You can eat healthy at fast food restaurants? Apparently so says fitness and nutrition expert Bob Greene. His latest book “Get With the Program!, Guide to Fast Food and Family Restaurants,” outlines what food choices you can make to help keep that slim waistline. Here's an excerpt:
The Art of Healthful Restaurant Dining
One measure of a successful dining experience is that the patron leaves feeling good about the restaurant. My measure of a successful experience is a little different. I want you to leave a restaurant feeling good about yourself. By that I mean that you were able to get a meal that satisfied both your senses and your sense of commitment to leading a healthier life. Ideally, you should never have to leave a restaurant feeling as though you had to compromise your well-being. This becomes much easier if you chose a place that offers quite a few good options.
I'm going to tell you more about how to find restaurants that make it easier to eat healthfully, but first I think it's important to recap just what it is that constitutes good eating. My philosophy is that it takes more than just a good working knowledge of nutrition to change your eating habits for life and lose weight for good. You need to walk before you can run! That's why in the first book in this series, Get With the Program, I covered the initial steps that I've found help people get on track to a slimmer, healthier body: making a commitment to yourself, becoming stronger and healthier through exercise, and getting a grip on emotional eating. The second book, The Get With the Program! Guide to Good Eating, is aimed at helping you decipher the glut of nutrition information out there so you can choose good-quality food in reasonable quantities -- the key to healthful eating and weight loss.
Now I want you to get a handle on restaurant dining. I hope that at this point, whether you have read the other books or not, you already have a pretty good grasp on the components of a healthy diet. Let's review the basics as they apply to restaurant food.
What Defines a "Good" Restaurant Meal?
The best restaurant meals have the same (or close to the same) healthful qualities your home-prepared meals have. Here are six attributes to keep in mind before you order.
A moderate number of calories. "Moderation" can be an infuriating word. Nutritionists use it all the time, the government advises it, and still nobody really knows what it means. My definition of a moderate-calorie meal is a meal that leaves you neither stuffed nor feeling super hungry. But it's also important to look at your meals in the larger context of your daily calorie intake.
As you probably already know, to lose weight, you must expend more calories than you consume. It's that simple. But you personally are more complex than a simple equation. You have a certain frame size, your own specific metabolism, a particular amount of activity that you do each day, and your own individual goals. For that reason I can't tell you the exact number of calories you should be taking in. What I can tell you is that a good way to judge your calorie needs is to pay attention to your body and its requirements.
First, are you eating enough to satisfy your nutritional needs? You want to get enough carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals to keep you healthy. That's of number one importance (and something that many weight-loss plans don't take into account). Second, are you gaining weight, losing weight, or staying the same? That's an obvious indication of whether you're eating too much or too little. Third, how hungry do you feel? If you're trying to maintain your weight, you should eat when you're truly physically hungry and stop before you feel stuffed or are no longer physically hungry. If you want to lose fat, you should stop when you feel as though you'd still like to eat a little at the end of a meal -- but just a little. That feeling is your body warning you that it's going to dip into your fat stores, which is exactly what you want to happen.
I think it's healthier to proportion your calories relatively equally throughout the day rather than eating (as many people do) a tiny breakfast, a good-size lunch, and the big traditional American dinner. Ideally, it's best if you can even consume more of your calories in the earlier part of the day; however, no one meal should be overly large -- that can trigger an unhealthy insulin surge (more on this in a moment). If you eat a moderately sized breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus one or two small snacks during the day, you'll be on the right track. (Remember, of course, that if you want to lose weight, the total calories of your meals will need to be lower than the number of calories you burn during the day.)
Over the years, most people have gotten used to the idea of having their largest meal at dinnertime, but there are several reasons not to follow that tradition. You see, each time you eat, your body responds by increasing your metabolism. But your metabolism also has a natural arc to it, which appears to decline as it gets closer to bedtime. By the time you're asleep, it'll have nearly shut down, which may be why the food you eat in the evening doesn't increase your calorie-burning ability as much as the food you eat earlier in the day. Your body, once it's settled into its resting mode, doesn't want to get revved up again.
