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Secrets of Low-Fat Restaurant Dining

Even if you eat a low-fat diet at home, it's often difficult to pass up high-fat items when dining out. A generation ago, this wasn't much of a problem. Eating out was a treat, take-out was a rarity, and only a few pizza places delivered. Today, eating out is routine, many people couldn't survive without take-out, and all sorts of restaurants deliver. If you go out for lunch at every day at work, and eat out or take out a few other times each week, restaurants wind up serving one-third of your meals--or more.

"Low-fat restaurant dining requires a few adjustments," says Hope S. Warshaw, R.D., a registered dietitian in Newton, Massachusetts and author of The Restaurant Companion, a guide to healthful dining out. "But it's actually easier--and tastier--than it might seem. With a little forethought and information, anyone can eat out without bulging out."

Best Restaurant Bets. To fight fat, steer clear of anything fried or sautéed, and anything prepared creamed, breaded, Alfredo, Hollandaise, tempura, batter-dipped, au gratin, en croute, filo-wrapped, in a puff pastry, pot pie, or croissant, or with gravy, béarnaise, béchamel, beurre blanc, or creme fraiche.

But remember, restaurant dining should be pleasurable. Never say never. If you know a restaurant serves the world's most heavenly chocolate cheesecake, enjoy it without feeling guilty. Just make sure the rest of your meal--and your other meals that day--are low in fat.

Feel free to enjoy most items served broiled, grilled, baked, boiled, roasted, poached, or steamed. Savor fish, seafood, skinless poultry, lean red meats, salads, pasta with pesto or tomato sauce, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain items, and frozen ices, sorbets, sherbets, and nonfat frozen yogurts.

Some ethnic cuisines tend to be low in fat: Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Middle Eastern, and Japanese, restaurants. These cuisines generally do not deep fry foods--stir-frying is okay, just stay away from deep-fried Japanese tempuras--and many dishes are prepared without meats, sauces, and dairy products. Enjoy the many poultry, fish, seafood, vegetable, and noodle dishes. And in Asian cuisines, the pork and beef dishes include relatively small servings of meat, which helps keep their fat content low.

On the other hand, some cuisines tend to be high in fat: delis, steak houses, pizza places, barbecue and burger joints, and French, German, Mexican, Cajun, and Italian restaurants. But even in these danger zones, it's not difficult to find tasty low-fat dishes:

If you order meat, always trim all visible fat.

At delis, try a turkey sandwich and cole slaw or soup and salad.

At steak houses, stick to the leaner cuts: sirloin, tenderloin, and flank steak. Prime cuts are high in fat. One of the fattiest is prime rib.

At pizza places, the high-fat toppings are the cheeses and meats. Ask for less cheese and more vegetable toppings. Or forgo the cheese altogether and order a pesto pizza. Steer clear of sausage, bacon, hamburger, and pepperoni. If you must have a meat topping, the leanest is Canadian bacon.

Many hamburger joints now serve grilled skinless chicken breast sandwiches. If you can't resist a burger, order one topped with salsa or grilled onions and mushrooms, not bacon, cheese, or sour cream.

At Italian restaurants, it's hard to find low-fat lasagna, cannelloni, manicotti, or saltimbocca. But chicken, fish, and seafood dishes become problems only when they are served parmigiana or covered with other cheeses or cream sauces. Tomato-based marinara pasta sauces are lower in fat than pesto, which, is lower than meat sauces or cream-based white Alfredo or cheese sauces.

At French, German, and continental restaurants, look for dishes grilled, broiled, steamed, roasted, marinated, or en brochette. Broiled veal or rack of lamb may seem sinful, but they're relatively low-fat choices. Duck served with the skin on and a cream sauce is very high in fat. But skinless duck breast slices with a fruit sauce or glaze is a fairly low-fat choice.

The high-fat items at Mexican restaurants include the cheeses, sour cream, guacamole, and the refried beans if they are prepared with lard. Ask for whole beans instead of refried, and skip the toppings, or ask for nonfat yogurt instead.

At Cajun restaurants, casseroles and dishes served breaded or under creamy sauces are high in fat. Blackened and grilled dishes are lower-fat choices.

At fish grottoes, grilled or broiled dishes are quite low in fat--unless they are served with a sauce containing butter, cheese, or sour cream. Stay away from dishes served breaded, fried, or with high-fat sauces. Even fast-food outlets now offer some low-fat choices: salad bars and grilled chicken breast sandwiches.

