Megan Ogilvie Dishes on the Hidden Horrors in Fast Food and How to Combat Them

Menu Confidential, by Megan Ogilvie (HarperCollins). (Photo credit: Christopher Campbell.)

Menu Confidential, by Megan Ogilvie, is a book for every Canadian who dines out. One-quarter of Canadians, 8.5 million people, dine out once or twice a week, and almost one million Canadians say they eat at a restaurant every day. While cravings for a greasy burger will sometimes overtake you, the biggest hurdle to making smart choices is a lack of information. Menu Confidential is not a traditional weight-loss book, but a guide to navigating the dining scene.

Julie Wilson: In Menu Confidential, you describe the ideal plate portions as: one-quarter protein, one-quarter grains, and the remainder with fruits and vegetables.

When constructing this book, what portion did you allocate to each of the following: education, shock value, proaction, and self-compassion?

Megan Ogilvie: What a great question! You know, I never overtly set out to divvy up those things. But I did think about each while researching and writing.

Let me try to serve up an answer for you.

I’d say education takes up at least half of the plate. I believe the more you know about anything, the better choices you will make. And that’s what the book is about: helping people become smart diners.

Proaction—or how about empowerment?—would take up one-quarter of the plate. Because once you are armed with knowledge, then you can act in your own best interests. So asking for your meat to be broiled, not fried, or requesting the dressing on the side, or choosing the junior version of your favourite hamburger.

Which leaves the final one-quarter of the plate to be split between shock and self-compassion. I hope there are OMG moments in the book, times when you can’t believe a milkshake has as much fat as 2 1/2 cups of whipped topping, or that the standard garnishes on your burger contain about as much sodium as what’s found in 114 corn chips. Those are the things that get people talking!

But I also wanted the book to stay away from finger-wagging; no one wants to be told off.

Which is where the self-compassion comes in. After all, I love food and I love dining out and I wouldn’t want to read a book that advises a diet of just quinoa and apple wedges. I mean, I love quinoa and apples, but in our busy world, hitting up a drive-thru or relying on a quick pizza dinner is a reality. In my life, at least.

Julie Wilson: Talk about sodium. You break down each menu item into calories, fat, carbs, and proteins, finishing with a measurement of salt shakes. For instance, a V8 has two salt shakes, a Sobeys slab birthday cake has 14 salt shakes, Thai Express Pad Thai has—yowsa!—65 salt shakes.

Why is sodium such a significant measurement? Is it our worst culprit? Or is there something universally-understood about sodium that doesn't hold the same for fats, calories, proteins, and carbs? Some kind of common knowledge.

Megan Ogilvie: I decided to use “salt shakes” as a way for readers to quickly understand the amount of sodium in their food. In my experience, sodium is the nutrition number most people—including me, in the beginning—have the hardest time wrapping their head around. Knowing that your Pad Thai has 2,594 mg of sodium is sort of abstract, while picturing adding 65 shakes of salt to your meal is downright shocking. Few of us would deliberately add that much salt to our meals.

I see the “salt shakes” as a tool, or translation, to help readers immediately see the sodium lurking in our favourite foods. When it comes to calories, it’s easier to appreciate that a 1,250 calorie burger is not the best choice for lunch.

And, let it be noted that it’s the 156 mL can of low-sodium V8 that has just two shakes of salt. The regular version is awash in salt!

Julie Wilson: I think it was an episode of Oprah, years and years ago, and there was a table full of fast food. The guest asked Oprah to pick out what she thought was the worst item on the table in terms of fat, sodium, etc. Turns out, it was what amounted to about one-quarter cup of salad dressing. Now that I think of it, this episode must have aired before Oprah had Patti LaBelle on to make her macaroni and cheese, an artery-clogger! But, I'm not going to lie; I made it. And it was tasty.

But, I digress. Talk about these tiny terrors, the condiments and side sauces that tip the scales against us.

Megan Ogilvie: Yes! The sauces! This was one of the bigger eye openers I had while writing Menu Confiential. I think many of us see garnishes, sauces, dressings, and other condiments as benign extras to our meals. But individually, or in combination, they can quickly add calories, fat, and sodium to your dish.

For example, at Harvey’s, the spicy mesquite sauce will add 140 calories and 14 grams of fat to your meal. And it’s the hot sauce that adds the tsunami of sodium— 2,330 mg of sodium, or 58 salt shakes—to Kelsey’s famous chicken wings.

Harvey's makes your hamburger a beautiful thing . . . provided you make some changes to the ingrdients. (Photo credit: Christopher Campbell.)

I’ve learned to be judicious with condiments. For a burger or sandwich, I’ll pick just my favourite—spicy mustard; I always order an accompanying dressing or sauce on the side so I can be in control of the drizzle, and

I ask the server to use just half the normal amount of sauce for other menu items, such as the teriyaki sauce in a stir fry. These are really easy ways to ease the impact of sauces.  

