Going out to dinner is usually a dieter’s worst nightmare. There is no telling what kind of fat and calorie bombs await you. However, there are smarter choices to make in almost all areas of cuisine, and this is a small guide to help you make more informed decisions.
First things first: if you know that the restaurant you’re going to has calorie information online, visit the restaurant’s website and get a better idea of what you are going to order. Knowing well ahead of time makes it easier to avoid brash snap decisions that will wreak havoc on your waistline.
There is also a wealth of information regarding calories and fat available to dieters in smaller, handheld forms. Most smartphones offer calorie counting apps that can show you the nutritional information for almost anything on the fly. If you aren’t able to access the internet on your phone, never fear. There are a few handheld books available through your local bookstore or online retailer. One of the most popular is by Calorie King. There are new editions of this book that come out every year with more up-to-date nutritional information for regular foods and restaurant entrees.
For those restaurants that don’t offer nutritional information online (such as local mom-and-pop restaurants or chains), here are a few lists of “safer” foods of the three most popular “ethnic” cuisines.
By and large, with Mexican food is delicious because it incorporates a good combination of starches and fats. This can be troublesome because most of our favorite Mexican dishes are covered in sour cream, cheese, or guacamole, all of which are no-nos in large quantities if you’re watching your weight.
When dining at a Mexican restaurant, follow these simple rules of thumb when choosing an entree:
-Skip the tortilla chips. This may seem like a very difficult task but as soon as you see the server come up with that basket of chips, tell them politely that you don’t want them. Keep the salsa though, this spicy sauce is always welcome in any diet.
-Order fajitas. Fajitas are little more than grilled or pan-fried meat and veggies. Go for the chicken, shrimp, or veggie fajitas. Skip the sour cream, guac, and cheese and pour on the salsa instead.
-Ask for corn tortillas instead of flour. Corn tortillas are lower in calories and offer more nutritional value than just flour.
-When ordering tacos, ask to substitute pico de gallo for the usual cheese toppings. Pico de gallo, for those not familiar, is a delicious blend of onion, tomato, and jalepeno peppers and is good on just about anything you can think of. Think salsa that’s not as soupy.
-Keep the margaritas to a minimum. There’s nothing better than a chilled margarita to wash down your Mexican feast, but bear in mind that one of these drinks could be upwards of 300 calories. If you must have sabor autentico, try a shot of premium tequila, diluted with a little water and a squeeze of lime. At around 60 calories, you get more bang for your buck and less junk in the trunk.
-Get black beans instead of refried beans. The black beans have more fiber; refried beans are often mixed with lard or other fats and topped with cheese.
Entrees to avoid no matter what:
-Chimichangas (deep-fried burrito)
-Cheese chili relleno (battered and fried cheese-stuffed chili pepper)
-Suizo (smothered in cheese)
-Flautas (fried mini-tacos)
-Nachos (fried tortilla chips covered in cheese, meat, beans, guac, sour cream, etc.)
Italian food can either be healthy or bad for you… there really is no in-between. Even though Italian food uses a lot of fresh vegetables in many sauces and entrees, they also use copious amounts of cheese and oil.
-Stay away from cream sauces. This includes alfredo. These are loaded with calories and oftentimes contain tons of sodium. (For those of you that are unfamiliar with the effects of sodium, I simply say this: bloating).
-Watch the amount of pasta you eat. Italian restaurants are notorious for their large portions and it’s easy to get carried away if the pasta you have is delicious. Try portioning out a bit onto a bread plate and taking the rest to go.
-Don’t fill up on bread. Bread and olive oil are staples at the tables of most Italian eateries but this often does more harm than good. You can allow yourself a piece or two with a little drizzle of olive oil but do your best to keep your appetite for bread in check.
-Look for options that include descriptions of what vegetables are included in the dish. Entrees such as osso bucco, chicken cacciatore, and primavera often contain a wealth of different veggies with little to no mention of cheese.
Entrees to avoid:
-Chicken/eggplant parmesan (the first: fried chicken covered in cheese and tomato sauce; the second: fried eggplant – which is not a particularly nutritious vegetable – covered in cheese and tomato sauce)
-Alfredo anything (sauce made with butter, cream, and cheese)
-Almost anything on the appetizer menu (calamari, mozzerella sticks, fried ravioli, etc.)
Chinese food is notoriously unhealthy, not only because most of the cuisine is fried, but it also contains loads of MSG (monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer that has been shown to cause health problems such as migraines). There are healthy options available on most Chinese food menus, you just have to know where to find them.
-If you are unsure as to what is in an entree, ask your server or whoever is taking your order. Descriptions such as “Hunan” or “Szchewan” are vague and the only way to know what’s in it is to ask.
-Avoid anything that says “crispy” when describing the protein in the dish. This is sure to mean it is battered and fried.
-Brown sauces are usually a better bet than sweeter sauces. When in doubt, get the entree with the sauce on the side.
-If at all possible, try to limit the amount of white rice you eat with your meal. A lot of Chinese restaurants are offering brown rice as an alternative to white rice, and it never hurts to ask. Avoid chow mein noodles (crispy fried noodles) or fried rice as a side.
-Go for steamed entrees. These often include loads of veggies and lean meats and are much more figure-friendly.
-If you want an appetizer, go for the Egg Drop or Wonton soups. These are basically just chicken broth with either egg cooked in (Egg Drop) or with pork-filled “ravioli” and onions (Wonton).
Foods to Avoid:
-Eggrolls/crab rangoon (deep fried with almost no nutritional value)
-Sweet and Sour Chicken/Pork/Beef (fried chunks of meat with a sugary-sweet sauce)
-Orange Chicken/Pork/Beef (same as above)
It’s okay to indulge yourself every once in awhile with your favorite “cheat” food, but you can still enjoy these types of cuisine without falling off the wagon. Making better food choices every day will lead to a healthier lifestyle and will no doubt make you feel great about yourself.