or a fruit cup to balance out the breakfast.