Selecting Restaurants while Trying to Lose Weight
Blowing Your Diet Doesn't Have to be On the Menu
In my review of Eat This, Not That! , I noted that ordering food in a restaurant can be a dietary disaster. Restaurants need to satisfy customers while making a profit, and frequently use sugar, various breadings, and fats to make their food taste good. The result is oversized portions of calorie-laden food, served at prices that encourage customers to make eating out a habit, not a treat.
The best way to ensure that food meets your dietary needs is to make it yourself. Can't cook? You can learn! Many grocery stores and gourmet markets host free cooking classes, and some professional cooking schools teach classes (for about the cost of a nice restaurant meal) to home cooks. When you do go out to eat, figure out a dietary strategy that allows you to enjoy your food while maintaining healthy eating habits.
Pick the Right Restaurant
There are few things more frustrating than showing up at a restaurant and learning that there is little on the menu that's compatible with your diet. Doing some online research, and even calling the place before your visit, can help insure that your meal is both healthy and enjoyable.
1. Is the restaurant flexible about special requests and substitutions?
Some restaurants refuse to make adjustments in cooking methods or side dishes. Find out their policy before making a visit.
2. Does the restaurant menu include a number of selections that will meet your dietary needs?
Part of the fun of eating out is being able to pick and choose from a number of tasty dishes. If you are on a low carb diet, don't go to a restaurant that specializes in battered and deep fried foods. Yes, you could have a salad, but why not go to a restaurant that offers you plenty of choices?
3. What are the portion sizes like?
If you are still learning to control your portion sizes, you might want to pick out a restaurant that offers smaller portions (tapas bars can be a good option), a buffet restaurant (which will let you select as much or as little as you want of a dish), or a place that has a number of good sides and starters which you can eat instead of an entrée.
4. Question assumptions about the relative healthiness of certain cuisines
Many people assume that Asian food is inherently "healthier" than western food. But as the authors of Eat This, Not That!, point out, the average entrée at a Chinese restaurant (in America) contains over 1000 calories. Many Chinese restaurants cook with a significant amount of oil, white rice is surprisingly high in calories and low in nutritional value, and battered/deep fried foods, sticky sweet sauces and heavy gravies are commonplace. Yes, there are low-calorie, nutritious items available in Asian restaurants, but the same is also true of your local corner diner.
5. Do Your Research
If a restaurant doesn't provide nutritional information, a free calorie counter such as Fitday.com can be used to estimate the calories in your favorite dishes.
Incidentally, chain restaurants are more likely than independently owned eateries to provide nutritional information on their websites. Look this information up before choosing a restaurant, then take a printed copy to the restaurant to guide you through the menu. If you are very concerned with calorie/fat/carb counts, you might want to only patronize restaurants that can provide this information.
Beware the Menu
Menus are written to sell food, not to educate consumers on its nutritional content. If you want to avoid ingesting more calories than you've bargained for, be on your guard against clever ad copy.
When reading a menu, keep these principles in mind:
1. Labels can Lie: If a restaurant touts itself as specializing in "healthy" or "natural" food, you need to be especially wary. The very fact that a restaurant brands itself as healthy may lull you into not counting calories. Secondly, while a restaurant may well serve food made from organic ingredients, this doesn't mean that the food isn't high in calories or carbs.
2. Don't Rely on Menu Descriptions: Be careful of choosing a food based on cooking method. Just because an item is described as "broiled", "baked", "grilled" or "steamed" does not mean that the cook isn't adding fat to the dish. A "fat free" or "low fat" sauce or salad dressing may be packed with sugar. In both cases, you will be consuming more calories than you realize.
3. "Vegetarian" Doesn't Equal "Low-Calorie": Don't assume that vegetarian options are less fattening. Veggie burgers can be just as high in calories as the real thing.
4. Beware the Virtuous Oil: Vegetable oils are actually higher in calories, tablespoon for tablespoon, than butter and lard. Just because a restaurant boasts of using vegetable oil in cooking does not mean that its food is lower in calories.
5. Image Isn't Everything: A side dish of plain steamed rice sounds healthy, until you consider that a cup of cooked white rice has 242 calories, while a medium baked potato has only 132 (plus a lot more vitamins and minerals). Don't let a food's image con you into thinking that it is healthier or less fattening than a stodgier alternative.
6. Reconsider Fat Grams: Fat adds flavor to food and makes it tastier. Think about what you are ordering: If a food requires a lot of fat in cooking and/or extra sauces to make it interesting, why not choose a slightly more caloric, but decidedly tastier, item that doesn't need extra condiments?
Think about it: Four ounces of skinless, boneless, chicken thigh meat has only 49 more calories (you can burn this off during a 10 minute walk) than 4 ounces of skinless, boneless, chicken breast. Yet the chicken thigh is far more moist and flavorful and doesn't need mayo or other sauces to make it taste good.
7. Rabbit Food Isn't Always Good For You: Salads aren't always health food. The ubiquitous iceberg lettuce, for example, has little nutritional value. Top it with "crispy" (i.e. battered and deep fried) chicken breast, slather it with Caesar dressing, and you have a 700+ calorie lunch.
At the Restaurant
1. Beware pre-meal eating and drinking.
A drink in the lounge before your meal can be pleasant, but cocktails and bar snacks significantly raise the calorie count of your meal.
2. If you are very hungry, consider a low-calorie starter before making your entrée selection.
A cup of broth-based soup, a side salad with a light vinaigrette, a shrimp cocktail, or another small, low-calorie dish can ease your hunger so that you select both a sensible entrée and don’t end up raiding the bread basket.
3. Be careful of ordering several “healthy” courses and sides.
While, salads, veggies, fruits, fish, and other “healthy” foods are great choices, a meal made up of several items pushes your calorie count into the stratosphere. Instead of eating a lot of “healthy” dishes, pick one truly delicious entrée and enjoy it fully.
4. Portions, portions, portions.
If a restaurant’s portions are huge, you have a couple of options. You can ask your server to box up half your meal before they bring it to your table or you can portion out your meal yourself. (If you make an extra meal out of your leftovers, you'll also save money.)
Another possibility is to split your main entrée with someone else.
A third option is to order a starter or a side dish as your entrée.
5. Be careful about drinking your calories.
Juices, soft drinks, wine, beer, and hard liquor all have calories, and it is very easy to overdo. Plus, drinking alcohol during your meal inhibits your judgement about what, and how much, you eat.
6. Do you really need dessert?
If a restaurant has excellent desserts, there is no reason why you shouldn't indulge (providing that you have made plans to be conservative with sweets for the rest of the week). But if the only offerings are ordinary ice cream and substandard chocolate cake, why bother?
- Making Sense of Portion Sizes
Most people don't know how to "eyeball" a portion of food to determine how many calories they are getting. This article will show you how you can overcome "portion distortion".
Free, and very comprehensive, calorie calculator.
- Restaurant Calories: Extreme Eating
Article about high calorie counts in many restaurant menu items.