COUNTYWIDE — The county Department of Public Health is using the carrot, not the stick, to get restaurants to offer healthier options.

“Choose Health LA Restaurants,” a program introduced earlier this month, highlights establishments offering smaller portions, healthier children’s meals and free chilled water.

“Almost two-thirds of L.A. County residents are overweight or obese, yet fundamental changes in diet can be difficult,” County Health Director, Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, said in a news release. “Offering both regular and smaller portions at restaurants makes a healthy choice an easier choice.”

Participating restaurants receive window decals and are featured on the county’s health website (

Mexican food chain Poquito Mas, which has a location near 21st Street and Wilshire Boulevard, has been offering smaller portions for more than five years.

“The adjustment we made with the health department was something that had been on our agenda, but we moved it up, and that was offering fruit on the plates for kids, with the apples,” Poquito Mas founder Kevin McCarney said.

Smaller portions have been bringing customers in more frequently for years, he said, because they have the option to order “Petitos,” his trademarked name for smaller versions of the most popular items on the menu.

“Honestly, it took me too long to figure this out, but people come in different sizes,” McCarney said. “I did a lot of research on this and realized that people would come in and feel like they couldn’t order a full-size burrito because they were 105 pounds. It just makes sense to allow someone to choose a smaller portion.”

Dorothy Bernet, a certified dietitian at Healthy 4 Life Nutrition on Broadway near 23rd Street, said the different portion sizes are important because studies have shown that restaurant-goers ignore calorie information posted by establishments. She does not emphasize calorie counting, partially because the process can lead to eating disorders, but she does strongly encourage smaller portion choices.

“Portions in restaurants are just ridiculous,” she said. “They’re huge; they can be two to three meals. People feel like they want value for their money, so they want a big portion, and unfortunately they tend to eat it all.”

The issue, Bernet said, is as psychological as it is physical, pointing to the increasing size of plates.

“Many years ago, the dinner plate was only 7 inches, which is the size of a salad plate today,” she said. “Our dishes have gotten bigger. When you buy soda, the sizes are getting bigger and bigger.”

The city of New York went so far as to ban sugary drinks of more than 16 ounces in restaurants, movie theaters and other food service establishments. That ban is being challenged in court.

There are about a dozen restaurants currently featured by the county, but only Poquito Mas and several Subways are located in Santa Monica. Restaurants are expected to be added to the list as they get word of the program and fill out the “Choose Health LA Restaurants” application on the county’s website.

“This program is a win-win for L.A. County restaurant owners and their customers,” County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents Santa Monica and the Westside, said in a release. “Choose Health LA Restaurants empowers county residents to make tasty but healthy choices when they dine out. And as we get the message out about the importance of portion size and calorie intake, we’re confident that demand for these healthier-sized meals will only go up.”

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