Julie Wilson: The inclusion of pictures in the book (photo credit: Christopher Campbell) will render most menu items immediately recognizable. In some cases, I found myself recoiling, as if to say, Who could eat all that?

Yet, in many cases, I have to admit, I felt pangs of both nostalgia and, well, hunger.

How do these images work for or against your message?

Megan Ogilvie: I’m glad that was your reaction to the photos! It’s certainly what I’ve heard from many other people, that the photos trigger a Pavlovian response to certain foods. From what I’ve heard, it’s the Swiss Chalet quarter chicken dinner, the Tim Hortons doughnuts, and the close-up shot of crispy chicken wings that get most people thinking about their next meal or snack.

First and foremost, the photos are meant to be accurate representations of what you would see at any of the eating establishments featured in the book. So, in that sense, even the most calorific of foods look appetizing, because, let’s be honest, most are very yummy!

Some of the other images, in which we use photos to compare one food to another—or example, a bottle of cranberry cocktail that has the equivalent of 10 cubes of sugar—are meant to be a visual reminder of what you are eating. Hopefully these quick visual cues prompt people to maybe split that drink or order something less sugary.

Julie Wilson: You mention that sushi is a good addition to grocery store delis because everything on a plate of sushi is visible.

How important is it for us to actually see what we're eating? And what would be an example of the other end of the spectrum from sushi, a menu item that hides itself from the consumer?

Megan Ogilvie: If you can see the individual ingredients in your meal, as you can with most sushi rolls, you are off to a good start. It’s one of my personal meal-choosing guidelines for when I’m picking up food that doesn’t have nutrition numbers.

However, it’s not so easy to do when dining out. That’s why it’s important to quiz your server about how a food is prepared or to investigate nutrition information before picking up your fork. For example, you would think the seasonal vegetable option at Montana’s Cookhouse is a better choice of side than mashed potatoes. In fact, the way the veggies are prepared make them have more calories and 13 more grams of fat than the spuds.

In general, I’d say that foods prepared with a lot of sauces—stir fries or noodle dishes or even salads—can be hidden calorie bombs. Certain drinks, too, can contain many more calories and much for fat than you might think.

Julie Wilson: Where ingredient breakdowns weren't available, you sent food items to a laboratory to be tested. How often did you come up against this? More often than you'd expected? (I'm also picturing a small cooler and a police-escorted ride back to a darkened cave, but I suspect it was more benign.)

Megan Ogilvie, author of Menu Confidential (HarperCollins). (Photo credit: Christopher Campbell.)

Megan Ogilvie: Well, there was a cooler, but no police escort or darkened cave!

I knew that foods from smaller eating establishments and those in the grab-and-go section of grocery stores would be unlikely to provide nutrition numbers. In those cases, I posed as a consumer, purchased the food and dropped it off at an accredited laboratory for testing.

I’m sure there was the odd fellow diner who wondered why I would buy something yummy, promptly dump it into a plastic Ziploc® bag, and then tuck it into my purse. But so far, no one has yet said anything about my strange actions.  

Julie Wilson: What has been the hardest menu item for you to personally part with?

Megan Ogilvie: I actually haven’t parted with any menu item, despite having spent months scouring nutrition information, some of which is definitely scary.

My personal philosophy—and I hope it comes across in the book—is that no food should be a never food. That being said, there are many items that should definitely be relegated to sometimes foods!

I would say that I have become more mindful about how often I eat certain foods, and find myself making choices based on a combination of the occasion and on the food’s taste, ingredients, and nutrition.

For example, I still eat cake, but not the mundane slab cake rolled out at office parties. Rather, I’ll save those calories for a slice of my favourite homemade chocolate cake or for a beautifully-crafted dessert by a well-known pastry chef.

Another example: I usually, but not always, forgo the bread basket at restaurants. Again, I’ll pass on a ho-hum roll that provides little taste and empty calories, but will happily dig in when the bread is house-made and fresh from the oven.

To sum up, if the meal or food is special, then I will savour every bite (but will ease up the remainder of the day). If the food or meal is meant solely to be fuel, then I make my choice based on ingredients and nutrition.  

And I hope that fits in with what readers take away from Menu Confidential: That no food is completely off limits, but let’s all be mindful of what we are putting in our bellies.

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MEGAN OGILVIE s a health reporter at the Toronto Star, where she writes the popular column “The Dish”. Her previous nutrition column, “Diet Decoder,” ran in the Star for more than three years and exposed the pitfalls of various diets. Prior to starting her career in journalism, Megan spent a year learning to write about science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And while she adores a good burger, Megan now knows to order the junior version (and the smallest pack of fries) and enjoys every bite. Follow Megan on Twitter @Megan_Ogilvie.

Photo credit: Christopher Campbell

July 18, 2012
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