Dining out smart


The Fitness Doctor

Anyone can maintain a reasonably healthy diet at home if they are careful about the food they buy, prepare dishes properly and eat what they prepare in reasonable portions. Control often disappears, however, when someone else is doing the cooking, or takeout is the order of the day. I regularly have clients with poor eating habits and weight problems shrug and say: "I eat out a lot. What can I do?"

This is a valid question. If you live in or near a major city, you probably have access to restaurants serving cuisine from the world over. This includes Mexican, Italian, Continental, French, Chinese, Thai, fusion and of course Japanese. Convenience stores and takeout places are everywhere, too. While plenty of healthy dining options exist, there are lots of unhealthy ones tempting us.

With that in mind, I'd like to offer a few guidelines to help you make sensible menu choices when dining out. Stick within these boundaries, don't eat to excess and you should be fine nutritionally.

First, not all fats are born equal. The unhealthy, saturated kind comes in great quantities in red meat and cheese. Be wary of shabu shabu, sukiyaki, duck, sausages, ham, bacon, katsudon and tempura, too. They are both high in saturated fat and full of cholesterol. Eating shabu shabu, sukiyaki and steak every few weeks is okay, but I strongly suggest avoiding the rest.

The same goes for the breading, sauces and oils many restaurants use. Olive oil and rapeseed oil, for instance, are high in monounsaturated fats and considered the healthiest type of general fat. They are better for cooking, with none of the adverse effects associated with saturated fats, trans-fats or omega-6 polyunsaturated vegetable oils. The heavy consumption of olive oil in Mediterranean countries is considered one reason the levels of heart disease there are lower.

Like polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats provide essential fatty acids for healthy skin and the development of body cells. They are typically high in vitamin E, the anti-oxidant vitamin, and are believed to offer protection against certain cancers. Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, if not overheated, also provides phytochemicals and phenols that boost the body's immune system.

You should also consume lean protein at every meal. This slows gastric emptying and causes the pancreas to release insulin slowly and steadily, preventing mood swings and excess fat buildup. Skinless chicken, turkey and most kinds of fish are good lean protein sources, as are soy products such as tofu, fresh or frozen soybeans, soy butter, and soy nuts.

Timing is another key. After 2 p.m., your body doesn't require starchy or complex carbohydrates like those in potatoes, rice and pasta. These carbs easily convert to fat, and you already have enough body fat stored to fuel you for the rest of your day. Learn to eat to burn fat, not store it.

Making that menu work in your favor

Dining out smart ?
Dining out smart ?

Try this strategy: Imagine that your plate is divided into thirds. One third should be a low-fat protein source. Another third should be a carbohydrate (like pasta or rice) and the final third a vegetable (such as steamed broccoli). If you order a salad, get one loaded with "nutrient-dense" vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, cauliflower and peppers. I replace lettuce with cabbage because it provides better roughage. Tomatoes are also great, reportedly having up to 13,000 phytochemicals - naturally occurring chemical components that are the intense focus of scientific research on the prevention or treatment of chronic diseases. These foods are at their maximum potency when eaten raw. I also suggest using olive oil and vinegar or other non-oil dressing.

A dry piece of fish or chicken can be rather unappealing, but you can top it with all kinds of healthy things. If you're eating Continental, for example, try smothering your fish with diced onions and tomatoes, which make it juicy and tasty. If you like Mexican, cover your chicken, fish or shrimp with picante, salsa or guacamole (avocadoes contain mono-unsaturated fat). Pineapple is another great alternative.

If it's Chinese food you crave, some steamed vegetables and chicken or shrimp over rice with chili pepper oil on top will heat your tongue but satisfy your palate. Light soy or teriyaki sauces are great options. If you lean toward Italian, try baked fish or chicken covered in tomato sauce with a side dish of spinach pasta topped with diced tomatoes and a touch of olive oil. Putting ketchup on a baked potato instead of butter or sour cream will make it taste like a big French fry and save you from all that fat.

Behavioral experts say it takes 21 days to develop a good habit. Here's an excellent one to cultivate. Since your body doesn't require all those carbohydrates after 2 p.m., skip starchy dishes like pasta, potatoes or rice if you plan to have dessert or wine for dinner. Instead, top your protein source with something delicious and have some steamed vegetables, a dinner salad and that dessert or wine you're craving. This avoids the double whammy of sugar before bedtime.

Another thing: If you need to get lean, drop bread. Most store-bought wheat and white bread has no real nutritional value, but does have a glycemic index rating of 100 - the same as pure table sugar! Excess insulin in the bloodstream converts easily to body fat. This also eliminates the butter, jams and other toppings we tend to slather on that add saturated fat calories. I've worked with hundreds of overweight clients, and the ones who dropped bread started shedding fat and lessened their water retention, too.

So unless you find some great multigrain bread loaded with fiber and void of excess salt, preservatives and white flour leave bread off your plate. Cut way down on oil and butter, too, and be sure to emphasize your preferences when you order at a restaurant.

When you dine out, always ask your server to make sure your meal is prepared the way you want it. If you find a good server, treat them well, tip them if possible, and remember their names (or write them down and keep them handy). Over time, you'll end up with a list of helpful folks who know you and your eating habits well, making dining out much easier. For example, I can walk into at least five restaurants in Tokyo and just sit down. I don't have to order - they know what I want and how to prepare it.

Bon appetit!
Jeff Libengood,
The Fitness Doctor

Discuss this Article

Be the first to discuss this article

You have to be logged in to participate in the article discussions