20 surprisingly healthy restaurant foods

Sep. 30, 2012 at 10:04 AM ET

By the Editors of Men's Health

You'd be hard pressed to find a lighter double-patty cheeseburger than the McDouble.

Good news: Amid the sea of fat-soaked failures that pervade the menus of newer major restaurant and fast-food chains, we uncovered some remarkably smart choices. Even better--most menus contain at least one item that sounds too indulgent, but is actually a veritable guilty pleasure worth ordering, at least every once in a while.

Check out this list of surprisingly healthy restaurant foods to make better choices when dining out. You'll shed pounds and walk away feeling better about your meal--and your body.

20. Guilty Pleasure at Arby's

Super Roast Beef Sandwich

430 calories

17 g fat (5 g saturated, 0.5 g trans)

1,060 mg sodium

Just like a hamburger, this sandwich is piled with lettuce, tomato, and onion. The difference is that Arby's replaces the beef patty with roast beef, which clears off enough excessive fat to make room for indulgent sides or dessert. If this were a burger, you could expect it to weigh in with at least 600 calories.

19. Guilty Pleasure at Atlanta Bread Company

New England Clam Chowder (1 1/4 cup)

190 calories

9 g fat (6 g saturated)

1,240 mg sodium

This isn't an endorsement of clam chowder in general, just ABC's better-than-average bowl. The recipe they use has very little cream, relying instead on milk as the base. It's not the best soup on their menu, but it's probably the least fattening bowl of clam chowder you're likely to come across in any restaurant.

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18. Guilty Pleasure at Ben & Jerry's

Half Baked Frozen Yogurt (1/2 cup)

180 calories

3 g fat (1.5 g saturated)

23 g sugars

Frozen yogurt shops are all the rage right now, but Ben & Jerry's has been quietly pumping out low-fat fro-yo for close to 2 decades. Skip the restaurant dessert and swing by here instead. Top a cup with chopped nuts and fresh fruit for one of the finest desserts you'll ever encounter.

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17. Guilty Pleasure at Blimpie

Pasta Fagioli with Sausage Soup

150 calories

5 g fat (2 g saturated)

910 mg sodium

It's usually best to avoid meals that center on sausage--the most dubious meat in a restaurant's arsenal. See, most chefs haven't learned to use rich ingredients in moderation. Let this sausage soup be an example to them: It delivers moderate numbers in every nutritional category. Pair with a 6" Club sub for a sub-600 calorie lunch.

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16. Guilty Pleasure at Bojangles'

Macaroni & Cheese

240 calories

7 g fat (3 g saturated; 2 g trans)

660 mg sodium

By no means is this the leanest side on the menu, but you won't find a lighter serving of macaroni and cheese anywhere else in the country. Balance it out by picking up the 25-calorie green beans for your second side.

15. Guilty Pleasure at Burger King

BK Single Stacker

370 calories

21 g fat (8 g saturated)

690 mg sodium

Healthier items like to hide in the less-publicized areas of fast food menus. Burger King's Whopper lineup is almost entirely worrisome; The Flame Broiled Burgers are much safer. Bacon cheeseburgers routinely top 1,000 calories--this one is harmless by comparison.

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14. Guilty Pleasure at California Pizza Kitchen

Sesame Ginger Chicken Dumplings

465 calories

1 g saturated fat

1,801 mg sodium

There's not a whole lot to this appetizer, just a couple of wonton chicken dumplings, ginger dipping sauce, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds and green onions. That's exactly what makes it one of the lightest appetizers on the menu, and eating it before your meal arrives can do a number on your appetite.

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13. Guilty Pleasure at Culver's

Oreo Chocolate Frozen Custard Sandwich

284 calories

14 g fat (6 g saturated)

22 g sugars

It's a massive Oreo cookie made with chocolate custard filling, yet somehow it manages to have only 20 calories more than five real Oreos.

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12. Guilty Pleasure at Dairy Queen

All Beef Chili Dog

330 calories

20 g fat (8 g saturated; 0.5 g trans)

1,050 mg sodium

Chili and a hot dog is to the cookout what a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is to the lunch box. Too bad the former doesn't have much to offer nutritionally. But at least DQ's isn't too terrible--especially not when you compare it to the rest of the menu. In fact, propped up next to the GrillBurgers--which average 716 calories--this indulgent lunch looks a lot like health food.

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11. Guilty Pleasure at Del Taco

Del Beef Burrito

470 calories

19 g fat (8 g saturated)

1,060 mg sodium

Burritos that won't balloon your belly are the exception rather than the rule, but this surprising Mexican wrap-up from Del Taco makes the grade. As usual, fewer ingredients is the recipe for healthfulness: wrap, beef, sauce, cheese. Don't be tempted by their "Macho" burrito lineup, all of which contain at least 900 calories and 2,000 milligrams of sodium.

