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Surely The Restaurant Has Something Healthy to Eat!

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Whether it’s once a week or a few times a year, we all enjoy getting out of the house and grabbing dinner at our favorite hole-in-the-wall café. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. The problem is most restaurant food is high in fat, salt, and calories. All the health-conscious food choices you made throughout the week can be obliterated with one burger, fries, and milk shake combo at a fast food chain.

Yet, you can’t swear off eating out unless you want to be a social hermit. You’ve probably had this dilemma before: it’s Friday night and you’ve been trying to eat healthy all week, but your friends invited you to join them for dinner at the greasiest spoon in town. What do you do? It would be rude to decline.

The solution isn’t to pass on hanging out with your friends; rather, it’s learning how to choose the healthiest options on the menu. Yes, it is possible to maintain a nutritious diet and eat out from time to time. You just have to know what to look for. In what follows, we’ll give you the information you need to find the healthiest choices on the menu.

Ordering Salads

The salad section is one of the trickiest areas of the menu. Looking for a healthy meal, many people go straight to the salads, thinking that everything there is nutritional. Yet, a quick check of the nutritional value of several salads at an upscale fast food restaurant showed that many of the salads on menu contained at least 500 calories and 35 grams of fat. That’s just as fattening as a large burger.

How can these leafy greens be so unhealthy? Unfortunately, the devil is in the details; the stuff that goes on the lettuce is what turns a healthy meal into an artery clogging health hazard. So when ordering a salad, pay attention to the trimmings that are included. For instance, fried chicken can bump the fat content up by 12 to 15 grams and ruin any chance of a low-fat meal. So if you want chicken on your salad, make sure it’s grilled, not fried.

You also have to watch out for dressings. Many salad dressings are loaded with oil or fatty cream. In fact, some dressings can add as much as 1,000 calories to your greens. A serving of ranch or caesar dressing can have up to 15 grams of fat. If the restaurant doesn’t have low fat dressing, then ask for a small cup of dressing on the side and only use a couple tablespoons worth.

Iceberg lettuce has almost no nutritional value, so order salads with a variety of greens like spinach, arugula and kale to up the vitamin and mineral content of your meal. You can also save calories by substituting walnuts or almonds for bacon bits and croutons. Above all, look for salads loaded with vegetables and fruits.

Entrees

When ordering the main course, there are few simple rules that will help you stay clear of overly fatty foods. The first rule is to avoid fried foods at all costs. Frying food entails cooking the food in oil which increases its fat content. You put yourself at risk for high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes if you regularly intake fried food.

A Harvard University study of 14,355 teenagers discovered that kids who eat fried food 2 to 3 times a week consume 200 more calories a day than kids who don’t’ eat fried foods.1 So establish healthy eating habits for you and your kids by avoiding things like fried chicken and country fried steak when you go out to eat with your family. As a rule of thumb, look for food that is baked, grilled, or broiled.

Another way to reduce the fat content of your meal is simply to eat less. When you go out, you may feel obligated to eat your entire meal. But you need to know that a survey of 300 chefs revealed that portion sizes for most restaurant food is significantly larger than the portion sizes recommended by nutritionists.2 So if you don’t like to leave food on your plate, split a meal with your spouse or a friend; or order an appetizer instead of an entrée.

At Italian restaurants pastas can be a filling, low fat choice, if you know what to look for. Steer clear of pastas with butter or cream based sauces. Instead, look for whole grain pasta with a wine or tomato sauce.3 If you’re in the mood for pizza, avoid the “meat-lovers” option and go with a pizza with lots of veggies.

Fast Food

In a pew research poll, 41 percent of pollsters said they eat fast food at least once a week.4 Unfortunately, most items on a fast food menu are detrimental to your health. But due to the recent spate of media stories linking fast food with American’s obesity crisis, many fast food chains have begun to offer some healthy options on their menus.5

The most important thing is to resist the temptation to get a fat saturated hamburger or fried chicken sandwich with fries. As an alternative, opt for a grilled chicken sandwich or a salad with low fat dressing. And substitute a cup of fruit or a baked potato with a small amount of butter for fries. And instead of a milkshake or a piece of pie for desert, order orange juice or coffee.

The important thing to remember is that there are healthy options on most restaurant menus. If you stick with what you learned here, you won’t have to break your diet when you go out to eat. Just remember to pay attention to the little things, like toppings, dressings, and sauces and stick with grilled, baked, or broiled meats.

References

1MacMillan, A. (2006). Fried food, fatter kids. Prevention, 39.

2 Eating Out Without Pigging Out. (2008, February).TuftsUniversity Health & Nutrition Letter(25), p. 5. Retrieved August 27, 2011

3 Nutrition Services Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison. (2004). Tips for Healthy Eating Out.Madison: Nutrition Services Department UWH.

4 Eating More; Enjoying Less. (2011). Retrieved from PewResearchCenter Publications: pewresearch.org/pubs/?ChartID=94

5 Jibrin, J. (2004). Fast but not fattening. Prevention, 146-155.

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