Another reason it's important to distribute your calories carefully is the fact that eating the majority of your calories at one meal can create an insulin spike, causing your body to store fat. When you take in a high dose of calories -- and, in particular, carbohydrate calories -- your pancreas gets the message to pump out more insulin than is ideal. Insulin is responsible for moving glucose (blood sugar) out of the bloodstream and into the body's tissues; large amounts of insulin increase the likelihood that the glucose will be stored as fat. An insulin spike caused by a big meal will encourage your body to tuck away more fat -- no matter when that oversize meal occurs. If, however, you spread your calories out over many hours, your insulin will stay at a reasonable level and your body will be less likely to hoard fat.
While you should always aim to have a moderate-calorie meal -- whether that means ordering sensibly or wrapping up half of a big meal and taking it home -- there will be times when you end up eating a restaurant meal higher in calories than you'd like. Just keep things in perspective, it's eating supersize dinners consistently that's going to be detrimental to your health. Just pare down your next meal (or meals) a bit or be a little more active the next day to get back on an even keel. You can even take action immediately after eating. If time allows, grab your dining companion and go for a postmeal walk.
Appropriate portion sizes. It will be a lot easier to keep your calories in check if the meals you order are reasonably proportioned. Here is what a healthy "serving" looks like:
A serving of rice (and other grains), pasta, or potatoes is equal to 1/2 cup -- which looks like half a tennis ball. A one-serving baked potato can fit in the palm of your hand. (A lot of restaurant baked potatoes are giant-sized!)
A serving of meat, fish, or poultry weighs 3 to 4 ounces and looks the size of a deck of cards or a computer mouse. (Anything in excess of that, set aside to take home.)
A serving of cheese is 1 ounce, about the size of your thumb.
A serving of cooked vegetables is 1/2 cup, 1 cup for fresh greens. I wouldn't worry about the portion size of vegetables as long as you're eating them without added fats. A serving of fruit is 1/2 cup -- again, half a tennis ball.
A serving of dairy is 1 cup, the size of a full tennis ball.
A good balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrate. To be healthy, a meal needn't have an ideal percentage of each nutrient -- what's important is that you get a good balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrate throughout the day. If one meal is short on protein, for example, you can always make up for it later. But I also think that the best-case scenario is to eat a meal that combines the three main nutrients in reasonable proportions. What's reasonable? It's hard to say specifically. Each of us has genetic differences and different levels of activity that influence our metabolic rates and, by extension, our dietary needs.
That said, there are some safe percentages of fat, carbohydrate, and protein that you can start with, then tweak as necessary. I suggest you begin by breaking down your total number of calories in this way: 50 to 55 percent carbohydrates, 25 to 30 percent fat, and 15 to 20 percent protein. See how these proportions work for you -- and by that I mean how they make you feel, how much energy they give you, and how well they're helping you accomplish your goal of attaining or maintaining a healthy weight -- then adjust and readjust as necessary. In general, the more active you are, the more carbohydrates you can handle.
In regard to an individual meal, consider that fat, protein, and carbohydrate complement one another, which is why the best meal has a combination of all three. Fat and protein, for instance, slow the digestion of carbohydrate; they keep your blood sugar from rising too quickly and causing a corresponding surge in insulin. Having some fat and protein on the plate will also keep you from getting hungry again too quickly, helping to control your appetite and keep you from excess snacking. Fat also makes food more palatable; it tastes good and makes you feel as though you've eaten a "real" meal.
Carbohydrates also have an important place on the plate. For one thing, they generally come with important nutrients, including fiber (more on fiber in a minute), and they also have an effect on how satisfying you find a meal. One of the reasons many people end up going off low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets (and gaining back the weight they lost) is that they miss the taste and texture of carbs.
Just as the calorie count of your restaurant meal may not end up being perfect, its breakdown may not end up being ideal either. But this doesn't have to be a problem; you can balance out your intake on other meals or snacks later.
Reasonable amounts of healthy fats and an absence of unhealthy fats. Contrary to what the whole fat-free boom has led us to believe, fats are an important part of the diet. That is, healthy fats are an important part of the diet. The difference between olive oil and margarine is a big one.
A healthy fat is a fat that decreases the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL ("bad") cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Some healthy fats also raise the level of HDL ("good") cholesterol in the blood, helping to keep the arteries free and clear. An unhealthy fat, on the other hand, raises LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and can even lower HDL levels.