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10. Guilty Pleasure at El Pollo Loco

Salsa Bar

Salsa is now America's most popular condiment (take that, ketchup). Good thing El Pollo Loco lets you ladle on as much of the topping as you want. The restaurant offers four varieties, and only the Spicy Avocado surpasses 15 calories per a 1.5-ounce serving. The rest are tomato-based, which means that they're loaded with vitamins C and A, as well as the antioxidant lycopene, a carotenoid that has been shown to fight many types of cancer, including breast, prostate, and lung.

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9. Guilty Pleasure at Haagen-Dazs

Five Milk Chocolate (1/2 cup)

220 calories

12 g fat (7 g saturated)

20 g sugars

It's not necessarily the fact that you're eating ice cream that's healthy--it's the fact that you're avoiding other, less-wholesome frozen treats. With its "Five" series, Haagen-Dazs scores marketing points--and legitimate nutritional boons--with a core principle of sound eating: The fewer ingredients, the better.

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8. Guilty Pleasure at IHOP

Two x Two x Two

540 calories

27 g fat (9 g saturated; 0.5 g trans)

1,250 mg sodium

The "Two x Two x Two" is practically the only breakfast on IHOP's regular menu that wouldn't give a nutritionist a panic attack. Two eggs, two pancakes, and two strips of bacon or sausage links: All your breakfast bases are covered for a reasonable 540 calories. Just take care to watch your saturated fat for the rest of the day.

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7. Guilty Pleasure at Jack in the Box

Grilled Chicken Strips (4) with Zesty Marinara Sauce

275 calories

7 g fat (1.5 g saturated)

1,270 mg sodium

This nonfried finger food isn't on the sides menu, but order it anyway to avoid a glut of trans fat. These chicken strips are loaded with 43 grams of protein, so your belly will stay full long after you stop eating. That's a claim French fries can't make.

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6. Guilty Pleasure at Long John Silver's

Chocolate Cream Pie

280 calories

17 g fat (10 g saturated)

19 g sugars

Many restaurants treat dessert as an opportunity to stuff as many calories as possible into your belly. A rational indulgence, this refreshing slice from Long John Silver's is the exception that proves the rule. Fellow nautical chain Red Lobster, on the other hand, deviates from their usual nutritional virtue with a crime against your body for dessert: Their Chocolate Wave cake contains a gargantuan 1,490 calories.

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5. Guilty Pleasure at McDonald's


390 calories

19 g fat (8 g saturated; 1 g trans)

890 mg sodium

Seeing the word "double" anywhere near a menu item is usually a clear warning sign--McD's own 740-calorie Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese is a perfect example. The McDouble, though, is a low-profile winner. You'd be hard pressed to find a lighter double-patty cheeseburger.

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4. Guilty Pleasure at Olive Garden

Steak Toscano

590 calories

20 g fat (4.5 g saturated)

1,460 mg sodium

The Olive Garden menu, land of 1,000-calorie pastas, is hiding a surprisingly lean steak entrée. Dodge flabby bullets by choosing the Toscano over nearby menu losers like the 1,510-calorie Pork Milanese.

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3. Guilty Pleasure at Papa John's

The Works (2 slices, original crust)

460 calories

18 g fat (8 g saturated)

1,300 mg sodium

As pies topped with "everything" go, this is as good as you're going to get. While the Works is touch too sodium-heavy, Papa John's restraint with fatty cheese is admirable. (As a counter-example, cheesy abandon sinks many new Domino's offerings.) The equivalent pair of slices at Pizza Hut would cost you an additional 120 calories.

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2. Guilty Pleasure at Pizza Hut

Hand Tossed Spicy Sicilian Pizza, 12" (2 slices)

480 calories

22 g fat (9 g saturated)

1,460 mg sodium

Beef and sausage are far from the leanest pie toppers, but the Spicy Sicilian recipe employs both meats alongside sweet red onions and spicy jalapenos. Surprisingly, the outcome is leaner than any other multimeat pie on the Pizza Hut menu. That's not to say that this should be your everyday pie, just that it earns its place as an occasional indulgence.

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1. Guilty Pleasure at Wendy's

Original Frosty (small)

300 calories

8 g fat (5 g saturated)

42 g sugars

When you crave a chocolate shake, remember that they don't get leaner than this. The smallest chocolate shake at Baskin-Robbins, by comparison, has twice as many calories as the Wendy's classic. Beware newer models however; There's now a teeming family of Frosty variations, from Floats to Frosty-cinos, and every single one is worse than the original.

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