Guerilla Tactics for Surviving Restaurant Eating

June 23, 2015 in Foodland, General, Health, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

If daily weighing is one of your habits, you you’re probably only too aware of the big bump in weight after eating at a restaurant. In addition to the often times humongous salt load, servings often have enough calories to supply you for two or three prudent meals. I’m guessing that we are still going to consume the attractive and usually quite tasty fare at restaurants regardless of the number of calories or the amount of sodium put into restaurant food. But we don’t have to go blindly without a plan or thought of how to make it through in an informed manner.

We live about 45 minutes from the big city, where there are so many options for vegetarian, Mediterranean and plant-based eating. Our medium-sized city with a rural past has fewer choices in restaurants. But the good news is that it seems that slowly, the healthy and tasty options are increasing; if you want to eat out and not have to eat unhealthily. I like to have a break from cooking since I cook from scratch (chop, chop, chop). It’s nice to just sit down and enjoy food prepared by someone else. We lost the Jason’s Deli where we used to be able to put a meal together that was healthy. But recently we discovered Aubergine’s; a Mediterranean-style healthy food establishment; I don’t think it is a chain. It seems to be a trend; however. It has so many items to choose from like baba ganoush, humus, tabbouleh, falafel, tahini, and fattoush. Among my favorites are the baked sweet potato ‘fries’ – not fried at all. You can get chicken, red meat, and wild salmon. But the backbone of their meals is veggies, not animal protein. There are many choices of veggies to fill up on. They have numerous options to make chopped salads, or wraps, sandwiches or other types of salads. Restaurants like Aubergine’s are making it known that it’s possible to feature healthy food and survive the American taste buds habituated to salt, fat, and sugar. This gives those of us, who have principled views on healthy living and eating a better chance to find choices that make sense to us.

Before you frequently head out to the restaurants, you may want to realize that this stealthy beachhead of healthy foods into former strongholds of the unhealthiest examples of the Western Diet is just beginning. There are plenty of high calorie food traps still in operation. I’ve written about restaurant eating in the past, but I decided that restaurants are still a calorie-land mine option, covered by their predominant tastes of salty and sweet with the richness of fat.

The following are some hints about how to navigate eating in restaurants; and some warnings about where the most diabolical of the calories are lurking.

  • Manage your portion size! There is a concept that comes out of psychology research as far back as 1957, called the completion compulsion in human eating. In essence, it is the drive to finish what is placed before us. Animals usually do not acquire the compulsion to eat after they are full; humans, however, seem to be quite adept at it. The researchers of the original study were amused that only once in their study was a fraction of a cookie left. I’ve often cited the work of Cornell University’s Brian Wansink in this field. If you’re not familiar with his work, he has the most innovative and humorous study designs, that among other lessons learned about the psychology of food and eating, validate that indeed, the compulsion to complete what’s in front of you is strongly embedded. If you want to test whether you can resist this compulsion and discover how strong the drive to complete the meal is for you, try this test: divide the meal when it arrives to a reasonable portion and a portion to leave on the plate, thus avoiding the risk of feeling compelled to complete the entire meal. If you pass this test, keep doing it in the future. If not, try again another time soon until you master it. Some people ask for a to go container and box it up at the beginning to avoid the completion compulsion snag.
  • Cut the Mayo: So many restaurant items have mayonnaise as a dressing or spread. If you notice it on the menu, ask the waiter to leave off the mayonnaise and substitute mustard, olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice instead of creamy mayonnaise or salad dressing. Some restaurants have vinaigrette dressings for salad, which also are a better choice.
  • Splitting an entrée surprisingly delivers enough for two people, in most cases. We have done this many times and have more than sufficient food. If you need more volume, maybe extra vegetables or a salad, will work for you. A good rule: fill up with veggies first, then it won’t be so hard to cut back on the calorie-dense dishes with meat, fat, and sugar.
  • Graze the Appetizer Section: Another popular technique is to order an appetizer or two as your entrée; and maybe round it out with a bowl of broth-based soup or a salad
  • Beware of Sauce: Recognizing that the accompanying sauce can add up to hundreds of extra calories, consider a little squeeze of lemon instead.
  • Be sure to count the beverage calories – I’m not a coffee drinker but I’ve noticed that you can down 500 calories and 13 grams of saturated fat with one 16 ounce S’mores Frappuccino Blended Coffee (a little more saturated fat than one BK Whooper Burger). A cup of black Joe is zero/zero. Remember those old fashioned days when coffee was not embellished? No? You’re probably not old enough. I remember that some of my parents and grandparents add cream and sometimes sugar too. But my guess is that at tops they put in two teaspoons of half and half and a teaspoon of sugar, totaling 32 calories a cup. Even if you have a half of S’mores Frappuccino Blended Coffee, you’re still about eight times the calories and over the top in saturated fat.

Also, note that many beverages deliver nothing but empty sugar calories – no nutrients – just calories. Strive to keep your juice to less than six ounces – that’s one serving. You can’t always get an orange to replace the nutrients in juice, so the best you can do it limit how much you consume.

If Starbucks latte is your favorite, you should realize that even without any sweetener it has 17 grams of sugar.