The healthiest fats are olive and canola oils. Both of these have a large percentage of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. (Almond, sunflower, avocado and peanut oils, peanut butter, cashews, walnuts, and almonds are all also high in monounsaturates.) Another class of vegetable oils are the polyunsaturated fats. These include corn, soybean, safflower, and fish oils. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids, found in high-fat fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel) and flaxseed, also have a number of health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and possibly other inflammatory conditions.
There are basically two types of unhealthy fats: saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats are those found in animal foods such as whole-milk dairy products and red meat. Coconut milk, coconut oil, and palm oil also contain saturated fat. (However, their positive and negative effects on our health are being debated.) Trans fats are generally vegetable oils that have been put through a process called hydrogenation in order to make them solid or semisolid. They're found in most margarines and shortenings and, because they're often used for frying, are abundant in fast foods. They have a long shelf life, so they're also found in a lot of processed foods such as snack crackers and cookies. Researchers now believe that trans fats are even worse for you than saturated fats. There is, for instance, some solid evidence that trans fats raise bad LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while lowering good HDL cholesterol levels. They may also increase the risk of blood clots.
It's often difficult to tell what kind of fats are used to make a restaurant meal, but it doesn't hurt to ask. Many restaurants make a point of using olive and/or canola oil and, if they don't advertise it on the menu already, will be happy to tell you so. Many fast-food restaurants also now list the ingredients, including the fats, on their Web sites, and some even include the exact number of grams of trans and saturated fats found in individual menu items. A few even list the trans fat content of their food, something you will be probably be seeing more of soon. The government has mandated that food manufacturers list trans fat content by 2006, and one can hope that restaurants will follow suit.
Whether or not trans and saturated fat contents are listed on a restaurant's nutritional information page, there are some obvious red flags you can look for. If an entrée is covered with cheese, drowning in a cream sauce or butter, or topped with bacon bits, you can bet it's high in saturated fat. Trans fats are not as easy to detect, but you can ask if a dish is made with margarine and watch out for anything fried.
Occasionally, in the guide to specific restaurants that begins on page 52, you'll see that I recommend ordering a fat-free salad dressing or other fat-free food. This isn't because I think you need to keep your diet fat free. As I've said, reasonable amounts of healthy fats are an important part of the diet. But restaurants generally add fat to food in so many places that I think the more you can do to keep your meal moderately lean, the better. Fats, even good fats, are high in calories, so it's important to keep them in check. Whenever you can get a cook to prepare your food with minimal added fat, do so. Chefs want their food to taste good, so they generally make liberal use of oils and butters unless directed otherwise. A gentle reminder that you're perfectly willing to forgo all that fat will generally help.
Fiber and phytochemicals. Fiber plays a significant role in keeping the body healthy, and it can be a great ally in weight loss. It aids in removing waste products from the body, slows down digestion, and provides volume to help satisfy your hunger. Some of the best sources of fiber are whole grains, but sadly, beyond a few health food and macrobiotic eateries, most restaurants do not serve them. If a restaurant does, take advantage of it: order the whole-grain toast, the brown rice, the oatmeal or All-Bran; whole grains also have other important nutrients besides fiber, such as antioxidants, that may help guard against disease.
If you're at a restaurant that doesn't offer whole grain foods, fruits and vegetables are another good source of fiber. A stir-fry or a fruit salad can help you bulk up your diet, as can ordering several sides of vegetables with your entrée. Getting a liberal amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet will also help you increase your intake of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds made by plants that have a beneficial effect on the body. Scientists are only beginning to scratch the surface of the usefulness of these compounds, but they do know that the more phytochemical-rich fruits and vegetables we get in our diets, the lower our risk of disease. A general rule of thumb is that the more brightly colored the fruit or vegetable, the more phytochemicals it contains, so choose a colorful meal.
Lean protein. We all need protein. It provides the basis for building, maintaining, and repairing body tissues -- something, especially as an active person, you cannot do without. Protein also helps you burn calories, and in fact it precipitates a bigger thermic effect -- a surge in calorie burning triggered by eating -- than any other nutrient. You may have been led to believe that you need to eat heaps of protein, but that isn't the case. If you eat protein to the exclusion of carbohydrates and fat, your body will break down your muscles for energy, limiting the amount of calories you burn (muscle requires a lot of energy to maintain, and the more you have of it, the more calories you burn, even at rest).
