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Eating Healthy at Chain Restaurants

P.F. Chang's China Bistro

P.F. Chang's

Fast food gets a bad rap. Convenience food gets a bad rap. But neither McDonalds nor Hamburger Helper have anything on chain restaurants. By "chain restaurant" I mean places like Applebee's, Chili's, and P.F. Chang's. (What is with all the apostrophes anyway?)

Those of us who are concerned with health today do focus on the increasing availability of calorie dense foods. Much of that attention is on soft drinks, fast food, and the convenience foods found in the grocery store. A major contributor to the problem that is often overlooked is chain restaurants. We've reviewed a few here at Dr. Gourmet and tried to offer you some healthier options at those restaurants. One thing that is unnoticed is how very high in calories many meals at places like Red LobsterApplebee's and Ruby Tuesday are. 

P.F. Chang's is a great example of this. They are one of the restaurants that has been making nutrition information available on their website. In the early days the information wasn't complete: it lacked reporting on sodium. They do now, and wow! - it is pretty shocking. More on that later - because also important is that there are not many items on the menu that are under 500 calories. Many of the dishes are well over 1000 calories - and that doesn't include the side of rice at about 250 calories. It is almost impossible to get something healthy that is both lower in calories and has a reasonable amount of sodium.

When we looked at P.F. Chang's about 10 years ago, I wrote, "There are, however, some pretty good alternatives for you at P.F. Chang's. As one should, I looked at the nutrition information before going to the restaurant and chose those that seemed reasonable." This is much different now that we know the salt content. I have to change the statement now to "There are, however, almost no alternatives for you at P.F. Chang's."

There was general surprise amongst the tasters about the Steamed Buddha's Feast. It's simply a plate of steamed veggies and tofu with no sauce. When it comes to the table it looks pretty boring. The flavor is excellent, however, with hints of ginger and tea, which they used in the steaming water. With the brown rice and a little bit of the Sweet and Sour or Chili Oil that's provided on every table, this is a fine and filling meal. And it's only 260 calories and 310 milligrams of sodium!

On the Sharables menu, nothing comes in at under 1,000 milligrams of sodium. Even though these plates are larger, they are meant to be a shared, and if you had one of these as an entrée it is certainly too much salt. But if you split the dish, you'll go home hungry. Same problem with the Dim Sum menu.

On the Salads menu the only item that is close to healthy is the Asian Caesar Salad at 410 calories (even though this contains 880 milligrams of sodium). Mind you, that doesn't include the chicken or salmon (the chicken would be the better choice at 160 calories and 250 milligrams of sodium).

Sushi maybe? Not very filling or special, with their California Roll at 360 calories and a whopping 800 milligrams of sodium. And forget about the Soup menu. The cups of soup are low in calories but all over 500 milligrams of sodium.

The Chicken Entrées menu has dishes that you might split with a friend, but if you have one by yourself, all but two come in at over 1,000 milligrams of sodium. The Sweet & Sour Chicken has 860 calories but a pretty reasonable 560 milligrams of sodium. Paired with a side of brown rice and split between two people, this is probably your second best option after the Buddha's Feast.  

Beef & Pork Entrées is their worst section. Only one of the dishes come in at under 2,000 milligrams of sodium and that one contains 1,730 milligrams (Pepper Steak Steamed). Sorry but the ruin the seafood also with only one at less than 2,000 milligrams of sodium.

A few years ago I wrote this about P.F. Chang's: "All in all, not a great restaurant but a good one, and there are some good and healthy choices." We were able to make about 5 or 6 recommendations for dishes back then, but now, armed with the complete information and knowing about the appalling amount of added salt, the Dr. Gourmet recommendation is to stay home and make your own.

Korean Barbecue Beef
Kung Pao Beef | GERD / Acid Reflux-Friendly Version
Asian Beef with Broccoli
Asian Peanut Chicken Salad
Asian Peanut Chicken with Noodles
Cashew Chicken
Chinese Chicken Salad
Garlic Chicken Stir Fry
Ginger Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce
Ginger Chicken with Edamame
Ginger Chicken with Napa Cabbage
Kung Pao Chicken | GERD / Acid Reflux-Friendly Version
Quickie Chicken Fried Rice | Low Sodium Version
Thai Chicken Noodle Soup
Teriyaki Salmon Salad
Udon Noodle Salad with Salmon
Seared Tuna with Saki-Wasabi Sauce
Pork Fried Rice
Chinese Barbecue Pork (Char Siu Pork)
Hoisin Glazed Pork Tenderloin
Sweet & Sour Pork
Seared Scallops with Pad Thai Style Noodles
Crunchy Peanut Shrimp
Drunken Noodles
Shrimp Fried Rice | Low Sodium Version
Shrimp Pad Thai
Shrimp with Rice Noodles & Bok Choy
Shrimp with Rice Noodles and Peanut Sauce
Spicy Shrimp and Rice Noodles | Low Sodium Version
Summer Rolls
Teriyaki Noodles with Shrimp
Thai Coconut Shrimp

Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS
Dr. Gourmet