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Live Well program encourages restaurants to promote healthy options

Wes Venteicher
| Monday, May 2, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Patrons at Mad Mex in the North Hills enjoy lunch.
Tribune-Review file
Patrons at Mad Mex in the North Hills enjoy lunch.
Bill Fuller, executive chef at Big Burrito Restaurant Group at Casbah in Shadyside on Feb. 29, 2012.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Bill Fuller, executive chef at Big Burrito Restaurant Group at Casbah in Shadyside on Feb. 29, 2012.
Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.

As healthy eating becomes more popular, Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker sees an opening to encourage people to eat right in venues where nutrition traditionally has not been a focus: restaurants.

With her Live Well Restaurant campaign, Hacker is recognizing restaurants that meet benchmarks for healthy food preparation, such as eliminating cholesterol-raising trans fats and offering vegetarian options. She hopes the campaign will help people make informed choices when they eat out.

“If you're going to a restaurant, and you'd like to eat light, you know at Live Well restaurants that they're doing these types of things,” she said.

Pittsburgh restaurant group big Burrito, which owns Mad Mex, Casbah, Kaya, Soba, Eleven and Umi, recently joined the campaign, a move that she said reflects a cultural shift around healthy eating. The campaign, launched in October, includes 23 restaurants, she said. They are listed at livewellallegheny.com.

“It used to be that restaurants said people didn't want this. … I think that is changing,” Hacker said.

The campaign, which is voluntary, coincides with broader regulatory efforts promoting healthier eating at a time when more than a third of Americans are obese. Restaurant chains and other establishments with 20 or more locations need to include calorie counts on menus by the end of the year to comply with a rule in the federal Affordable Care Act.

Studies have shown that displaying calorie counts on menus doesn't significantly reduce how many calories people consume, but restaurants that display calorie counts tend to serve lower-calorie items.

To qualify for the Live Well campaign, restaurants need to eliminate cholesterol-raising trans fats, ban smoking and meet four other criteria from a list of options on the campaign's website. Options include listing calorie counts and nutrition facts, offering half-portions, offering healthy side dishes such as fruits and vegetables, offering brown rice and whole grain bread and providing locations to store bicycles at or near restaurants.

Big Burrito restaurants were meeting many of the criteria, making joining the campaign an easy decision, said Bill Fuller, the group's corporate chef.

“We said, ‘well, we do this' — helping our customers who are trying to take care of themselves take care of themselves,” Fuller said.

Mad Mex, which Fuller said will soon open its 14th location near Canonsburg, includes a link to calorie counts beneath a list of menu items on its website. Fuller doesn't expect to list calorie counts for menus at the other restaurants, which serve more varied and complex dishes.

All the restaurants can accommodate diners' preferences, he said, including substituting vegetables for heavier sides and reducing calories in other ways.

Fuller and Hacker encouraged diners to speak up and ask about options at Live Well restaurants.

“We want to make people happy. And if we can't do something, we'll say we can't,” Fuller said.

Wes Venteinher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or wventeicher@tribweb.com.

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