Making 15 to 20 percent of your total calories protein foods is adequate, but it's also critical to make sure that you choose the right protein foods. Animal sources of protein tend to go hand in hand with saturated fat, but lean sources have only minimal amounts. I'm not saying you shouldn't eat red meat, but I think you'll find that restaurants tend to use fattier cuts (they're more tender), so you're better off sticking to fish and other seafood, egg whites (a few egg yolks a week are okay if you do not have elevated cholesterol), white-meat poultry, and lean cuts of pork. If you do order red meat, ask for the dishes that use leaner cuts, such as sirloin and round, and trim any obvious fat off yourself.
You can also, of course, get protein through nonanimal sources, such as nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy products, and soy products such as tofu. If a restaurant serves soy patties (for example, Boca Burgers) or tofu, take advantage of them. Just be certain you know how they're prepared. Tofu, especially at Asian restaurants, is often served fried. Whole-milk dairy products, of course, also contain a lot of fat (and it's saturated fat), so stick with nonfat or low-fat options.
Minimally processed ingredients. In an ideal world, every dish you order at a restaurant would be made from fresh food, with no preservatives, chemicals, or ridiculous amounts of added sugars and salt. In the real world, restaurants often use processed products -- higher-end places less so, but less expensive restaurants usually depend on them to keep their prices down. Keep a watchful eye. Whenever possible, order dishes made "fresh" on the premises, such as salads, homemade soups, and vegetable sides.
Drinks without added sugar or chemicals. One thing that every restaurant has is water, your top drink choice. Those of you who have read my previous books know that I am a fierce advocate of drinking lots of water throughout the day -- a minimum of six eight-ounce glasses a day and preferably more like nine. Here's why: Being dehydrated diminishes the body's ability to perform virtually every physiological function, including fat metabolism. Dehydration also makes your body go in search of water, but somewhere along the way it gets interpreted as hunger -- a phenomenon I call "artificial hunger" -- and causes you to end up eating more than you should. Dehydration also causes the digestive system to work at a diminished capacity, potentially preventing you from getting the nutrients you need and triggering unnecessary eating to make up for the shortfall.
So water is what you should drink. If you find water just too boring, consider the new flavored vitamin waters being served at some places. They have a touch of flavor and very few calories. What shouldn't you drink? Avoid sodas, which are really just sugar, water, and artificial flavor, and diet sodas, which are water and chemicals with little redeeming nutritional value. Juices -- at least some juices -- do offer many vitamins, but they are also highly caloric, so I suggest you limit your intake or order your juice cut in half with club soda (it will also halve the calories).
Chances are, you're going to eat more calories when dining out than you would at home; ordering a drink with a substantial number of calories will just bump up the number even more. And those beverage calories can really add up. For example, one 20-ounce soda has about 250 calories. If you get two refills, you've consumed 750 calories of nutrient-free soda, more calories than you probably want to consume for your entire meal! For similar calorie-related reasons (and others), alcohol is another drink I recommend you limit; I'll talk a little more about that in a later section.
The danger of ordering coffee at a restaurant is that it's often a bottomless cup -- get assigned a friendly waitress, and before you know it you've downed five cups! And if you take your coffee with cream and sugar, it won't only be excess caffeine you're getting. Many people don't even register the calories they get from adding cream (which also has saturated fat), most artificial creamers, and sugar to their coffee. Yet they can add up to quite a bit if you're drinking more than one cup.
If you're a regular coffee drinker, I recommend switching to decaf as often as possible, if not entirely. Likewise with tea. Most restaurants offer decaffeinated coffee, and many also offer herb or decaffeinated black teas. Consider ordering green tea. Although it has some caffeine, it also has phytochemicals, which researchers have found may protect against many diseases, including cancer. If you prefer iced tea but your dining spot doesn't offer any of the healthier variations, order hot herbal or green tea and a big cup of ice and make your own.
