I love going out to restaurants. The whole ambiance is delightful. I enjoy the solicitude of the staff, watching the people and simply taking a quiet hour or two to relax and enjoy good food. There are times when I go out and choose healthfully, and there are other times I enjoy a good splurge and overindulge — either choice is perfectly normal.
For me, eating out is a special occasion. For millions of Americans, however, it’s a way of life. I know more than a few people who eat out all three meals five, six, even seven days a week. That’s when restaurant food can present appreciable health problems.
Let’s face it: one reason the dishes we get in restaurants are so delicious is that they’re swimming in richness, and chefs choose their ingredients and cooking methods for their effects on the palate, not for their health properties or low-calorie contents. An occasional splurge won’t do any lasting damage. But indulging — or, to be frank, overindulging — on a regular basis will add some serious weight to your frame if you aren’t careful.
If you eat out frequently, I recommend some basics. Before you go, or even decide on a restaurant, look at the restaurant’s Web site and menu so you know what to expect, and make a note of some of the courses you think would be tasty yet healthy. This way, you’re not so tempted by the sights and smells of the fattening foods you’ll inevitably be surrounded by once you get there.
Second, if you have read about the restaurant and chef, then you may have some idea of how heavy-handed the chef is with butter or other fattening ingredients, or whether the restaurant serves a sole diner a portion that could feed four. But if the place is new to you then look around for clues. Take a walk to the restrooms and look at the food on other diners’ plates. How big are the servings? Are the meats, veggies, pastas swimming in sauce? What do you smell? Don’t be afraid to ask the wait staff for help. Finally, it is okay to ask for a take-home bag if the serving size is too much.
Set some priorities. Suppose, for example, you’ve booked four meals out this week. You certainly won’t lose weight, and you may even gain weight, if you eat with abandon each time. What you can do, however, is decide in advance that one of those nights is going to be your “splurge night.” Order anything you want. Enjoy every bite. Savor each and every one of those special calories. On the other three nights, order more carefully. You’ll still enjoy the experience of dining out, but you won’t take in more calories than your poor body can handle. In my book, “Diet Simple,” I call this strategy “The 25 Percent Blowout.”
Some diet plans and nutrition fanatics forbid, or at least discourage, eating at restaurants and enjoying yourself with abandon at all. I disagree. My approach is designed to help you enjoy your meals — enjoy life, for that matter — and feel satisfied while maintaining a healthy weight. Eating out with friends or family is a wonderful experience. No eating plan has a chance to last if it’s not enjoyable. What I do advise is eating (and ordering) smart. By all means, enjoy your meals away from home — but take a few simple steps to keep the calories under control.
To give you some perspective, the average woman should eat about 1,800 to 2000 calories daily to maintain her weight (1,500 to 1,800 to lose weight). The average man, about 2,200 to 2400 (1,800 to 2,100 to lose weight). But a person’s calorie needs can vary widely depending on his/her height, weight, age and degree of fitness and activity level.
I find people feel best and avoid blood sugar and appetite highs and lows with their accompanying cravings when they eat 1/3 of their day’s calories in the morning, 1/3 mid-day and no more than 1/3 of their days’ calories in the evenings. So, for the gals, that means your meals should be no more than about 500 to 600 calories, but if you prefer to have more food at dinner — my recommendation would be 800 at the most for a dinner out. For the guys, meals should be no more than 750 calories — or 900 max for dinner out. These rules aren’t carved in stone, but they’ll give you some context when I give you recommendations or you go to a restaurant’s Web site to view the calorie content of some of their offerings.
As an example, the beauty of traditional Italian cooking is its simplicity: Italians have a no-fuss approach to cooking so their extraordinary ingredients shine. A little olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe an herb or two, and voila — a light, healthy masterpiece! But for this magic to happen, the freshness of the basic ingredients is vital. Italians (in Italy) have access to the most delicious produce, nuts, grains, olive oil, pasta, cheese and seafood in the world, often because they still get it from their own backyards, the neighborhood farm or the fisherman nearby. This freshness and high quality is why simplicity works — no complex cooking styles or sauces are necessary, which keeps calories down and health up, especially because serving sizes traditionally are small.
But this is where real Italian cooking and most American Italian restaurants part ways. Most Americans expect a lot of food on the plate for their money. We call it “value.” But when restaurants are expected to serve such huge amounts of food for low prices, the quality of the ingredients suffer, chefs resort to fattier methods of cooking and gooier sauces are used to compensate. This is one reason why Americans who regularly eat in restaurants are fatter, according to research. In fact, one study found if a person ate in a restaurant 12 times or more per month, they were eating 20 percent more calories. That can pack on the pounds very quickly!
This is not to say it’s impossible to eat healthy in a restaurant. You just have to go in with your eyes wide open. Of course, in any restaurant the no-brainer healthy selection is a salad-like appetizer, a simple seafood preparation such as grilled fish and fruit for dessert.
But when in Rome, we want to do what the Romans do. Eat pasta. Drink wine. Linger over several courses of beautiful food.
You don’t need to be disappointed — just alert and careful. Italians do interesting things with vegetables and seafood (try mussels and clams cooked in broth, or raw bar style). The beef or seafood carpaccios are excellent light and tasty choices. And always check the side-dishes and appetizers. Small servings of pastas that involve vegetables and light sauces are perfect alternatives. Of course, if we ate more Italian-sized portions and preparations, we’d be fine.
Katherine Tallmadge, M.A., R.D., a nutrition expert for over 20 years, will customize an easy and enjoyable nutrition, weight loss, athletic or medical nutrition therapy program for you, your family or your company. She is the author of “Diet Simple: 192 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations” and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Visit www.katherinetallmadge.com or call 202-833-0353.