HomeHealthArchivesNov 2005


Eating Out

You won't always be able to prepare your own meals. Business lunches, family gatherings, and social events will draw you into restaurants, away from the secure low-fat kitchen that you've developed. Statistics show that up to half of our meals are eaten away from the home. At first, you might find it difficult resisting your favorite choices from the menu. And you might feel awkward selecting "diet specials". But as your body adjusts to a low-fat diet, you'll find it easier to resist temptation. You'll even stare in disgust at the globs of fat and cholesterol being consumed around you, wondering how they can do that to their bodies.

What do you do when you have to eat out? For one thing, you don't have to totally abandon healthy eating. Certainly you may have to eat more fat than you would if you ate at home. And you may have to sacrifice a little when others around you are stuffing their arteries. But you can still practice safe eating without your friends thinking you're on some mystical diet or have run out of money.

Selecting Restaurants

If you have the time in advance, carefully select where you will eat. A growing number of restaurants care about you enough to offer low-fat meals. Call your local Heart Association and ask if they know of any local restaurants that prepare special meals. If they don't, then call restaurants directly. You may be surprised at what you find out.

Some restaurants will happily discuss their menu with you over the phone, others will treat you like some crank caller. So why patronize a business that doesn't care about you? Would you buy clothing from a store that doesn't suit your tastes? Why should you buy food from one that doesn't?  You should be as selective about what you put in your body as you are what you put on it. Why order low-fat vegetables that are smothered in butter sauce. Or grilled fish or chicken that was first brushed with butter or tropical oils.

Many times we've walked out of restaurants because the menu wasn't suitable. If enough customers give the message, changes might be made. Think of the growing number of states and cities passing no-smoking ordinances -- responding to the needs of the community.

You will, hopefully, find that many chefs are responding to the sensitivities of people like us. They are preparing special meals, changing ingredients or cooking methods to offer menu items that are low-fat and low-cholesterol. The Princeton Faculty Club, for example, prints little red hearts near menu choices that are low in fat. Your own favorite restaurant might not be as accommodating, but they should be happy to discuss which of their selections would be suitable.

Other restaurants, especially chains, are beginning to move in the right direction. A 1989 survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association revealed that only 5 of 28 major chains still use animal fat "exclusively". Several chains are even advertising that they've moved away from "animal fats" into 100% vegetable oils. But we know how misleading that can be. In some cases the oils are the high-fat tropical variety. It makes good advertising but not much sense. (Many manufacturers are following the same route, changing lard with some type of vegetable oil, and advertising "Cholesterol Free" products. Make sure you check the fat content and ingredients before you buy the sales pitch.)

In fact, look at the fat and cholesterol levels in most french fries potatoes served in fast food chains. (Next month we will provide a comprehensive list.) They could have as much as 22 grams of fat and  42 mg. of cholesterol a serving. Since potatoes have no natural cholesterol, it must be coming from the frying process.

In chain restaurants, ask if they know the fat and cholesterol content of the food. In these and other establishments, ask questions:

    Does an item contain eggs or cream?
    Is it made with whole milk or skim?
    Is it fried or baked?
    How many ounces is it? (For later calculations.)
    If fried, in what type of oil?
    If vegetable oil, what kind -- saturated or unsaturated?
    Are the dressings based on soy oil or mayonnaise?
    Do the sauces contain bacon or other meats?
    Can they substitute one ingredient for another, or prepare it in a different way? One of our favorite restaurants will gladly broil chicken for us, instead of frying it. Would your restaurant prepare an omelette using only the whites?


If you don't get suitable answers, try another restaurant. But what if you don't have time to call in advance, or the luxury of selecting the restaurant? You still don't have to abandon your habits. Ask the waiter the same questions you would if you had called in advance. But since waiters and waitresses may not be briefed on how to answer such questions, you might have to request to see the chef.  If you do, keep in mind that many cooking schools, in the past, routinely did not include a course in nutrition. They concentrated entirely on preparing food that was delicious and attractive, sometimes dependent on high fat and high cholesterol ingredients. Whole eggs, heavy cream, butter, and lard may be the staples in a restaurant's kitchen.

If you want to be more subtle about it, then apply common sense rules when scanning the menu. Stay away from items obviously high in fat or cholesterol, like beef and organ meats, deep fried food, and egg dishes.

Select "diet" items, if they are on the menu. Chances are they will have less fat and cholesterol, as well as calories, than other items. If you can't avoid a high fat meal, eat light. Eat as little as you can and supplement it with a low-fat snack or light meal at home. Perhaps your total intake of fat will be higher than it should be, but not as high as it would be if you stuffed yourself with restaurant food.

Pour on just a little salad dressing, eat bread without butter, if that's what is served, just touch the egg pasta. Skip the sour cream on the baked potato -- along with the butter. Any fat and cholesterol you can avoid, even if just a little, will make it that much easier to eat the rest of the day.

Use caution and sense. Not like the dieter who orders one of everything on the menu with a Diet Coke or coffee with sugar substitute.

Read the menu carefully and make the wise decision.

A turkey sandwich or Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato?

Go for the turkey sandwich but ask to have the mayonnaise on the side.

Cream of Anything Soup or Vegetable?

Order vegetable -- especially if it's vegetarian. If not, ask yourself if the chef carefully skimmed off the fat.  Those glistening droplets floating in your soup are a dead giveaway.

