It may be your waistline that blossoms if you're a fan of fried onions. "It's good to start off with a vegetable," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "But once you fry it, you're frying in calories." The onion blossom at one popular restaurant has 1,949 calories, 161 g of fat, and 4,100 mg of sodium -- more than double the daily sodium limit for healthy adults.
BEST: Vegetable Kabobs
Grilled vegetable kabobs offer a nutritious, low-calorie alternative to fried onions. If this isn't on the menu, ask for a side of grilled vegetables as your appetizer. Veggie kabobs are also easy to make -- try skewering onions, red and green bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and zucchini. Brush with a lower-fat garlic and herb marinade. Two large kabobs will have about 75 calories.
WORST: Spinach Artichoke Dip
Don't let the word "spinach" fool you. Traditional spinach artichoke dip is not a healthy starter. A typical order contains about 1,600 calories, 100 g of fat, and 2,500 mg of sodium. The trouble is the cream base, which is loaded with saturated fat. If you make this dip at home, try using a base of nonfat Greek yogurt instead.
BEST: Spinach Salad
The best appetizers are low in calories, but satisfying enough to curb how much you eat during the rest of your meal. Salads made with spinach or other leafy greens do this very well. Studies suggest you'll eat about 10% less during a meal if you start off with salad. A cup of fresh spinach with a tablespoon of vinaigrette has about 80 calories.
WORST: Cheese Fries
The worst appetizers can "take over the meal," Blake warns. "Some of them have more calories than the main entrée." One offender is cheese fries -- French fries with melted cheese on top. Variations may include bacon bits or ranch dressing. A full order packs up to 2,000 calories, 134 g of fat, and 2,800 mg of sodium -- more than you should eat in a whole day.
BEST: Crab Cakes
Blake recommends using appetizers to work in healthy foods you might be eating too little of. Seared crab cakes offer an appealing way to get more seafood into your diet. Served with chili sauce, a typical crab cake has about 300 calories, 20 g of fat, and 960 mg sodium.
WORST: Cheeseburger Sliders
Don't be fooled by their size -- "sliders" pack a lot of calories into a tiny sandwich. A typical restaurant order includes three mini-burgers with cheese and sauce, totaling 1,270 calories, 82 g of fat, and 2,310 mg of sodium.
BEST: Beef Skewers
When you're craving a meaty appetizer, opt for beef skewers. In Asian restaurants, this may be listed as beef satay -- skewers of beef with peanut sauce. At home, you can grill skewers of lean beef with onions, garlic, hoisin, soy, and barbecue sauce. A quarter-pound serving has about 130 calories, 5 g of fat, and 803 mg sodium.
WORST: Loaded Potato Skins
Potato skins filled with melted cheese, meats, and sour cream are as fattening as they are tempting. "You're taking a potato and adding saturated fats," Blake cautions. At more than 150 calories a pop, the trick to enjoying these is to have just one. Devour a whole plateful and you'll take in about 1,340 calories, 94 g of fat, and 1,850 mg of sodium.
BEST: Stuffed Mushrooms
Stuffing mushrooms instead of potato skins helps keep the portion size down. Mushroom caps filled with cheese and breadcrumbs have less than 50 calories each. That means you can eat half a dozen and still keep your appetizer under 300 calories, along with 19 grams of fat, and 720 mg of sodium.
WORST: Fried Calamari
Like many forms of seafood, squid can be nutritious. But when you bread it and fry it in oil, you're drenching it with calories and fat. A typical restaurant portion contains about 900 calories, 54 g of fat, and 2,300 mg of sodium -- not including any sauce.
BEST: Shrimp Cocktail
Shrimp cocktail is very low in saturated fat and calories. It's also a refreshing source of omega-3 fatty acids, which promote healthy circulation. To keep the calorie count low, stick to tomato-based sauce. A serving of shrimp with cocktail sauce has about 140 calories.
WORST: New England Clam Chowder
Clam chowder sounds like it should be healthy, especially as a way to take in some extra seafood. Unfortunately, the New England variety is made with a fattening cream base. A 12-ounce bowl contains about 630 calories, 54 g of fat, and 890 mg of sodium.
BEST: Vegetable Soup
Like salad, having a bowl of soup can curb how much you eat during the rest of the meal. The key is choosing a low-calorie option, such as a tomato-based vegetable soup. A 12-ounce bowl has about 160 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, and 1,240 mg sodium. Stay away from cream-based vegetable soups, which are higher in calories and saturated fats. When buying canned soup, look for those marked "low in sodium."
WORST: Chicken Wings
A typical appetizer portion of buffalo chicken wings has more than 700 calories and 40 g of fat. Ranch sauce adds another 200 calories and 20 g of fat. That's 900 calories and 60 g of fat -- not to mention more than 2,000 mg of sodium -- before you even get to your main meal.
BEST: Lettuce Wraps
If you're craving spicy chicken, skip the wings and try lettuce wraps. You can make these at home by wrapping diced spicy chicken and vegetables in a lettuce leaf. Each wrap has 160 calories and 7 g of fat. If you order this appetizer at a restaurant, be sure to share. A plate of four wraps has a total of 640 calories, 28 g of fat, and 650 mg sodium.
WORST: Mozzarella Sticks
There's something about a stick of warm, gooey cheese that is irresistible -- until you take a look at the nutritional facts. A typical order has 930 calories, 48 g of fat, and 2,640 mg of sodium. That puts mozzarella sticks pretty much on par with chicken wings.
Go out on a limb and try something entirely different. These green pods, known as edamame, are a popular appetizer in Asian restaurants. It's fun to open the pods and pop the young soybeans into your mouth. One serving has 122 calories, and 5 g of fat.
WORST: Chili Cheese Nachos
They may be a festive way to start an evening out, but nachos and cheese dip are among the least healthy appetizer choices. Eat an entire order yourself, and you'll take in 1,680 calories, 107 g of fat, and 4,270 mg of sodium -- nearly twice the recommended daily limit for sodium.
BEST: Sliced Peppers with Salsa
For a homemade alternative to chips and dip, try sliced peppers or other veggie sticks with salsa. Cut up red and green bell peppers and use them as tortilla chips for dipping in salsa. This is a fun way to sneak more vegetables into your diet. You can dip a whole pepper's worth of "chips" and stay under 50 calories.
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Allrecipes.com: "Asian Beef Skewers."
Chili's: "Nutritional Menu."
Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, clinical associate professor, Boston University's Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences; spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, October 2004.
Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, director of nutrition, WebMD.
Olive Garden: "Nutrition Information."
Outback Steakhouse: "Nutritional Information."
P.F. Chang's: "Nutritional Information."
Panera Bread: "Nutrition Calculator."
Red Lobster: "Nutrition Facts."
Ruby Tuesday: "Nutritional Menu Guide - March 2012."
USDA National Nutrient Database: "Edamame," "Sweet Red Pepper, Raw," "Salsa, Ready to Serve," "Beef, Flank, Lean," "Salad dressing, home recipe, vinegar and oil," "Spinach, raw."
USDA: "What's in the Foods You Eat: Shrimp Cocktail," "What's In the Foods You Eat: Tomato Soup."
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