By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Kristen Carli prepares her clients for inevitable layoffs. They are resolved to cut back, bolstered by their leader's reassurance.
The fat must be trimmed everywhere. In meats draped with buttery sauces. In oiled bread brought to the table before the meal. In the mound of bow-tie pasta masquerading as one helping.
"Okay, I am going to teach you how to order and how to talk to the waitress. Nicely," Carli says. "Look at the menu and decide what you want. Then I'll show you how to order and how much of it you can eat."
Carli, a nutrition counselor and personal trainer at Shapes Total Fitness in St. Petersburg, guides six people at a time through restaurant menu restructuring. Every Wednesday for six weeks they meet at a different restaurant, and she dissects the menu like a zealous budget officer giving a PowerPoint demonstration. On this night, Carli and her charges, including a 6-year-old girl, are at Romano's Macaroni Grill, where the server and manager are doing everything they can to satisfy these picky eaters. Carli pushes marinara over cream sauces. Hold the nuts and olives on the salad; substitute balsamic vinegar for salad dressing. Yes, you can have pasta, she tells one client, but no bread. Sure, order chicken marsala but ask the chef to omit the breading, she instructs another. Carli is the tough guy in what may be the biggest dietary challenge of modern times: dining out.
On one side of the issue are restaurants, serving ever-bigger portions of food laden with carbohydrates and fat. On the other are nutrition experts warning of certain death by fork and knife. In the middle are consumers who dine out for business or pleasure and, increasingly, because they're too busy or don't know how to cook at home.
Today, Americans spend more than 41 percent of their food dollars on food prepared outside the home, up from 19 percent in 1955. Our national restaurant bill is $222-billion, $118-billion of which is spent on fast food, according to Restaurant Confidential, a nutritional guide compiled by the staff at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Nutrition experts point to our love of dining out as part of the reason we're wearing bigger sizes. There is also concern among nutrition researchers and dietitians that we don't understand the way restaurant chefs cook.
"I think, going into restaurants, (that) consumers are often clueless for two reasons," says Lisa Young, an adjunct professor in New York University's department of nutrition and food studies. "They have no idea what a proper portion is, and restaurant portions are huge. They figure that's what they are serving me, so that's my portion.
"The other thing that consumers don't understand are the hidden things in these dishes."
One of those "hidden things" is butter melted on grilled meat and seafood to give it more taste and appealing shine. Some Italian restaurants cook pasta in oil or drape it with oil before adding sauce, Carli says. Grilled chicken is often marinated first, which adds flavor and also fat.
"Even vegetables are brushed with oil sometimes," Carli says. "People think they are doing good but don't realize there's still fat there."
Carli reminds her clients that restaurants don't cook the way we do at home, and data from the United States Department of Agriculture backs her up. Restaurant meals are, on average, 20 percent fattier and 15 percent higher in saturated fat than home-cooked meals.
Couple the higher fat content with the monstrous portions and you're headed for weight gain, Young says, unless you take home doggie bags and exercise regularly. Even if you're on a high-protein diet such as the Atkins, a calorie is still a calorie, and a fat gram has more calories (9) than carbohydrates and protein (4 each).
One of the most difficult concepts for diners to understand is the difference between a serving and a portion.
"Portion" is an inexact word to describe whatever amount of a particular food we eat at a meal. A portion is usually much larger than a serving, which, Young says, is a standard unit devised by government nutritionists. Servings are what the Food Pyramid Guide is based on and how nutritional labels are figured.
According to the Food Pyramid, a "serving" of cooked pasta is a half-cup. A typical entree of pasta at Macaroni Grill is about three cups, or six servings. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends five to 11 servings of grains per day, which means that large pasta portion is a day's allotment for an average-size person. With cereal for breakfast and a sandwich and chips at lunch, the diner who gobbles the entire plate of pasta would be well over the day's intake for grains or starch.
Carli says that at least half, maybe more, of the pasta entree should be taken home and eaten the next day. That's what personal responsibility is all about, she says. Her program is meant to empower consumers so they can ask their server for a meal they know is healthful and then eat the proper amount.
Tom Wilson, manager of the Macaroni Grill on Tyrone Boulevard, says that more and more people are making special requests and asking how dishes are prepared. Servers are trained to query chefs if they don't know the answer to a diner's question, he says.
In 1991, Wilson says, entrees with cream sauces made up about 80 percent of Macaroni Grill's business. Today, grilled salmon and lighter dishes are more popular.
So, it would seem that consumers are getting at least half the message. Now they must remember to refuse the sauce or butter on the salmon and cut portions.
Young, whose article "Expanding Portion Sizes in the U.S. Marketplace and Implications for Nutrition Counseling" will be published in this month's Journal of the American Dietetic Association, says that knowing what's best and doing what's best are not always mutually inclusive.
For instance, it can be difficult or embarrassing to make a lot of special requests at a business lunch for fear of seeming high-maintenance to your associate.
"You don't want them to wonder what other sort of demands you might make," Young says. In that case, it's better to tell the waitress what you want -- a salad with grilled chicken, hold the croutons and bring the dressing on the side -- rather than change a menu listing.
Young says we haven't seen the last of lawsuits against the restaurant industry, such as the one recently thrown out against McDonald's. There is a movement among some nutrition groups to require nutritional labeling on restaurant menus similar to what is required of the food industry.
"If restaurants have to label their food, there will be more of a push (by restaurants) toward healthy food," Young says. Restaurant groups will fight this proposal, she says, which would be especially costly to mom-and-pop operations.
In the meantime, Young says, it's up to people to educate themselves about eating nutritiously.
For Carli's clients, that means conquering their food issues one restaurant at a time. On this night, it's Macaroni Grill. Next week, it's Outback, where the steak house's "no rules" mantra will be tested.
"We can eat almost anything we want," Carli says. "We just need to know how to read the menu."
And then to skip right over the Bloomin' Onion.
-- For more information about Kristen Carli's dining out program, call her at Shapes Total Fitness in St. Petersburg, (727) 381-7841. Cost of the six-week program is $72, not including meals.
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