The Cheesecake Factory leads the way in unhealthy options as a factory of calories, fat, and sodium.

Are you among the 79 percent of Americans looking to make healthier choices while dining out? Consumer Reports researched and reported on 17 restaurant chains and their meal options. According to Consumer Reports, healthy meal options should be featured as positive choices, sugary drinks like soda don't need to be offered, opportunities to order whole grains, vegetables, and fruit should be clear and easy, and options for high-fat and high-sodium choices should be greatly limited. 

Some of the restaurant chains included in the study are Chopt Creative Salad Co., Chipotle, Panera, Starbucks, Subway, and Olive Garden. Overall, Consumer Reports wanted to find out how easy it was for customers to make healthy choices. Each restaurant was scored on beverages, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, sodium, and saturated fat.

How did the restaurants score?

Landing at the top for overall healthiest choices offered is CoreLife Eatery. CoreLife Eatery boasts it's "focused on healthy, active lifestyles. We source food locally & make every meal from scratch." There were no cautionary scores in this study, and this restaurant delivers "power plates" packed with lean (and often grass-fed) protein options.

Another healthy favorite is Sweetgreen, known for its build-your-own-bowl approach. sweetgreen scored well in all categories other than a cautionary score for sodium. sweetgreen offers a variety of vegan and organic ingredients to complete your meal. Many of the dishes have 1,000 mg of sodium or less.

Chopt Creative Salad Co. also scored highly in the study with 18 years of experience dreaming up creative salads. Options include a base of rice, quinoa, or cauliflower, and they offer six types of greens. From there, you create the most delicious salads imaginable or select a Destination Salad based on unique culinary regions of the world. While sodium is a consideration, customers are encouraged to pass on the panko fried chicken and smoked bacon.

Meals do more than satisfy at True Food Kitchen. With a variety of all-natural options that focus on fighting inflammation, you're bound find what you love with lots of vegetables and whole grains. Sodium levels are acceptable, while all other study parameters are quite positive.

“Different chains have different takes on the health trend,” Amy Keating, R.D., says. “We wanted to look at so-called burger or pasta places to see how they’ve reshaped their menus. But we also wanted to see how well healthy-minded diners could eat at places that advertise fresh ingredients, like Panera Bread and Chipotle, as well as at restaurants where health is the founding principle, like CoreLife Eatery.”

At the other end of the spectrum, The Cheesecake Factory easily scored the most as the unhealthiest restaurant. The restaurant scored low on the availability of whole grains and the amount of sodium. A cautionary score was given to The Cheesecake Factory for both beverages and saturated fat. The restaurant does have fruit and vegetable options.

Applebee's Neighborhood Bar + Grill also received an unhealthy rating. It's nearly impossible to find whole grains on the menu (including the healthier selections), and substituting a salad for French fries actually costs extra, though there are plenty of lean protein options and a variety of vegetables throughout the menu.

Also receiving an unhealthy rating, Domino's comes up short on lean and whole-grain choices. While vegetables are available, you'd need to eat too many slices of vegetarian pizza to gain qualified servings of vegetables. Beverage choices are limited to soda and bottled water. 

Healthy tips for dining at any restaurant

Dining out is often a treat, taking a break with friends without food prep or cleanup. Here are a few tips to still enjoy your time together, eat some incredible food, and allow your choices to be a bit healthier:

  • Plan ahead. View the menu online and do your research. Choose flavor and options beforehand that will curb extra impulse calories.
  • Choose to substitute just one thing. If you have a craving for a burger, substitute mustard for mayonnaise or fresh fruit for the French fries.
  • Skip the soda. The high sugar content packs a huge amount of calories into a beverage. Instead, select water with lime or lemon.
  • Share a meal and a dessert. Especially for those with a sweet tooth, consider sharing a meal and a dessert with a friend. It gives you the best of both worlds.

What is your favorite restaurant treat? Tell us in the comments below.