Dining Out With A Healthy Conscience

In today’s increasingly health conscious society, many people are either on specific diets or are simply living a lifestyle that excludes or limits certain foods. But Americans also dine out about 4 times per week according to some estimates, and reconciling one’s specific diet with what’s on the menu can be somewhat tricky. Whether it’s trying to avoid gluten, dairy, sugar, saturated fat, or sodium, this is much easier said than done when someone besides you is preparing your food. But here are a few tips on how to avoid nutritional sinkholes when eating at a restaurant. We’ll take a restaurant dining perspective and look at appetizers, soups/salads, entrees, and desserts, but even if you’re just picking up a sandwich, burger, or burrito for lunch, many of the same principles will apply.

Ah, appetizers. Who doesn’t like a little crunchy fried food to start out a meal and wake up the palette? But that’s exactly the problem: many traditional appetizers like calamari are deep-fried. Deep frying itself isn’t a death sentence, especially if a healthy vegetable oil is used, but frying foods produces calorie-laden food no matter what. The deep-fried blooming onion, for instance, popular at many chain restaurants, is notoriously loaded with calories, many of which come from saturated and/or trans fats. When it comes to blooming onions and foods like it, know that you can easily eat a meal’s worth of calories before you’ve even settled into your seat. So if you do decide to get appetizers, especially fried ones, be conscious of portion control and keep in mind that more food is on its way.

Soups and salads are another easy calorie pitfall. Making good choices and knowing what goes into your food is especially important here. Soups like chowders, bisques, and other cream-based soups are going to be loaded with calories (many of which come from cholesterol-raising saturated fat). One cup of rich soup may have more calories than the entire rest of your meal. Is it worth it? Soups like minestrone and others without thick, heavy cream bases are a much better bet. And when it comes to salad, people often hear that word and assume healthy without further reflection. Don’t do that. The vegetables themselves are of course healthy (dark greens being healthier than lighter greens), but many added ingredients like bacon can add numerous calories. And when it comes to dressings, try and shoot for vinaigrettes (oil-based, low in saturated fat) instead of creamier dressings like ranch or blue cheese (higher in saturated fat).

On to the main course. First, realize that you’re at a restaurant and that anything you order will probably be somewhat high in calories. After all, the food has got to taste good. My advice here is to try and get your calories from healthy sources and avoid anything loaded with butter or cream (both very high in saturated fat). Maybe there are some healthy vegetables like spinach or asparagus on your dish. Maybe you’re ordering fish which at least gives you some heart-healthy omega-3’s to counteract all the saturated fat that you’re no doubt consuming as well. You could even do a lot worse than a nice big steak, which is at least loaded with protein, iron, and other nutrients. A char-grilled steak with potatoes and vegetables is probably a lot healthier than, say, a rich pasta dish with an alfredo or butter sauce. And if you’ve managed to skip the appetizer or cup of soup, you’ve afforded yourself that much more rope.

When it comes to dessert, you’re really up against it. If you can possibly skip dessert, you’ve just done yourself a huge favor no matter how unhealthy the rest of your meal was. Dessert, almost by definition, is full of “empty calories.” Very little healthy components are used, and most of the calories will come from deadly sugar and saturated fat. If you do get dessert, either try and make a healthy choice like sorbet or do your best to practice portion control. A few bites of something sweet and rich to end a meal should satisfy your sweet tooth. Like with many things in life, and especially when it comes to dessert, less is more.

Overall, know that if you’re eating out in the first place that you’re probably not eating the healthiest possible meal. But being conscious of what you’re ordering, avoiding calorie-laden ingredients (cheese, butter, sour cream, mayonnaise, cream, etc), ordering food with at least some healthy ingredients (vegetables, whole grains, proteins, vegetables oils), and working on portion control can help you make the most and the healthiest of your dining-out experience. Especially if you dine out frequently, learning how to do so with at least one eye on health consciousness will go a long way toward making you a healthier and happier person.

Article Courtesy:  Andrew Steingrube

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