Navigating the buffet

THE CHALLENGE: There are lots of inviting dishes at Wegmans' Wokery, but the calories, fat and sodium can add up fast. Our expert helped Ronn Blaney choose wisely.

Make Over My Meal / / The Self-serve Food Bar

May 16, 2007|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Reporter

More dangers lurk in those tempting by-the-pound hot food bars than you can imagine. See that yummy-looking Sesame Chicken, for instance? If you eat too many of them or have them too often, those crispy little nuggets in their thick, sweet sauce are a heart attack or stroke waiting to happen.

A cup serving can contain more than 300 calories, 9 grams of fat and 700 milligrams of sodium.

But the news isn't all bad. We decided to head for Wegmans' Wokery, the Hunt Valley supermarket's Asian hot food bar, for the latest in our monthly Make Over My Meal series -- a reporter (me) and a nutritionist, Robin Spence (a registered dietitian at Union Memorial Hospital) -- out to save the world one guinea pig at a time.

Or at least to help people eat better by changing their routines in small ways.

Wegmans knows that dishes like the Sesame Chicken sell well; but the store also tries to include plenty of choices that would be more healthful for its customers, including five or six vegetarian entrees.

The good-natured guinea pig this month was Ronn Blaney, a 56-year-old electrical inspector for Baltimore County, who let us analyze the lunch he had selected from the hot food bar and then suggest ways to improve it. It's not easy eating with a trained nutritionist watching you and talking about the consequences of every bite, so give Blaney credit -- although he may never visit a food bar again.

By-the-pound hot food bars are a logical extension of the salad bar. These days, busy people need easy, quick, relatively inexpensive ways to get good meals on their tables. For that reason alone, expect to see more and more of them.

Stores like Whole Foods and Super Fresh have hot food bars, although they aren't as elaborate as Wegmans' Wokery. There are even several restaurants in downtown Baltimore devoted to the genre, where people on their lunch breaks can get Chinese or American hot food and salad-bar items, all sold by the pound.

But hot food bars have two major pitfalls. First, it's easy to load up on more food than you meant to when you keep adding a little of this and a little of that to your plate. Second, there are the visual prompts. You might never order fried foods or dishes with thick sauces from the menu of a Chinese restaurant, but on a hot food bar they look too appealing to resist.

Blaney, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 226 pounds, likes vegetables and eats pretty well most of the time. But when faced with the Wokery's spread, he ended up with two meaty spareribs, a generous helping of pineapple fried chicken, three Shrimp Purses (a sort of stuffed fried won ton), and Vegetable Fried Rice. He did some things right, including some Veggie Delight (mixed vegetables in a light garlic sauce) and stir-fried green beans.

Because of the vegetables, Blaney thought his lunch was fairly healthful until Spence pointed out that the spareribs, with their saturated fat, were worse for him than the fast-food beef burger he says he never eats.

In any case, a meal of Chinese food should be only an occasional treat for Blaney. He told us he has high blood pressure, which his doctors can't get under control. Even though he's on multiple medications for it, his numbers have been as high as 189 / 105 -- what Spence calls "stroke territory."

On a brighter note, Blaney's cholesterol is good. His cardiologist, though, would like Blaney to get his weight down to 210 pounds, so he should be watching his calories and fat as well as his sodium intake.

"You get in trouble with the sauces," Spence said about the Asian dishes he was eating. They can be extraordinarily high in calories and sodium, which Blaney is trying to avoid. An article on Chinese restaurant food published last month by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest found that a meal can contain a full day's worth of sodium -- or even two days'.

The choices are sometimes hard even for a trained nutritionist. Spence thought the Thai Seafood Combo might be a good option for our "after" meal, but when she went to the nutritional information on Wegmans' Web site, she found that while a one-cup serving was relatively low in calories (170), it contained 890 milligrams of sodium. (The government recommends that people with high blood pressure consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.)

There were other surprises.

"The Lemon Pepper Chicken that Tom and Dave [a chef and a team leader in Wegmans' kitchen] pointed out isn't so great," she e-mailed me. "One cup has 170 calories, 8 grams of fat and 510 milligrams of sodium. But Pork with Scallions is pretty good: One cup has 130 calories, 5 grams of fat and 250 milligrams of sodium."

Spence suggested that people with health problems check out nutritional content before they visit a fast-food restaurant or get carryout. (If the place you're going doesn't have what you need on its Web site, try CalorieKing.com.)

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