Before I go on, I just want to reiterate that it's not important that every meal you eat be perfect. You may find yourself in a restaurant where you just can't seem to find anything on the program to eat. Or you may find yourself in a restaurant on a day when you're feeling vulnerable or in the mood to indulge -- there are healthy things on the menu, but you just decide not to order them. Either way, you're going to be fine. It takes 3,500 calories to gain a pound, and that's quite a bit more than one splurge.
What matters most is consistency. If you eat healthfully 90 percent of the time, those rare restaurant sprees aren't going to harm you. Just don't get caught up in thinking that you've blown it, so why not blow it some more? Enjoy yourself and recommit to the program at the next meal.
Restaurant Reconnaissance: Picking the Right Place Is Half the Battle
Convenience is often the reason people give for choosing a particular restaurant. Force of habit is another. But if those reasons have you tethered to a spot that doesn't really suit your needs, I hope you'll shake up your routine and find a better place (or places). The sure way to get a healthy meal when dining out is to go to a restaurant that pays attention to its customers' needs. The best places either have plenty of sensible choices on the menu or welcome special orders.
The guide at the back of this book will help you get a feel for which chains fit that criteria (and which don't), but to find out what independent eateries can offer you, you're going to have to do a little legwork. Here are the criteria you should use to find a "good" restaurant.
Does it offer several healthy entrées? Many restaurants position themselves as "splurgeterias" -- places where people are supposed to indulge. When that's the case, they usually don't bother putting anything low in fat and calories on the menu -- and, of course, that's their prerogative. Your prerogative is to dine somewhere else. To my mind, the best type of restaurant is one that has not just one or two but many healthy options on the menu. Don't get me wrong -- I'll take one or two; however, limited options can get boring. You're more likely to stray into the indulgent area of the menu if the nutritious side dishes are restricted to, say, one big salad with fat-free dressing or an egg-white omelet. So whenever possible, choose a restaurant that has varied low and moderate calorie choices.
Will they prepare food "your way"? The two words I hate to see on a restaurant menu are "No substitutions." I can understand why some fast-food restaurants live by that credo since it helps them get food out fast, as the label implies (although some of them don't get food out as fast as they'd have you believe). But even some fast-food joints are open to fulfilling special requests, and it seems to me that a place that makes food to order should be able to accommodate customers' (reasonable) demands. That said, many places are very obliging, and this is particularly true if you're a regular customer.
If it doesn't have a particularly healthy menu, does it at least have enough of a selection to allow you to cobble together a healthy meal? As I mentioned, there are restaurants that are meant for splurging and restaurants that stubbornly resist substitutions and other requests. Sometimes, if the menu is large enough, you can work around these limitations. It might be just a matter of ordering two first-course appetizers (such as soup and salad) instead of a first course and an oversized entrée. Perhaps you might order from the list of side dishes (a baked potato and a side of spinach or mixed vegetables). Such a meal might not always be perfect, but it's a good way to stay on the program in a pinch, and you can always make up for what you might be missing (in the case of the above examples, protein) at your next meal.
Now that I've given you my definition of the best kinds of restaurants, you'll need to go out and identify them. Say, for instance, there are several cafés and bistros near your workplace. Collect menus from all of them. See which of them have the most health-conscious offerings, then make it a point to patronize those restaurants. Knowing the menus of several restaurants will also help you steer colleagues and other business associates to the places that you know serve healthful dishes, rather than letting them steer you to places where you'll have a hard time finding anything you want to eat. The same goes for restaurants near your house. Do the research; you may find that some of them have better options than you expected.
Do some reconnaissance before you travel as well. This may be as simple as looking through guidebooks to find restaurants with healthy selections or, if necessary, making a few phone calls. If you'll be staying at a hotel with a concierge, phone ahead and ask for suggestions. He or she probably already knows a few places. The concierge or the restaurant you're interested in may even be able to fax you a menu at home before you leave. Or look on the Web; you may find everything there that you need to know.
If you're going on a road trip, the smartest thing you can do is pack your own food. But if that's not practical, find out what restaurants will be on the route you're traveling. If you know that, for instance, you can always find something healthy at Denny's, go to the Denny's Web site and check its restaurant locator to see if there's a branch on your travel route, then plan your stops accordingly. This might sound a little obsessive, but there is nothing worse than being stuck on the road and forced to eat at a place where the healthy pickings are slim. A little foresight can make a big difference.