I remember when I could enjoy a shake with a lunch; those days are long gone. A 550-calorie vanilla milkshake is not unusual. It’s an easy way to drive the calories of fast food to the over-the-top-range. Wikipedia says that a typical milkshake is 32 calories an ounce. That comes to just under 400 calories for 12-ounce shake. (Let’s not forget that 400 calories a day – each and every day – is enough to fatten you up around 40 extra pounds in a year’s time.) A long time ago, a milkshake was something often shared – even a romantic event. I’m guessing that the guy drank about two thirds, leaving the gal with about 133 calories. Nowadays, a 22 ounce McCafe will set you back 820 calories; a medium 16 ounce shake has 670 calories and the small 12-ounce vanilla milkshake has 530 calories.

A large Sonic Peanut Butter Fudge Malt or the Peanut Butter Fudge Shake, or the Banana Cream Pie Malt are about 2,000 calories each. Since most people need between 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day, I’m guessing that they don’t eat for the rest of the day, if they enjoy one of these high calorie concoctions.

Lastly, regarding beverages, there’s research that supports the concept that liquid beverages don’t offer long-term satiety, like solid food does. Drinks somehow bypass the appetite suppression mechanism of the body.

  • Beware of Added Cheese! I wish I could help people understand that food covered with a thick layer of cheese is not health food and the calories in cheese, at about 100 calories an ounce, add up fast. Try to visualize a slice of cheese that goes on a sandwich, and when you eat your lasagna, pizza, or other cheese smothered meal, you could be shocked with the calories, not to mention the saturated fat. There’s about 6 grams of saturated fat in one ounce of cheddar cheese. If you need 2,000 calories a day to sustain your body, that would be about 16 grams of saturated fat per day. If you choose a couple of slices of pizza with generous cheese, you could easily have passed the daily recommendation of the American Heart Association for saturated fat in one day.
  • Substitutes for Red Meat: Consider choosing tuna, salmon, or veggie burgers instead of beef hamburger. Or if burgers are the only option, stick with a single small burger.
  • Whole Grains Matter! Look for whole grains like brown rice and whole grain breads. More restaurants are beginning to offer these options, albeit, sometimes they charge extra.
  • Order extra greens with the meal: One way of decreasing the calorie density, thereby filling up on fewer calories for the volume is to order and eat nutritious and filling greens. You may discover that you fill up and can take some of the food home.
  • Watch Bread Portions: How much bread will you eat? We don’t normally have bread with a meal at home, but when we go to a restaurant, we often receive the breadbasket, served first (when you’re often quite hungry and have been waiting in a line smelling the delicious aroma of food). It’s so easy to consume hundreds of extra calories without even realizing it. If the offering contains a big flour tortilla, consider asking for it as a salad or ‘bowl’ instead. You’re filling up on lettuce instead. You may want to consider making a rule for yourself about how much bread you’ll eat. Do you need to double your starch by eating both the potato and the bread? If not, make a conscious decision about how to manage that dilemma.
  • Meat is Brimming with Calories, and too much of it is associated with risk for many diseases. Since we’re flexitarians (sometimes our meals don’t have animal flesh (beef, pork, chicken, or fish) it works well for us at some vegetarian restaurants. You can eat more food for fewer calories when meat is not the main feature. That’s probably one reason we enjoy Aubergine’s, there are so many options and full of flavor. We know we can get the volume to feel satisfied without too many calories.
  • Consider the kids portion, or basic burger, or sandwich. McDonald’s eliminated the Supersize menu, but the equivalent is offered at some restaurants - run when larger portions are offered. You may want to also skip the fries, fried pies, regular sweetened soda pop and fried onion rings to limit calories and fat.
  • Consider skipping the cookie, fries, or chips, and soda pop when going to a sandwich shop. Do you need the slice or two of cheese added to the sandwich?
  • White-Flour Pastas and other starchy foods: If you’ve chosen a pasta meal (note the blinking amber light - little danger signs flashing), do you need bread too? One of those breadsticks at Olive Garden is 140 calories, plus a pile of Fettuccine Alfredo is about 830 calories for two cups. Ouch! Cream sauce on pasta is a disaster for calorie control.
  • Limit Breakfast Options: Do you need both potatoes and pancakes with a breakfast? In addition you may want to consider skipping the side sausage option at some pancake shops. It’s easy to run your breakfast calories up to the amount of calories you need for the entire day.
  • Limit Your Portions! Don’t trust the fast food establishment or the restaurant to serve something that is a common-sense sized portion. When you’re at home would you normally make a burger with two meat patties, two slices of cheese and serve it with a potato topped with more cheese? Would you serve it with whipped ice cream and candy bits? (McFlurry)
  • Skip the Restaurant more often. Cook at Home! Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, both authors and advocates of home cooked foods say, “It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.” They support this claim with reams of evidence in many publications.
  • Manage Take-Homes: If you’re not going to be home in time to safely take a portion of the meal home for a second meal (before it starts to spoil), then waste it; leave it. I realize the value of “waste not, want not,” My grandmother drilled it into me. I realize we don’t purposefully want to waste food, but what if it is your health and longevity is being wasted, if you eat the ridiculously large portions served at many restaurants? Easy choice. Let the food be wasted, not your future.

If like me, you like the convenience of having someone cook for you now and again, then start creating some rules for your eating out experiences. Adapt from the above list and go beyond it -- write your own wise rules. Find some establishments that make it not so hard to eat out without the load of salt, saturated fat and calories, and that make the portion control less of a will-power battle.