Look for health when you go looking for a meal

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Spending time with the takeout menu again? Most Americans do, whether it's with coworkers at lunch or the family for dinner.

It's hard to join the group and stick to a healthy diet, though, especially if the group chooses an ethnic restaurant. In those situations, most people do well enough to point to the entree that looks familiar and mumble, "Uh, that one? Number 7?"

Through years of learning tricks and picking up tips, I've come across several helpful notes to take with you when you dine out.

For Mexican, start with staying away from the chips (don't make me explain, you know why they're bad and you can never eat just one). The salsa, though, is fat free and a half cup is a whole serving of vegetables. Dump it onto your chicken fajitas -- minus the tortillas -- and you've got a great meal.

When in Rome ... you're probably on vacation and going to splurge, but when at the local Italian eatery, go with a tomato-based marinara instead of a fatty, cheesy Alfredo. If you're doing pizza, don't do extra toppings (unless it's more veggies). And keep the napkins handy to pat off calories from the oil pools on top of each piece.

In a Chinese buffet stay away from anything shiny; that usually denotes a large amount of sauce (aka grease). One serving of General Tso's chicken can have almost 1,000 calories. Steamed veggies or a California roll are great alternatives. Swallow your pride and try using chopsticks. You'll swallow less food because of the added effort, and it's usually good for a few laughs with your dinner partner -- with the added bonus of burned calories in a laughing fit. Dessert? Fortune cookies are fat free and low in calories.

In any restaurant, you should be aware of how much you are eating. The rolls that come first often don't register on the food consumed list. Soup or salad? Research has shown people who order soup feel fuller and don't eat as much of the actual meal. Just stick to broth-based, not creamy, and be careful because soups can be heavy on the sodium. A salad is good for a few servings of vegetables, so long as the dressing is low-calorie and it's not sprinkled with cheese and meat shreddings.

Divide and conquer when the meal arrives at the table. Most restaurants give you double, if not triple the recommended serving size of your food. It's best to cut the main dish in half and immediately resolve to make the right side leftovers. This doesn't apply, however, to vegetable side dishes -- get as much of that as you can.

If you have to go through the drive-thru, make sure you check the menu. Almost all the fast food eateries in Cape Girardeau have nutrition lists at the counter. Sandwiches at some places can have around 50 grams of fat and nearly 1,000 calories.

If you want to check out your surroundings, www.healthydiningfinder.com will search your area and provide a list of restaurants and their online menus. The downside is that the search engine usually only brings back chain restaurants, not local places.

Now you know.

Have a quest? Features editor Chris Harris is ready to hunt down the answer. Send questions to charris@semissourian.com; post on semissourian.com/blogs under "Quest for the Healthy Grail" or mail to Southeast Missourian, c/o Quest, 301 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO, 63701.

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