Americans are fat because our lifestyles have evolved faster than our diets. Those all-American foods—burgers, fries, milkshakes—were sustenance, not indulgence, for generations stained with oil and soil. So what happens now that we've traded lunch pails for Aeron chairs?

I've thought a lot about that in the three years since I lost 100 pounds by counting calories. It's possible we'll get more active—because you can eat at Pine State Biscuits every morning if you bike to Southeast Belmont Street from St. Johns. It's also possible we'll develop a taste for lighter and more worldly fare—because a banh mi has about a third the calories of a pastrami sandwich.

But my clearest vision of the future actually looks more like downtown Portland's newest burger joint, Jackson's Lite-N-Tasty.

Jackson's doesn't feel particularly futuristic—it's only a little less drab than The Office break room—and the menu, which has burgers, chicken sandwiches, fries, shakes, cookies and salads, doesn't read much differently from that at Joe's Burgers a block away. But for people looking to slim down by changing their habits gradually, this is an exciting development.

A quarter-pound burger ($3.99) has only 305 calories—compared to 410 for McDonald's cheeseless version. It's better than a standard fast-food burger, too, though it's punching a few weight classes below the better bistro burgers in town. The secret, I suspect, is the very lean ground beef, and a special roll, which resembles ciabatta more than a traditional hamburger bun. It is topped with a low-calorie Thousand Island-type sauce. My dining companion didn't know he was eating something "healthy."

The "fries" and shakes have an even bigger calorie cut. Waffle-cut potatoes, baked instead of fried and covered in an orange pepper powder with more flavor than salt ($1.99), have only 120 calories per serving, about a third of what typical fast-food fries pack.

Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry shakes ($3.99) each have less than 250 calories. You can tell they use low-fat ice cream by the thinner consistency, but I happily slurped them down. Low-calorie desserts actually account for about half the menu, including a dry and granola-y oatmeal cookie (100 calories, 55 cents) and a thin slice of an appropriately rich chocolate espresso cake with airy icing (228 calories, $3.95).

How is it all possible? The cooks weren't talking, saying only, "It's amazing what you can do when you substitute one or two things in a recipe." That's fine—I think more restaurants are going to figure out how to cut these corners in our great national Biggest Loser episode to come. 

  • Order this: Burger, fries and a chocolate shake—$9.97 and 660 calories.
  • I’ll pass: Salmon burger ($6.99, 348 calories) and organic beef burger ($5.99, 305 calories).

EAT: Jackson's Lite-N-Tasty, 515 SW 4th Ave., 969-7384. 11 am-4 pm Monday-Friday. $.