If you're trying to control your weight, frequent restaurant meals are usually the first to be banished. A wise decision, since many restaurants serve up high-calorie foods in large portions. Consider that a typical steak dinner – with the works – has 1,000-plus calories and a plate of seafood pasta can deliver as many as 1,200 calories (before the bread!). Even an entrée salad with chicken can have 800 calories or more.
Indeed, many studies have shown that people who eat out often consume more calories and fat and carry more body fat than folks who routinely eat meals prepared at home.
But according to a recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, frequent restaurant eating doesn't have to make you gain weight. The results suggest it's possible to eat out and, believe it or not, even lose a few pounds.
For the study, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin enrolled 35 healthy perimenopausal women, aged 40 to 59, who ate out at least three times a week. Nineteen were placed in a six-week program called Mindful Restaurant Eating that helps develop skills to reduce calorie and fat intake when dining out. The remaining 16 women did not participate in the program and served as the control group.
Women in the prevention group attended six weekly, two-hour sessions. Each session included discussions on managing weight, weekly goals, eating-out strategies and mindful eating meditation. That mediation involved exercises aimed at becoming aware of hunger and satiety and helping appreciate the sight, smell and texture of food in order to increase satisfaction with smaller portions.
The focus was not on losing weight but rather preventing weight gain, an important goal for women during the perimenopausal years when extra weight tends to accumulate around the abdomen, increasing the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
That said, women enrolled in the Mindful Restaurant Eating program lost an average of 3.7 pounds and 1.2 inches from their waists after six weeks. There was no change in body weight or waist circumference among women in the control group.
The number of times each week women ate out in restaurants did not change, indicating they were successfully able to manage their weight while continuing their usual, frequent eating-out patterns. Women who completed the program reduced their daily intake by 297 calories, about half accounted for during eating out. Fewer calories were also eaten at home.
The bottom line: With a series of strategies, it is possible to control and manage what and how much you eat in restaurants. But without a game plan, it's easy to eat more – and gain weight – without intending to.
Start by doing your homework. Many restaurants post nutrition numbers and other healthy eating tips on their websites. It's useful information that can help you decide what to order.
I'm willing to bet if you knew in advance that the Keg's Crème Brulée packs in 825 calories, you'd resist the temptation. Knowing that Swiss Chalet's full rack of BBQ ribs has 1,300 calories – and 900 milligrams of sodium – might prompt you to order a half rack.
Be assertive when dining out. If you don't know what's in a dish or don't know the serving size, ask. The following tips will help you make healthier choices in restaurants.
To cut fat, especially saturated fat:
• When ordering grilled meat, fish or chicken, ask that it be grilled without butter or oil.
• Choose tomato-based pasta dishes rather than creamy ones. Alfredo and rosé sauces are made with whipping cream, which delivers a hefty amount of saturated fat.
• Stick with broth-based soups instead of cream-based soups and chowders. To increase your intake of fibre-rich legumes, choose minestrone, lentil and bean soups most often.
• Order sandwiches made with whole grain bread instead of white bread or high-fat croissants.
• Order steamed vegetables, green salad, or steamed brown rice instead of French fries.
• Ask for salsa with a baked potato instead of butter, sour cream, cheese or bacon.
• Watch out for healthy-sounding salads. Entrée salads laden with cheese, bacon and plenty of dressing can have more fat and calories than an all-dressed burger.
• Request lower-fat items even if they're not on the menu – fat-reduced salad dressings, salsa for a baked potato, or berries for dessert.
To reduce sodium:
• Stay clear of menu items described as pickled, marinated, smoked, barbequed, smothered (in sauce), teriyaki, soy sauce, broth, miso, gravy, bacon, and of course, salted or salty. These words indicate higher sodium meals.
• Order dressings, gravies and condiments on the side. Salad dressings, barbecue sauce, ketchup, mustard and pickles can add considerably to the sodium content of a meal. Request them separate from your meal and use them sparingly. You'll save calories too.
• If ordering pizza, skip the processed meat toppings and order half the usual amount of cheese.
• Request your meal to be prepared without added salt, MSG or sodium-containing ingredients such as soy sauce and broths.
To slim down portion size
• Ask that half your meal be boxed up "to go" before you start eating. If you leave it sitting on your plate you'll be more likely to eat it.
• Order two appetizers, or an appetizer and a side salad, instead of a large entrée. Consider sharing an entrée.
• Cut down on starchy side dishes. Skip the bread if the meal comes with rice, potato or pasta. Ask for extra vegetables instead of the potatoes or rice. Order a half-portion of pasta.
• Slow your pace. After every bite, put down your knife and fork and chew your food thoroughly.
• Stop eating when you feel satisfied, not full. It takes 20 minutes for your brain to get the signal that your stomach has had enough food.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.