The Sweet Spot Guide to Dining at Earls

If you follow me on social media, you may know that this post has been in the works for a while. It’s been a challenge to write. On one hand, I like to eat out for relaxation, social connection, and pleasure, which arguably have a positive influence on mental health. I don’t want to contribute to the food fear that’s so pervasive in our culture. And I have a soft spot for Earls, having grown up in Calgary alongside this local favourite.

On the other hand, I tend to peek at the nutrition information before I dine out. (Occupational hazard.) So despite my fondness for Earls, I have to call them out for the extremely high sodium — higher than similar restaurants or even McDonalds! And as with most eateries, often the portions are supersized and the ingredients rich.

If you eat out less than once a week, I wouldn’t worry about it. You might fancy something I recommend below, but if not, you’re likely eating 20 or more home-cooked meals for every trip to a restaurant.

If, however, you eat out several times a week — and I know some have to because of frequent travel or entertaining clients — it can eventually affect your health, especially if you already have a condition like high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes. This post is for you.

My goal is always to help you find that “sweet spot” where food you love also supports your health goals. I’ll share some heart healthier options, dish on a few items that aren’t as wholesome as they seem, and give you the scoop on the sodium.

You’re still better off cooking and packing lunch, but if you do end up at Earls on occasion, you’ll be armed with a bit more nutrition know-how.

General Tips

  • Order something you’ll enjoy. Yes, factor in any health considerations that matter to you, but still, choose a meal that will truly satisfy. Deny yourself this small act of self-care and your “diet” resentment may percolate, putting you on track for an eventual derailment.
  • Make special requests. In my experience, the staff at Earls are quite receptive to that. They’ll toss your salad with half the dressing if you prefer that to having it on the side or going without. They’ll give you a half order of potatoes or rice, which is still lots (although you still have to pay full price). Earls has a well-stocked kitchen, so don’t be afraid to mix and match menu items. You’re the customer.
  • Don’t go famished. I know, it seems tempting to skip lunch if you’re heading for a big meal in the evening, but don’t do it. You’ll come in ravenous and head out feeling stuffed.

Earls Menu Highlights

I scoured the Earls menu hunting for dishes with vegetables or fruit, adequate protein, fibre, and calories, but no more than half of typical daily recommendations for nutrients like sodium and sugar. (Detailed criteria here if you’re curious.) The menu changes seasonally and from location to location, but this will give you an idea of what to look for.

Turns out only one menu item actually hit the mark! Drum roll please… Blackened Swordfish Tacos. (Sigh. Swordfish is a bit high in mercury, but Health Canada guidelines suggest it’s fine to have once a week, but less often for children and women who are or could become pregnant or breastfeeding.)

Maui Ahi Poke

Need more options? Two more menu items do the trick with tweaks: the West Coast Ahi Tuna Salad with half the dressing and the Maui Ahi Poke with half the tortilla chips. (Same deal on the mercury.)

I know some like to go the protein plus veggies route, but often that means too few calories. A 200-calorie lunch can set you up to hungry enough to eat everything in the pantry come evening. The only combo I found that worked was 6 oz Top Sirloin plus Side Caesar.

Want to share a meal? If your dining partner agrees or you can bring half home, consider splitting the Santa Fe Cajun Chicken Salad or the Quinoa Avocado Power Bowl with chicken, salmon, or prawns.

Sharing two dishes gives you more options. A few combos that met the criteria:

    • Half a Bigger Better Burger and half a Field Greens Salad, Yam Fries (side), or Summer Vegetable Medley
    • Half a Chicken, Brie + Fig Sandwich and half a Field Greens Salad
    • Half an Oven Roasted Salmon and a whole Field Greens Salad
    • Half a Green Dragon Roll with a whole order of Sautéed Prawns
    • Half an Avocado Super Toast with a whole or half 6 oz Top Sirloin
Field Greens Salad

A few other combinations came close, but were just a bit high in sodium or low in calories. So if none of my suggestions grab you, see if you can find a healthyish main dish and a salad or light appetizer you’d like to share.

