The Tuna Sashimi Stack at Zea’s Rotisserie is part of the restaurant’s Z-Lightful menu options. Photos by Frank McMains.

The skinny on dining out: Menu changes for health-minded patrons

You’ve been hitting the gym like a champ, eating healthy lunches, drinking plenty of water, and stashing smart snacks. But you have two days before dinner with friends, and you are convinced that a meal out on the town will derail your progress. Hidden calories galore.

This is no longer the case. A number of restaurants in Baton Rouge have begun adapting their menus to better fit the needs of people interested in watching what they eat. While some have taken the initiative on their own, others have partnered with organization Eat Fit BR to help provide both nutritious and delicious options to their customers.

Ceviche at the Velvet Cactus won’t blow healthy-eating goals when dining out.

Ochsner Eat Fit was launched in New Orleans in 2013 with Eat Fit NOLA and expanded to include Eat Fit Northshore and Eat Fit Bayou before making its way to Baton Rouge. The Baton Rouge Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (BRAND) and Healthy BR partnered with Ochsner Eat Fit to help promote the healthy options at local restaurants, keeping with Healthy BR’s mission to “build a healthier Baton Rouge for all.”

Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian at Ochsner Fitness Center, founded the nonprofit initiative to help make the healthy choice the easy choice for those eating out.

“That is our main goal. Having the Eat Fit section on the menu helps take the guesswork out of it for people trying to make a nutritious decision,” Kimball says.

Once a restaurant partners with Eat Fit, the organization will look at their existing menu and consider what would be close to fitting the nutritional criteria for an approved meal option. Sodium, calories, saturated fat and added sugars are all taken into account.

“We start by analyzing the restaurant’s recipe with our nutrition analysis software to determine which, if any, modifications we will suggest in order for it to meet the Eat Fit nutritional criteria,” Kimball explains. “We then work with the restaurant to see how we can make the selections fit both their taste parameters and our criteria.”

Recipes with the Eat Fit seal of approval can include appetizers, entrees, desserts and even cocktails. Once a selection is approved, the Eat Fit seal is placed next to the item on the menu.

While incorporating the logos onto the menu is a large chunk of the organization’s initiative, Kimball says another part is being active in the community.

“Whether it is providing cooking demonstrations or giving nutritional workshops, it really is a community initiative,” Kimball says. “And a lot of our dietitians who work with Eat Fit BR are volunteers. They give their time and they are just so passionate about bringing Eat Fit into the restaurants.”

Chelsey Chapman, a registered dietician, is an ambassador for Eat Fit BR and helps area restaurants determine items on their menus that can be tweaked to make them more healthy.

Local ambassador Chelsey Chapman says when she heard that Eat Fit was expanding into Baton Rouge, she knew she had to be involved.

“As a registered dietitian, I have worked with many people from the community who are trying to live a healthier lifestyle. One of the main concerns clients always have is choosing healthy items when eating out. So many of the menu items that we think are healthy may be loaded with sugar or salt, which can set them back in trying to reach their health and fitness goals,” Chapman says. “The excitement surrounding Eat Fit BR from local restaurants and the community shows how much Baton Rouge needs Eat Fit BR. I am so excited to be a part of this program and to help it grow.”

Julie Nieto, a registered dietitan and Eat Fit operations and marketing specialist, agrees that the response from the community has been fantastic. “A lot of people have told me they have always been looking for this,” she says. “They have been very receptive and happy to look to us as a guide for what really is legitimately healthy and what isn’t.”

Kimball says the hope for the program is to continue to grow community awareness so people know to look for it on the menu and to expand the network of partners offering Eat Fit options.

Those interested in visiting Eat Fit BR restaurants can turn to their smartphones thanks to the free app Eat Fit NOLA, which will not only help you track down the closest partnering restaurant but also provides the full nutrition facts for the Eat Fit menu items, as well as nutritious recipes and a brand-specific Eat Fit shopping list.

While the Eat Fit program has now made its way to Baton Rouge, the clean eating movement has also taken off across the state. Eat Fit has partnered with Well-Ahead Louisiana to recognize restaurants that are making additional smart changes to help their employees and communities live well.

Well-Ahead Louisiana is an initiative started by the Louisiana Department of Health that aims to improve the health and wellness of Louisiana residents. Its WellSpot designation program recognizes places throughout the state that promote healthy choices where we live, work, learn and play. Upon meeting wellness benchmarks, any worksite can be designated as a WellSpot. Benchmarks are specific to organization type. By offering three Eat Fit approved menu items, restaurants have already taken one step toward being designated as a level 3 WellSpot.

Jim Urdiales, owner of Mestizo Louisiana Mexican Cuisine, started offering protein power bowls when he recognized that patrons increasingly requested clean food that was low in carbs.

“In a time when Americans are eating out more than ever, restaurants have an opportunity to help patrons and employees make smarter and healthier choices,” says Hillary Simpson, communications coordinator for Well-Ahead Louisiana. “When restaurants make healthy menu options available, especially for people with dietary restrictions, they are doing their part to make healthy living easily accessible to each and every person in Louisiana. By participating in healthy initiatives like Eat Fit and Well-Ahead Louisiana, restaurants are moving Louisiana’s health forward.”

Simpson says one healthy eating trend she has seen on the rise in restaurants is the increase in protein power bowls.

“Power bowls are popping up on restaurant menus everywhere. Filled with whole grains, lots of veggies, lean protein and a little crunch, power bowls are a delicious, simple way to eat healthy foods,” Simpson says.

Mestizo Louisiana Mexican Cuisine in Baton Rouge is known for its popular protein power bowls, but owner Jim Urdiales says he worked to create a menu that would feature options for customers with almost any dietary restriction.

“I really listened to what my customers were telling me they were looking for. There were some people who were wondering, ‘Can I eat out and not ruin my workout?’ I think it’s important to let them feel like they are building the dish they want,” Urdiales says. “Most of the time, they know what they can and can’t eat. When you give them the chance to create their dish, you’re empowering them to think they do have options.”

Urdiales says he saw the clean eating trend growing and has seen substantial growth in his restaurant since it began serving the protein-packed options.

“The fact that these bowls are bringing in new customers tells me that it is a niche that is not being served elsewhere,” Urdiales says. “You see some of the restaurants that are going away, and the ones that are moving up are the ones who are turning toward presenting cleaner options. There is a movement going on right now, and I think in the next couple years, we’re going to see an increase in cleaner eating options.”