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Order up some will power

A dietitian's advice when dining out: Hold the sauce, ask the server lots of questions, and avoid buffet-style restaurants.

By JANET K. KEELER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2001


A dietitian's advice when dining out: Hold the sauce, ask the server lots of questions, and avoid buffet-style restaurants.

Forget water torture. The quickest way to break someone's resolve is to put him in front of a multipage, 18-inch tall restaurant menu. The descriptions of pan-fried, caramelized, batter-dipped whatevers will force him to cave in faster than a house built on a sink hole.

Eating out is its own torture for those watching sodium, fat or sugar intake. When eating Mexican, (fried) chimichangas beckon. At an Italian spot, fettuccine Alfredo (cream and butter) entices. Cole slaw (mayonnaise-drowned) must accompany the (battered and deep-fried) popcorn shrimp, and how can anyone enjoy Chinese without starting off with a (deep-fried) egg roll or two?

Even a decision to splurge is often accompanied by an overwhelming case of the guilts over the just-savored (egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk) key lime pie.

So why not just stay home? Why play 20 questions with the server when the only way to control every bite of food that goes into your mouth is to make it yourself?

Because eating out in America is about more than sustenance. Eating out is how we celebrate and how we do business. It's also how we feed our families after a hectic day, how we entertain out-of-town guests and, sometimes, it's what we do when we can't think of any other activity. The average American eats out 137 times a year, according to a report on the restaurant industry to be released in October by market researcher NPD Group.

It is difficult to stick to a diet when eating out. To succeed you need to know a little about how restaurants prepare food and a lot about yourself. We would sooner sprout green hair than stop ordering from a menu, so we might as well tackle the dining out conundrum.

"It's all about balancing the meal with your needs for the day," says Sarah Krieger, a dietitian at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. "We need to be smarter when we eat out because restaurant food has a lot of fat, a lot of salt and a lot of sugar."

(Krieger leads a monthly "Lunch and Learn" class that focuses on healthful eating, and last month's topic was dining out. For a schedule of upcoming classes, call (727) 893-6792.)

Weight management is not the only concern among restaurant patrons. Some are diabetic and watch sugar intake; others have high blood pressure and keep an eye on salt content. For others, healthful eating is just a way of life.

Krieger considers any food you don't make at home eating out, and that includes vending machines and takeout. So that giganto-double-bigtime burger and bucket of fries counts as dining out, just not fine dining.

Here's what you need to know to eat out healthfully:

It's all about you. Be a little selfish. Tell the server what you want. Krieger suggests ordering last, which is especially helpful in bigger groups. This way you can hear the questions others have asked, and the attention is diverted from you. No one listens to the last person who orders, but all eyes and ears are on the first.

Don't do the impossible. If you overeat at buffet-style restaurants, go somewhere else. Having a plan beforehand works for some people, but for many the plan goes down the tubes at the sight of mountains of food. "I'll just have one piece of chicken, take the skin off, a salad and a baked potato" often becomes "Well, just one more piece of chicken, and a little more dressing and a small scoop of sour cream because the potato is so dry. I'll be better tomorrow."

Think smaller. Restaurant portions have become increasingly larger in recent years. If it seems like it will take a village to finish every bit of pasta plopped down in front of you, ask for a takeout container right away. Better yet, Krieger says, order an appetizer and a salad. Get romantic and share an entree.

Hold the sauce. Even if the menu doesn't mention a sauce, ask anyway. Veggies are often cooked in stocks and then laced with butter. Grilled steak and especially fish are often draped with melted butter; a restaurant wants the food to taste so good that customers return. Ask for meat and fish to be grilled "dry," with no sauce or butter.

Choose your battle. Want the baked potato? Don't have the bread or crackers or whatever tempting munchie comes to the table while you're waiting for your order. Save some low-fat salad dressing (that you asked for on the side) to flavor the baked potato rather than butter and sour cream. You can't live without the egg roll? Then avoid the fried rice. Krieger cautions against dunking bread into those bowls of trendy olive oil that are gaining popularity. Olive oil may be better for us than butter, but it still has the same amount of fat (14 grams per tablespoon). "Our hearts may know the difference, but our butts don't," Krieger says.

Pay now, eat later. If you know you're going out to dinner or lunch, eat light at the other meals. This doesn't mean don't eat at all until dinner. Going out to eat when you are ravenous is asking for trouble. You'll surely overindulge if you've deprived yourself all day, and for some people, diabetics particularly, this practice is not healthy.

Words to shun. Krieger has a list of 80-plus cooking terms and dishes to watch out for. If you saw them all, you'd never go out to dinner again. But there are some menu terms that should raise a red flag. The most troublesome are: pan-fried or sauteed, fondue, bearnaise, sauce, mash (as in mashed potatoes), Parmesan, au gratin, marinated, chips, stuffed, breaded, creamy, extra cheese, crispy and batter-dipped. These terms all equal fat from butter, oil or cheese.

Words to welcome. Look for terms that describe lower-fat cooking methods such as steamed, broiled, garden fresh, roasted, baked, poached, lightly sauteed or stir-fried.

Krieger urges us to eat slowly, savor each bite and not to feel guilty if we each a rich meal once in a while. That's easier said than done.

Eating out healthfully is no picnic, but the torture can be eased by taking one step at a time. Which one will be your first?

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