Finally, become a menu collector. I have a special drawer at home devoted to a stash of menus from restaurants in my area. This not only helps me know what will be in store for me before I go but also gives me a chance to think about what I'm going to order. I find that it's often easier to make healthy choices if you don't have the pressure of the waitperson standing over you while you try to decide. Going in with your mind already made up about what you're going to have can also help you resist the kind of why-not-join-the-gang pressure when everyone else starts ordering fried calamari and cheese-drenched nachos.
Basic Strategies for Staying on the Program
To some extent, when you dine out you're always going to be somewhat at the mercy of the restaurants you go to. You can, though, can take certain aspects of restaurant dining into your own hands. Here are some tips.
• Stand your ground when it comes to choosing a restaurant.
Sometimes it's friends, sometimes it's family, sometimes it's business colleagues -- there are many people who may try to pressure you into eating at a place that you know is going to make it difficult for you to find something healthful to eat. If you can't persuade your dining partners to go to your top choice, at least find a compromise. Keep in mind, too, that there are other places to have business meetings and/or socialize beside restaurants. Meet for tea or a drink at a place where you can order something nonalcoholic. Go to the movies and out to a coffeehouse afterwards, rather than to the movies and dinner. In the summer suggest a picnic so that you can bring the food you want to eat, or consider entertaining at home so that you can make a healthy meal.
• Snack a little before you go out.
This is an old trick, but it works -- and not just for keeping your ordering under control at restaurants. It's also a great technique for ensuring that you don't overeat (or overdrink) at parties. The idea is this: When you arrive at a restaurant (or an event with food) feeling famished, you are going to want to attack the first plate of food you see. At a restaurant, that's usually the breadbasket, at a party the tray of appetizers. When you're hungry, your rumbling stomach is going to overrule your rational mind when it comes to ordering, leading you to order the steak with bleu cheese sauce; satiety will keep you cool, calm, and collected enough to order the grilled fish.
• Avoid the bar.
I don't believe that everyone needs to be a teetotaler to stay on the program. But I do believe that you're better off being an occasional drinker. Some wines and spirits contain antioxidants, but for the most part, alcohol calories are empty calories that you don't need. They offer you no fiber, vitamins, or minerals. If you're so inclined, have a drink or a glass of wine once in a while for pleasure, but don't make alcohol a regular part of your day.
Restaurants like to get you into the bar whenever possible. They make a lot of money off alcohol (even more than they make off food), so it's not surprising that the hostess will try to steer you to the bar while you wait for your table. If you do end up at the bar and you feel compelled to order something, ask for a juice spritzer (juice cut with carbonated water) or mineral water.
• Decline wine and other alcoholic drinks at the table.
As soon as you get to the table, your server will undoubtedly come around pushing more alcohol (servers always seem disappointed if you don't order wine). Resist the pressure. These days, servers in finer restaurants also generally try to push bottled mineral water. Water, is always good in my book, and if ordering a bottle will get you to drink more of it during your meal (water from the tap in some municipalities tastes awful), go for it. Sometimes just the idea that you've paid for it will induce you to drink it! Yes, restaurants tend to overcharge for mineral water, but you'll be much better off if you spend your money on water rather than on alcohol or soda.
• Ask your server not to bring the bread basket (or chips if you're in a Mexican restaurant). Even if you've vowed to have just a single piece of bread, you may find it hard to resist going for more, especially if you have to wait a long time for your meal. It's easier not to have the bread on the table. If your dining companions want bread, you can ask them to keep the basket away from your side of the table. You can also take a portion of bread or chips and then ask the server to remove the basket.
• Make your server your ally.
Your waiter or waitress is your conduit to the kitchen and key to getting what you want. Thus, the better your communication with your server, the better your meal will be. Learn and use your server's first name. Make eye contact, explain what you want, ask questions. If you're a regular at a restaurant and know you can count on a particular server to be receptive to your needs, request to be put in his or her section. You want to have the person who'll make sure your salad dressing comes on the side and that your toast is dry, not slathered in butter.
• Look at the ingredients, not just the dishes listed on a menu.
