When you want to eat out healthfully, you just head to your local seafood joint, right? After all, fish is low in calories and saturated fat, and can be one of the best sources of brain-boosting, heart-healthy omega-3s.
Not so fast. Fish may start out as a wonder protein, but it can undergo a drastic transformation when it hits a commercial kitchen. Seafood restaurants have a long history of serving heaping baskets of heavily battered, deep-fried fish paired with even more deep-fried accompaniments. If there's a green vegetable to be found, it's the cabbage slaw swaddled in mayo.
But that's changing. Many chains now devote entire menu sections to blackened and broiled options. Red Lobster, the biggest national seafood chain, even offers half-portions (a satisfying 5 ounces) of grilled fish. This makes us happy as clams. Speaking of which, when steamed or boiled, clams and other shellfish are great choices—as long as you skip tartar sauce or melted butter.
We analyzed dishes at a number of restaurants. Dishes marked as "Splurge Only" aren't untouchable but can be a really big splurge. Nutrition numbers are estimates: Results vary widely among restaurants.
- Fish and Chips
A thick batter and oil that's slightly too cool will cause whatever's being fried to soak up oil—and fat and calories—like a sponge. Split one order among a group, and order a healthier appetizer to fill you up.
- Fish and Shellfish Platters
In addition to thickly coated, deep-fried seafood, you're getting fried starches, slaw, sauce, melted butter, and maybe a biscuit or two. It's obviously (and deliciously) true: Go for grilled instead.
ASK YOUR SERVER
- Mixed Grill
Mixed grills generally offer several types of grilled seafood; the calorie and fat savings help mitigate the cup of slaw and fries. Still, start with a healthy salad, and split this entrée.
- Crab Cakes
These may be a lower-calorie choice, but there's probably more saturated fat from the mayo in the filling and butter in which they're cooked than you need. That's OK for an occasional treat, though.
- Cup of Clam Chowder
Contrary to popular belief, most restaurants make chowder with milk and flour, not cream. (Confirm that with your server.) It's hearty and filling, so by all means have a cup to start.
- Blackened (or Grilled) Fish
Blackened fish is usually cooked with very little, if any, fat. If spicy heat doesn't light your fire, go for the grilled version, and appreciate the inherently sweet, delicate flavor of the fish.
Beware the Land-Lubber's Choices
Chicken dishes at seafood restaurants are notoriously high in calories. Often, it's because the chicken is fried, but even when it's not, it may be drowning in a mayonnaise- or cream-based sauce.
Code for "Fried"
- Basket: Grilled food never comes in a paper-lined basket.
- Strips: Impossible to grill (they'd fall through the grates).
- Chips: Fried potatoes (from the British), aka French fries.
- Popcorn (as in popcorn shrimp): Designed to be eaten by the handful, like popcorn. And good luck finding the actual shrimp inside all that breading.