Hooters, IHOP and McDonald's among the Denver restaurants on Healthy Dining Finder

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When you think of healthy restaurants in Denver, one of the healthiest cities in the country, a couple of spots whose menus are rife with the terms "organic," "sustainable" and "local" come to mind: WaterCourse Foods and Root Down, for example. You won't find them on Healthy Dining Finder -- but you will find IHOP, Hooters, Olive Garden and McDonald's included as joints that offer offer dishes that meet Healthy Dining's criteria.

"There are restaurants that are on our site that are part of our programs that some people are surprised to see because they think McDonald's, for example, that's not a healthy restaurant," says Erica Bohm, vice president and director of strategic partnerships for Healthy Dining. "But McDonald's has close to two dozen menu items that meet the Healthy Dining nutrition criteria. We don't classify restaurants as healthy or unhealthy, we look to see which menu items from any sort of a restaurant meet the nutrition criteria."

While Healthy Dining does include some large chains, it also has some independent spots. For Denver, those include Sansone's Bistro, the Delectable Egg and Tott Asian Grill.

"We absolutely welcome independent restaurants to be part of our program, but we started by doing outreach to the mid- to large-sized chains because it's a huge country," says Bohm. "There are hundreds of thousands of restaurants and if we started by calling on restaurants that have one or two locations, we wouldn't get very far."

Not only are those restaurants easier to reach out to, but in order to be listed in Healthy Dining's database, a restaurant not only has to offer dishes that qualify as healthy but to pay the company for its promotional services -- a cost not in the budget for many independent spots. How much does it pay? "It's a complex pricing structure based on how many locations they have, whether or not they have nutrition analysis and whether or not they qualify for a discount we offer," is all Bohn will say.

Small, independent restaurants typically don't have nutrition information available for their dishes; that's a service Healthy Dining can provide, Bohn says.

Big or small, no restaurant will be listed unless it has several dishes that meet Healthy Dining's criteria, created by a team of dietitians and nutritionists, according to Bohn. In order to be listed as a "Healthy Dining Option," an entrée must have no more than 750 calories, 25 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat and 2,000 milligrams of sodium. An entrée must also feature at least two of the trio of lean proteins, fruits or vegetables, and whole grains.

The site also has scaled-down criteria for sides, appetizers and desserts.

Healthy Dining was started about twenty years ago and focused strictly on Southern California restaurants for the first fifteen years. In 2005, Bohm says, it received $850,000 in funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take the concept nationwide via the Internet. Today the site features about 350 restaurants and is always looking for more.

"We would love to bring on board more independent restaurants," she says, "but on the other hand, these are also really popular restaurants that tens of millions of Americans go to."

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