Surprise, Surprises

We’d like to think we can pick a heart-healthy choice just by reading menu descriptions, but not always. For example:

  • Warm Kale Salad — Kale has a blinding health halo because it’s high in many nutrients. Unfortunately, the brown butter vinaigrette in this salad adds six times as much saturated fat as is in the sirloin. Saturated fat is controversial, but most experts agree that replacing it with unsaturated fats like you’ll find in most salad dressings lowers risk for cardiovascular disease. The Field Greens Salad and a 6 oz sirloin would arguably be a better choice! (It’s just slightly over my sodium cutoff or I would have mentioned it above.)
  • Santa Fe Chicken Salad — Another salad surprise. Remember last year’s kerfuffle about McDonald’s kale salads having more sodium and calories than a Double Big Mac? Well someone call the CBC, because you can add medium McDonalds fries and this salad still exceeds it, not to mention more sugar than a Tim Horton’s chocolate glazed donut! Again, more nutrients in your bowl, but at what cost? Even without the tortilla strips, dried cranberries and dressing it still has about 1500mg of sodium.
  • Bibimbap Bowl — “Hot stone rice bowl, sesame chili sauce, with carrots, mushrooms, zucchini and soft poached egg.” Sounds virtuous, doesn’t it? Would you believe 3360-3920mg of sodium, depending on which protein you choose? Compare that to a recommended daily limit of 2300mg. Yikes.
  • Southwest Veggie Burger — I love a plant-based meal, but 91g of carbohydrate is a bit much, especially if you have blood sugar concerns. It’s like eating five or six slices of bread, and that’s before adding sides like fries. Plus it’s high in sodium and saturated fat, similar to the Warm Kale Salad above. If you want to go vegetarian, how about the Quinoa Avocado Power Bowl? Again, that replaces saturated with unsaturated (avocado) fat, and there are less carbs and sodium.

Have these if you love them, but they’re one more reason I say order what you really want and eat out less often: Half the time salads and stir-fries aren’t much better than what you’re craving anyhow.

Dessert Sweet Spot

Here’s a fun tip if you like to order dessert: The New York Cheesecake has only 320 calories, 80mg sodium, and 19g of sugar. Compare that to the Warm Chocolate Sticky Toffee Pudding at 1130 calories and 107g of sugar. Gulp.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record… If you like cheesecake, great, especially if you split it. But if you really want something else, have a lighter dinner, bring a friend or two and enjoy.

Earls = Salt of the Earth (literally)

The sodium in Earls food always seemed high to me, so I decided to crunch the numbers and see how it compares to other restaurants.

To put this in perspective, consider that the most liberal sodium guidelines recommend keeping it below 2300mg per day. Assuming you eat three meals a day, that’s about 700mg or less per meal, right? The only complete meal I could find under 700mg is the West Coast Ahi Tuna salad, but only if you’re up for having it without the soy ginger vinaigrette.

This isn’t unusual. Restaurant meals are rarely below 700mg of sodium. What blew my mind is that Earls has 26 entrees with over 2300mg. 26 entrees with more sodium than you would ideally have in an entire day. And that’s before you start adding appetizers, bread, and dessert. Your salt shaker at home pales in comparison.

(If milligrams don’t mean much to you, pull out a teaspoon measure and imagine it filled it with salt and poured onto your plate. Or if you’re a label reader, see if you can find anything at the grocery store with 96% or more for sodium per serving.)

Compare those 26 entrees to what you’ll find at nutrition pariah McDonald’s, where there are exactly zero dishes with more than 2300mg of sodium. Zero! Not even combining a burger and fries does it. The only way to (just barely) exceed 2300mg there is to have poutine with a salty sandwich (eg. Bacon & Cheddar Angus Burger).

Of course, sit-down restaurants offer larger portions, so I compared another one of them, Milestones, to see if Earls is really that unusual. On their menu I found just seven items with more than 2300mg. The Keg? Seven also. Earls is really out of line on this one.

As I said above, the occasional high-sodium meal isn’t a big deal. But if you eat out regularly, and many Canadians do, it will eventually impact your health.

Why This Matters

Unless you eat out often, this is more of a concern from a public health standpoint. In Canada, it’s been estimated that significantly reducing our average sodium intake could prevent an estimated 23,500 cardiovascular disease events per year. That’s more than a Saddledome full of Canadians who wouldn’t have to spend a scary few days in the hospital, deal with the onerous medical and financial repercussions or worse.

Earls and their 68 busy restaurants alone can’t do this, but they can certainly reduce their contribution to the problem. If you’re an Earls customer, ask them to do better. Tweet them and suggest they put their smart chefs to work seasoning dishes without relying so heavily on salt or other sodium-rich ingredients. Or vote with your wallet and eat elsewhere.

Keep it in Perspective

Still about 1700mg of sodium. (Close to a day’s worth.)

But for you individually, I just want awareness. You deserve to know that dining at Earls is not equivalent to home cooking just because they put salmon, quinoa, and kale on the menu. Knowledge is power.

If you do end up there on the rare occasion because friends choose it, you’re traveling, or you’re just craving a Santa Fe Chicken Salad, relax and enjoy, even if you’re dealing with high blood pressure, diabetes, or a history of heart problems. Nutrition matters, but this is just one of many meals, and nutrition is one of many, many contributors to health.

Questions and comments welcome on Facebook, as always. And if this resonates with you, please share!

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