BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer
We eat out about four times a week, according to studies on American eating habits. In fact, we spend half of our disposable cash on those eatery excursions. Couple that with the fact that nearly all entrees eaten out are higher in calories, fat and sodium, versus meals cooked at home, well… It’s easy to see how our collective waist lines have grown.
So our partners with Dare to be Healthy (a Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant supported initiative) came up with a shrewd plan for beating back obesity numbers within their home town of Calcasieu Parish, where obesity rates for the adult population is at 37% — higher than the national and state average.
“That is a sobering number,” said Dare to be Healthy Program Coordinator Janice Ackley.
The idea? If you want people to eat better, hit ’em where they eat — at the restaurants.
East Healthy Southwest Louisiana is a push to encourage chefs to put healthy meal options on the menu. What’s healthy?
Low calories (under 600), low sodium (under 800 mg), low fat (under 10% from saturated fat). Guidelines for appetizers, soups, salads and desserts are even tighter.
Entrees meeting the standard will be highlighted on the menu with a green fork icon.
It’s no joke earning that icon, participating chefs say. Dieticians must carefully scrutinize each new meal option — and will kick it back, with helpful recommendations, if the entree isn’t up to par. Wait staff is schooled on the new items, too, and encouraged to help customers keep calories low by not automatically filling soda glasses (wait until asked) and offer water glasses filled.
“Frankly, our guests are beginning to demand these changes,” said Executive Chef Chad Jackson with the Lake Charles Country Club, one of four restaurants who signed up to help launch the program.
And not just country club food fare on the makeover chopping block. Even joints offering comfort foods — like pizza — can do better, says Chef Rocky with Gattis Pizza.
“Why is a pizza buffet restaurant here in the first place,” chef asked the crowd. “I’m surprised myself. But I went to them and said I want to participate and they said I could. And I’m glad to be here.”
He’s offering small changes — but changes that can add up to a big calorie difference (low-fat cheese on pizzas, low sodium sandwiches, low fat dressings and a “how to build a healthy salad” sign tacked to the salad bar).
“It’s starting with us,” Jackson said to a crowd gather and hopefully we can start pushing each other, as chefs, to say, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ We just have to stay focused on the goal.”
The program kicked off last week at the country club, with an official “ribbon” (i.e., a vegetable-strewn string) cutting ceremony, followed by a tasting lunch of chilled avocado soup (280 calories), seared lemongrass ahi tuna over melon (340 calories), and a mixed berry crisp (300 calories).
Dare to be Healthy is the latest Challenge Grant supported initiative to join the push to partner-up with local restaurants and urge menu makeovers. Similar programs are in the works with our Live Lively LaSalle and Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative (Farm-to-Restaurant) partners. And West End Health & Wellness project leaders are partnering their Iberia Parish restaurants with three hydroponic gardening co-ops now flourishing in the region (in fact, Challenge Grant funding recently allowed those co-ops to double in size to meet increasing demand for their fresh produce).
The restaurant partnership programs underscore the true purpose of
Challenge Grant, as noted by our own Lydia Martin (strategic initiatives manager for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation). Speaking to the crowd of chefs and Dare to be Healthy partners gathered for last week’s kick-off, Martin said, “We asked everyone to focus on two things — eating healthy, living healthy. And this program really fits that focus. With luck, what happens here in Lake Charles will catch fire and touch not just lives here, but those in surrounding communities, too. And we’re proud to be part of that effort.”