Eating healthy is hard enough, and the enticing menu items that call your name while dining out can make it even tougher. So what do you do when you go out to eat and you are faced with foods that are jumbo-sized, deep-fried or swimming in creamy, greasy sauce? I’m not a fan of saying to “absolutely avoid” specific foods. However, those are certainly some foods that really shouldn’t be a regular part of a healthy diet. Yes, this includes jumbo burgers with fries, fettuccine alfredo and deep-fried meats served with deep-fried side items.
And, just because a menu choice like an entrée salad might sound healthy, it isn’t necessarily a safe bet. There are many restaurant salads that have over 1,000 calories per serving. For example, the Quesadilla Explosion salad at Chili’s has 1400 calories and 88 grams of fat. It’s okay to eat less-than-healthy items occasionally. But, you have to be honest with yourself as to what occasionally means to you. Is having a Big Mac, large fries and large soda once or twice a week the definition of an occasional treat? Not really.
If you’re going to occasionally have a high-calorie, high-fat, extreme restaurant meal - still be wary. You can minimize the damage by limiting portion size. If you eat half of a 2,000-calorie meal, that’s better, but you’re still consuming 1,000 calories. That doesn’t even include added calories from bread, tortilla chips and high-calorie drinks.
I occasionally treat myself to high-calorie, high-fat foods. But I still use balance and moderation. I love french fries. I probably have french fries at home at least once a week. But, they are baked, not fried, and often made with sweet potatoes. But, occasionally I will order the real deal at a restaurant - real, deep-fried french fries. I try to balance it out with the rest of my meal - I might order grilled or barbecued chicken breast (not fried) served with steamed broccoli and french fries. That way the whole meal isn’t dripping in fat. The key is to listen to your body’s fullness cues and stop eating when you’re satisfied, not stuffed. That usually means that half of your plate is untouched.
It is possible that we may see more nutrition information on menus in the future, which will help in deciding what to order. One provision in the new health care reform bill will require restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to provide calorie and nutrition information on their menus. However, there is room for this provision to be tweaked over the next year, so it may be that we won’t see this information on menus for several years still. Some cities and states have already adopted similar laws. New York City began requiring increased nutrition labeling in restaurants in 2008, for example.
Read part two of “Eating healthy while dining out” next week to learn more about making healthy choices when eating at a restaurant.
Angie Tillman is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and director of the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center.