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Restaurant RX

Smart eating strategies when dining out

By Kelly James-Enger


You started the day off great. You worked out and had a healthy breakfast of high-fiber cereal, raspberries and skim milk. Lunch was a green salad, a grilled chicken sandwich and an apple. Mid-afternoon, you downed an energy bar to stave off your hunger pang … then you headed out to meet some friends for dinner at your favorite Mexican restaurant..

A few salty margaritas, bowlfuls of chips and cheesy enchiladas later, you realize you blew it. But if dining out is your biggest diet pitfall, you’re not alone. Whether it’s a quick fast-food sandwich, a meal in the cafeteria or a formal dinner, Americans love to eat out. We consume nearly 54 billion meals in restaurants and cafeterias every year, and on an average day four out of 10 of us eat at least one meal away from home.

Restaurants often feature high-fat, high-calorie choices, and their portions are growing in size along with Americans’ waistlines. A recent study found that portion sizes of foods like hamburgers and French fries are two to five times larger than their original sizes. And the average cookie sold in restaurants is 700 percent larger than the U.S.D.A.’s recommended serving size of half an ounce.

With the calorie-laden choices and overly large portions most restaurants feature, eating healthy while dining out may seem to be an oxymoron. But it needn’t be if you arm yourself with some smart eating strategies first.

Plan ahead

The good news is that even if you’re committed to a healthy diet, you can still eat out and enjoy it, says registered dietitian Roxanne Moore of Abbington, Md., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Eating out doesn’t have to mean you’re going to eat an excessive amount of calories or that it’s going to cause you to gain weight," says Moore. "There are tons of healthy options. You just need to know how to be a wise consumer."

First, consider the restaurant you’re choosing, says nutritionist Susan M. Kleiner, Ph.D., author of Power Eating, the Second Edition (Human Kinetics, 2001). That means you may want to skip the barbecue joint or casual restaurant that specializes in "bar food" in favor of a place where you’re likely to find more low-fat choices. "Try and select a restaurant that has options on the menu that are healthier," says Kleiner. "And try to avoid all-you-can-eat restaurants. You feel that you’re obligated to keep eating, and it’s often food that’s terrible for you. That goes for the all-you-can-eat brunches as well."

Second, make sure you’re not overly hungry when you head out the door. If you’re starving when you get to the restaurant, it will be harder to make healthy choices. Have a piece of fruit and a big glass of water before you leave so you don’t inhale the bread basket as soon as you get there.

Read first, eat smart.
If you’re dining at a sit-down restaurant, take a careful look at the menu before you order. Many restaurants offer "lite" choices that feature meals that are lower in fat. The next consideration is what types of foods are offered and how they’re prepared—even foods that start out healthy may not be good choices. For example, a broiled chicken breast is naturally low in fat, but if it’s breaded and served in a heavy sauce, it may not be the smartest choice. Pasta can be an excellent option if you get it with marinara sauce, but when it’s swimming in carbonara (a white sauce with bacon and peas) or Alfredo sauce, it’s loaded with fat.

In general, you’ll also want to avoid foods that are sautéed in butter or oil. Even "salads" like potato salad and macaroni salad tend to be high in fat because they’re mayonnaise-based. "Avoid things that are fried like mozzarella sticks and fried potato skins," says Moore. "A potato can be healthy and so can cheese, but when you start to fry things, that’s when the calories and saturated fat really start to rack up."

Pay attention to the way foods are described, says Kleiner. "Like `crispy’ usually means that it’s fried," she says. "There are a number of terms that mean something is fried. If you don’t understand, ask. Anything sauced and anything creamed are also ones to watch for [and avoid]."

So, what are smart choices? Clear, broth-based soups; shrimp cocktail; lean meats, poultry or fish that is braised, broiled, grilled or baked; and "au jus" sauces rather than gravies or cream sauces. Words like "broiled" or "stir fried" or "steamed" usually denote healthy choices.

Look for side dishes like vegetables, and ask if they can be steamed or grilled instead of sautéed in butter. Ask for a plain baked potato with butter served on the side rather than mashed potatoes that have cream and butter added. Request that salad dressings always be served on the side, and ask whether sauces and gravies can be left off of foods.
Implement portion control.

Even if you didn’t grow up with a mother who insisted that you clean your plate, it’s difficult not to overeat when you’re served enormous portions. What to do? "Number one, you can always ask your waitperson to give you half-portions," says Moore. "Some restaurants will let you buy a half-portion at half price or some will charge you an additional fee. If they don’t like to do this, you can offer to purchase the whole meal but have them pre-proportion the meal in the kitchen so they serve you a half portion. Then you can take the other half home in a doggy bag."

If the restaurant doesn’t offer half-portions, take care of it yourself. When the food arrives, simply divide in half (or thirds, if necessary) and plan on taking the leftovers home. Have your waitperson clear your plate as soon as you’re finished—it’s easy to keep eating another bite here and there after we’re no longer hungry.

Deli counters and drive-ups

Of course much of our eating out is on a "grab-and-go" basis whether it’s at a fast food restaurant or deli counter. The key to survival here is to not "supersize" your meal, even if you can get double the amount of food for a few pennies more. Go for normal portions, says Kleiner. For example, if you order a hamburger, small fries and a Diet Soda at McDonald’s®, you’ll consume 480 calories including 21.5 grams of fat. But opt for a Big Mac® and large fries instead, and you’ll take in a whopping 960 calories and 54 grams of fat!

At the deli, opt for low-fat meats like turkey or chicken breast, and avoid higher-fat meats like ham, pastrami and salami. Skip the cheese in favor of lots of vegetables like green peppers, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and pickles. Stuffing your sandwich with vegetables will help fill you up and boost your nutrient intake. Use mustard, ketchup or vinegar but skip the mayonnaise and oil. And if you want a bag of chips, buy the one-serving bag and choose low-fat chips or pretzels to save some fat grams.

Speak up!

If you’ve never asked questions about the way food is prepared or requested a special dish in a restaurant, you may be nervous the first couple times you do it. If you’re polite and friendly, though, you can have almost any request granted.

"For example, if the crab cakes are fried, ask if they can be baked or broiled instead," says Moore. "These are little things that restaurants can do that aren’t going to be labor intensive and aren’t going to drastically chane the menu." Or ask that a burrito be made to order, without the cheese and sour cream. Ask for your waitperson’s help—say, "I’d really like to get something light and healthy—what would you recommend?"

"Remember that you’re in control—you’re the customer, and the people who are waiting on you are there to serve you what you want. Very often you can order per your own wishes," says Kleiner. "Don’t feel you’re trapped to eating what everyone else is ordering. A good waitperson will not make you feel that way; they’re there to give you a good experience."

Finally, go easy on the alcohol—the calories add up quickly and you’re more likely to abandon your good eating intentions. Remember that eating out doesn’t give you carte blanche—it’s OK to splurge occasionally, but you can’t do it every time. Plan ahead, choose your options carefully and don’t be afraid to speak up, and you’ll find that eating out can enhance your diet rather than derailing it.

McDonald’s® and Big Mac are not registered trademarks of Abbott Laboratories

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