Pasta Salad or Tossed Salad?

Pasta salads are delicious but can be made with egg noodles and mayonnaise. Order the Tossed Salad with the dressing on the side -- since many dressings are made with mayonnaise that is rich in egg yolks. Just beware of croutons. While the salad may appear healthy, the bread  used for croutons, and the oil they were fried in, may contain lard or tropical oils.  Veal Parmesan and ravioli or Chicken Scallopinni and Spaghetti?

Keep away from cheese and meats, if you can. While the  chicken dish will probably contain some fat, its still the better choice.

Chocolate Eclair or Frozen Yogurt?

It is pretty hard to pass up those smooth looking desserts, and even harder to sit at a table watching others enjoy themselves. Recently, when inquiring about the ingredients of a birthday cake, the pastry chef said it has four whole eggs, 16 tablespoons of solid margarine, and served 12 persons. Based on these alone, one slice contained at least 100 milligrams of cholesterol and 14 grams of fat. So if you must order something, try frozen yogurt, sherbet, or fresh fruits.

If you want to splurge a little, fine. Think about your meals for the week. Have they been less than 20% fat, with little cholesterol? Can you afford one heavy meal? Are you willing to sacrifice a day or two to make up for it? It is probably better to splurge once in a while than it is to get totally frustrated and forget good eating all together. As we explained earlier, your body may need some sweet biologically from time to time.

Some people do find it difficult ordering "diet" meals, just a single entree, or asking a lot of questions. But if you don't want to ask, then anticipate the worst. Assume, for example, that the rolls are made from animal fat, tropical oils, eggs, and whole milk. Just think of the labels you've seen -- or should be watching out for -- in the market. An average roll made with tropical oils may have 5 mg. of cholesterol, 3 grams of fat, and 160 calories. Just think how much worse lard would be.

When you get home, estimate the amount of fat and cholesterol you consumed. Write down what you had, about how much, and what ingredients it contained.  Note any ingredients that are high in fat or cholesterol, such as mayonnaise, whole eggs, or meat. Then look up and record fat, cholesterol, and calories as if you made the meal yourself. Again, assume the worst. Figure on butter, not margarine; tropical not unsaturated oils; whole milk not skim; and eggs. For complex dishes, use calorie and fat levels in similarly looking frozen prepared foods in the market.

Compare the estimated amount of fat and then plan your meals for the next day or two, striving for the lowest fat and cholesterol foods you can prepare or purchase. You won't be able to get the extra fat and cholesterol out of your body. But at least you're working with some goal in mind.

Eating healthy out may be difficult at first. But it does get easier as you establish patterns at home and acclimate your body to low fat and low cholesterol.

Another View of Health

You know, there are other reasons to pick your restaurants wisely, aside from your diet. Each week, many restaurants are cited for health violations, even some of the best and well-known establishments. And while there aren't a great number of recorded cases of food poisoning, many of the ill feelings and short-term indispositions we suffer from may be caused by marginal food and unsanitary conditions.

    Does the waiter or waitress who takes your money also fill up the roll basket? How clean is that money that's been floating around the country since it was minted?
    What about that rag the busboy used to clean the table? How often is it washed or sanitized? Do you really think the table is clean afterward?
    Watch the counter person the next time you order at the bakery, fast food restaurant, or deli. Do they handle money, scratch their head, wipe their hands on their clothes, and then pick up your food?
    Of course, you can't tell what goes on behind the swinging doors to the kitchen. But have you ever thought about it?
    How long has the food been sitting out? When was it prepared? Has it been refrigerated? Should it have been?
    Does the restaurant "recycle" food? What happens to the rolls left over in the basket, or the slices of butter sitting near the ashtray?
    Does the store or restaurant, and the people working in it, look clean? Where do they put their hands? Where did your food come from? Is the hot food hot, and the cold food cold?

There doesn't have to be rats on the floor and flies swarming around to tell you something's wrong.

What do you do if you feel the establishment isn't clean enough? You could ask the food server to wash their hands before picking up your food. You could walk out and try another restaurant. You could ask to see the manager or chef. Or you could ignore it all and pray for the best.

We couldn't, with good conscience, leave this article without mentioning the extra precautions that should be taken when ordering seafood. When eating out, many people select seafood to avoid the fat and cholesterol in meat. Seafood does provide a tasty alternative, and can be prepared in a wide variety of ways for a varied diet. But one increasingly popular way of eating seafood -- raw -- also offers a wide variety of potentially serious risks. Let's not trade one health hazard for another.

Whether you eat raw fish Japanese style in vinegared rice, Scandinavian style in herbs and salt, or Caribbean soaked in citrus juices, raw fish is downright dangerous.

While some of these methods inhibit the growth of bacteria, they can not guarantee that all germs are dead. You're really putting your health in the hands of the chef, hoping they are skilled enough, as many are, to insure the fish is not infected.

Eating cooked fish even calls for precautions. You should definitely avoid fish caught near shore to large cities, and should never eat stews or other dishes using cooking water, drippings, or fish with internal organs not removed.

If you're embarrassed to ask where the fish was caught, or how is was prepared, don't order seafood. Forgoing the delicious taste could help you avoid parasites, hepatitis, cholera, salmonella, scombroid fish poisoning, mercury poisoning, and PCB contamination, just to name a few.

Remembering these precautions, and finding healthy food, make dining out hard work. But you do have safe and exciting options for a healthier future.