What you see on the menu is not all that you can get. If, for instance, a restaurant offers omelettes, it can probably also make you an egg-white omelette. If pasta with broccoli is an entrée, it can probably also bring you a side of broccoli with your chicken. You'll find that some menus are written in stone, but most restaurants will allow you some leeway -- they want you to leave happy. It certainly doesn't hurt to ask. If they say no, just be gracious -- and then cross that restaurant off your list of accommodating places.
• Order small portions.
This might seem like a tall order, given the fact that the portion sizes in restaurants these days border on the obscene. You can often get around this by splitting a meal with your dining partner or having your server wrap up half of your meal so you can take it home. Sometimes restaurants charge a split fee, which I admit is annoying. But you'll be doing yourself a favor if you just pony up the modest fee. (Some places don't actually make you pay it.) You'll end up with a healthier meal and you'll save money.
Another way to get around the big-portion dilemma is to order appetizers as your entrée: soup or salad and an appetizer or two appetizers and one entrée split between two people. If your dining companion isn't willing to share, many finer restaurants will also shave entrées down to smaller, appetizer proportions if you ask.
• Pass on the buffet.
America, I know, loves buffets. Economically, I have to agree that they're a bargain, a lot of food for a moderate amount of money. But what are you really getting? The food is never as hot or as good as food that's been made to order. Other people (perhaps even sniffling and sneezing people) have been poking at the buffet before you, and, I don't know about you, but standing in line for food makes me feel a little like cattle. Plus a buffet isn't really conducive to enjoying the company you're with. As soon as you sit down, your dining companion is up and back for seconds. It's like musical chairs!
The worst thing about buffets is that they're an invitation to overeat. It's hard not to want to sample everything and thus hard not to end up taking in more calories than you should, even if your portions are small. Salad bars are better than full buffets since the choices are limited, though you still need to be careful about piling your plate too high with calorie-heavy "add-ins" and drowning it all in high-fat dressing. If you do find yourself at a buffet, try this strategy: eat only the things that you really, really love and forgo things that you can get elsewhere or make at home. Better yet, save the buffets for at-home potlucks with family and friends. At least then you can add some healthy dishes of your own to the table -- and you won't feel as though you need to eat "your money's worth."
• Beware of hidden calories.
Not all dishes that sound healthy actually are. As I surveyed restaurant menus for this book, I found that many nutritious-sounding dishes, such as some of the chicken salads, actually had more saturated fat and/or calories than the foods that you'd expect to be worse (such as simple hamburgers). Find out how something is made before you order it. For instance, is the chicken in the chicken sandwich breaded and fried or grilled without the skin? Does a salad have cheese and fried noodles or chips mixed in? Does the turkey come swimming in gravy? Get the facts before you order.
• Be smart when it comes to salads.
Salads often sound healthy but in reality may not be. What's more, a healthy salad can be made considerably less healthy just by the dressing you choose to put on it. Many places now offer reduced-fat and low-calorie dressings, which can really help improve the quality of your salad. But when they don't, order your dressings on the side and rather than pouring the dressing on your salad, dip your fork into it, then take a bite of salad. Very little dressing sticks to the tines of the fork, but you'll get some of its flavor with each bite. You can also use a little bit of oil and vinegar or lemon juice instead of prepared dressing.
• Don't let "eating like a bird" jokes bother you.
For some reason best left to psychologists to explain, people don't like to see others eating healthfully when they are eating poorly. I guess it has something to do with guilt. It's not your job to make other people feel comfortable with their decisions to overindulge. Your decision to make healthful changes in your life was made on behalf of yourself, not anyone else. Keep that in mind, and I think you'll find it much easier to resist the urgings of friends and family to overeat.
• Save dessert for later.
One little trick I play on myself is that instead of ordering dessert at the restaurant, I suggest to my dinner companions that we go somewhere else. Often by the time we drive or walk to the next place, I realize I'm not even hungry anymore and I end up skipping dessert entirely. When you order dessert immediately after dinner, you haven't yet had the chance to get up and see how your body feels. And if you're really still hungry for dessert? Hopefully you've steered your group to a place that serves healthy dessert choices.
Excerpted from “Get With the Program!, Guide to Fast Food and Family Restaurants” by Bob Greene. Copyright © 2004 by Bob Greene Enterprises, Inc. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.
For more information about Get With the Program, visit getwiththeprogram.org.