Oatmeal is a great restaurant breakfast item. Just beware of high fat toppings: nuts, butter, whole milk, half-and-half, or cream. Stick with skim milk, and fruit. Any cold cereal with low-fat or skim milk is a better choice than eggs, bacon, sausage, or sweet rolls.

Baked potatoes are tasty low-fat lunch and dinner items, but skip the cheese, bacon, and sour cream toppings. Instead, go with salsa, broccoli, or nonfat yogurt.

At lunch, look for cup-of-soup and half-sandwich combinations--as long as the soup is not "cream of something." Combinations satisfy the need for variety. Vegetable and bean soups are nutritious, filling, and usually low in fat. Soups with a chicken stock base are higher in fat, but they're still a better choice than a croissant ham-and-cheese sandwich.

Mayonnaise and "special" sandwich sauces are high in fat. Stick to mustard, ketchup, salsa, and barbecue sauce.

Forget french fries. Select rice, pasta, or a baked potato.

Plan Ahead. A little forethought is better than hours of self-recrimination for what you should have done. It's no big deal to plan for low-fat dining out:

If you're happy at home with a simple breakfast of toast and coffee, or a bowl of cereal with skim milk, don't even look at the menu. Just order your usual meal, and don't get tempted by the Belgian waffles or bacon-sour cream omelet. If you're happy with a salad for lunch, or a baked potato and a steamed vegetable for dinner, don't look at the menu. Just order them.

Patronize restaurants that offer a large selection of appetizers, such as marinated vegetables, unusual salads and pasta dishes, and exotic fish and seafood items. But steer clear of patés, puff pastries, and cheese plates (especially fried cheese). Try one or two appetizers instead of an entrée. Consider portion size in advance. Before you and your companion are seated, suggest splitting part or all of your meals.

Beware of buffets, smorgasbords, and all-you-can-eat specials. They're setups for overeating. In addition, the dishes are often high in fat. Never arrive at any restaurant feeling ravenous. You'll choose more wisely and feel better about yourself if you take the edge off your hunger beforehand with a healthy low-fat snack: an apple, banana, pretzel, or cup of nonfat yogurt.

Alcohol is surprisingly high in calories (almost 200 calories per ounce). If you drink beer, wine, or cocktails, drink water or iced tea at the same time to quench your thirst and help you nurse your drink. If you enjoy wine with lunch or dinner, order it by the glass. That way you won't feel obligated to polish off a whole bottle.

Become More Assertive. Restaurants are in the business of service, so speak up. Let the staff know what you want. They don't resent it. That's what they're there for.

Ask for substitutions. Does a breakfast restaurant offer jam and margarine or just butter? Instead of a three-egg omelet, can you substitute a one-egg omelet with some egg substitute? And can you get skim or low-fat milk for coffee instead of cream or half-and-half? Do lunch and dinner restaurants offer entrée salads?

As you're seated, ask that the bread and butter or chips be removed, or served later with your meal. While waiting, sip water, club soda, or herbal tea. If you keep the bread basket, breadsticks, rolls, and french bread are lower in fat than croissants and most muffins.

If a restaurant doesn't serve healthful dressings and condiments, discreetly bring your own. Salsa makes an excellent bread spread, salad dressing, and vegetable topping. Or prepare some herb-lemon juice salad dressing and bring it in a small container.

When ordering chicken, insist on skinless parts, and ask if the skin was removed before cooking. Chicken absorbs skin fat if cooked with it. Even such presumably healthful dishes as broiled or grilled fish or skinless chicken can be smothered in high-fat sauces. Ask how sauces are prepared, and if they are high in fat, ask for no sauce, or sauce on the side. Ask for salad dressing on the side as well. Then dip your fork into the dressing before you spear any salad. That way you get a little dressing--but not too much--with each bite.

If you can't resist a high-fat dessert, split it, or take part of it home. Don't be corrupted by your dining companion(s). Well-meaning friends sometimes sabotage low-fat dining plans by coaxing, "Come on. Live a little." If a friend has previously led you to restaurant ruin, announce your intentions to eat healthfully before you arrive at the restaurant, and insist that your wishes be respected. (You may have to endure some teasing, but that's easier than letting your slacks out an inch.)

Not all salads are low in fat. A good one to avoid is the chef's salad with its cheeses, eggs, and high-fat lunch meats.

Finally, whenever you catch yourself thinking, "Oh, what the heck...," stop a moment, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself if you really want that item.


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