THOUGHT FOR FOOD: Wellness Center helps build app to find better meals on the go

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AURORA | More than 600 dietitian-certified healthy meals are available within a 10-mile radius in Aurora. Until now, they’ve been largely hard to find, but like everything else, there’s an app for that.

The app, called “YumPower” was developed by HealthPartners and is a part of the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center’s partnership with California-based company Healthy Dining, which allows users to search for healthy meals at area restaurants.

This undated handout photo provided by the Agriculture Department shows a plate showing portion sizes of 100 calories worth of strawberries, broccoli, potato chips, bread and M&Ms.  Is it really more expensive to eat healthy? An Agriculture Department study released Wednesday found that most fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods cost less than foods high in fat, sugar and salt. That counters a common perception among some consumers that it's cheaper to eat junk food than a nutritionally balanced meal. (AP Photo/Agriculture Department)
This undated handout photo provided by the Agriculture Department shows a plate showing portion sizes of 100 calories worth of strawberries, broccoli, potato chips, bread and M&Ms. Is it really more expensive to eat healthy? An Agriculture Department study released Wednesday found that most fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods cost less than foods high in fat, sugar and salt. That counters a common perception among some consumers that it’s cheaper to eat junk food than a nutritionally balanced meal. (AP Photo/Agriculture Department)

The iPhone app and website, healthydiningfinder.com, are part of the partnership’s public push for healthy eating, an effort that officially launched in mid-May.

“This is about giving people healthier choices,” said James O. Hill, executive director of the wellness center.

More than 40 restaurants with more than 300 locations in Colorado are currently offering healthy food as part of the program, including restaurants such as Carrabba’s, Mad Greens, Sweet Tomatoes, Chili’s, Denny’s, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewery, California Pizza Kitchen and Boston Market. The wellness center’s restaurant, Bistro Elaia, is also part of the program.

Each entree is 750 calories or less, with no more than 25 grams of fat and eight grams of saturated fat. Appetizers, sides and desserts are 250 calories or less with no more than eight grams of fat and three grams of saturated fat. The app and website also feature low-sodium meal options, with 750 mg of sodium or less for an entree and 250 mg of sodium or less for an appetizer, side dish or dessert. For example, Olive Garden’s lasagna primavera with grilled chicken is 420 calories, Boston Market’s quarter rotisserie chicken with potatoes and vegetables is 400 calories, and Bonefish Grill’s edamame and sea scallops with shrimp is 430 calories.

“(The Healthy Dining program) gives you the confidence that you can choose this and know it’s going to be a healthy choice,” Hill said.

Statistics show that families eat an average of five restaurant meals per week, Hill said. When 66 percent of adults and 33 percent of children are considered overweight or obese, it’s imperative that restaurants offer healthy choices, but being healthy doesn’t necessarily mean that people have to eat out less, Hill said.

The epidemic of excessive weight gain could be halted simply by reducing a person’s caloric intake by 100 calories a day, Hill said.

“We know Americans love eating out, and our goal is not to say ‘don’t eat out,’ but we’d like you to have some healthier choices when you eat out,” he said.

Eating out might be popular, but so is the trend to eat healthier, says Shana Patterson, Healthy Dining Colorado’s program director.

“Customers aren’t looking for restaurants to offer the same food they did 10 or five years ago,” she said. “Customers and families are asking for very specific meals that really cater to them.”

When the health craze first started a few years ago, restaurants were reluctant to label menu items as “healthy” for fear that customers would think the food lacked in flavor.

“It used to be that restaurants were leery because if they thought they labeled something as healthy it wouldn’t sell,” she said.

Now, restaurants across the state and the country offer low-calorie and low-carb options on their menus. The Healthy Dining program also offers restaurants the opportunity to work with wellness center dietitians and nutritionists to come up with ways to make healthier recipes.

The program reassures people that they can eat at restaurants and still be healthy, Patterson said.

“If you eat out four times a week and even if just one or two of those times you decide to make a healthy dining choice, that can truly reduce caloric consumption by thousands of calories a week, which can translate into 10 pounds a year just by making that small choice,” she said.

Patterson’s goal is to grow the number of restaurants offering healthy meals as part of the Healthy Dining program. She hopes to recruit three or four new restaurants per month, including small mom-and-pop restaurants and large chains.

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]