If you've been reading this blog all along (thank you!), you know that our New York Times best-selling book, The Digest Diet, is about foods that you can enjoy without guilt, that actually stimulate your body to release fat—foods that you're probably already putting in your shopping cart.
But you also need to be aware of the sneaky fat increasers that cause your body to want to hang on to fat, especially when you're dining out. For our new book, The Digest Diet Dining Out Guide, we pored over nearly 100 restaurant menus to figure out what exactly you should be eating when you don't have as much control over the food. Here are five key things to watch for:
1. Master portion sizes.
After 20 years as a health journalist, I thought I was savvy about supersized restaurant portions. But as I researched the new book, even I was shocked to find how big entrées are and how many calories they contain. I'm talking meals that are at least 800 to some well over 1,000 calories. Once you add in an appetizer, drink, and dessert, a meal can easily add up to more calories than you need for the entire day.
Here's what you can do: Because dishes vary from restaurant to restaurant and even chef to chef at the same place, you'll want to be able to eyeball your plate to make sure you're taking in what you need. For example, one tablespoon is the size of a single-serve mustard packet; one cup is about the size of a diner or coffee shop mug; and four ounces of meat or chicken is about the size of a slice of grocery-store bread. Stealth move: I also spy on neighboring tables to see how much food is on their plates before I order. And I ask the waitstaff if the dish could serve more than one.
2. Watch for environmental traps.
You probably know that restauranteurs use subtle tricks with lighting and music to get you to order more, and even the color and size of plates and tablecloths can trick you into over-ordering or overeating. What's crazy is that even where the dishes appear on the menu can get you to eat more food: Your eye lands most at the top and bottom of a list, like Appetizers, so items that the chef wants to move quickly are often put there. There's also a whole food psychology with naming a dish. The more delicious-sounding the adjectives are (Venetian Apricot Chicken, Roast Chopped Farmhouse Salad), the more attractive the meal sounds and the more likely you are to order it.
Here's what you can do: Help keep you—not your subconscious—in charge of what and how much you eat. Focus on your menu, and read it carefully. Look for fat releasing nutrients. And try not to be distracted by the noise of conversation around you.
3. Avoid fake food.
Too much restaurant food is highly processed and filled with fat, sugar, and salt. That makes it extremely appealing—and very hard to stop eating!
Here's what you can do: Aim for a meal that's about 425 to 450 calories (although, don't go crazy counting them. Look for protein, dairy, calcium, vitamin C, and fiber in most meals. Finally, shoot for four ounces of lean meat or chicken and at least two cups of veggies.
4. Get your veggies first.
Choosing your veggies before you select your protein helps keep you full and satisfied while also making sure you try to get enough of your key nutrients in. Raw or steamed are best to avoid unwanted fat increasers like butter and cream. Otherwise, lightly sauteed or stir-fried are suitable; just watch the portion size because they're higher in calories.
Here's what you can do: Sometimes I mine the menu looking for vegetables that are listed as part of an entree, and then I ask for a small plate of just those vegetables. When I'm faced with a menu that doesn't list vegetable side dishes, like sandwich shops or pizza joints, I ask for a plate piled high with every possible vegetable they have.
5. Do your homework.
Restaurant meals can be lacking in key micronutrients that help regulate body fat and appetite, such as calcium, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin E.
Here's what you can do: Read ahead as to what the restaurant offers, or look through a book like The Digest Diet Dining Out Guide for the best choices at dozens of restaurants across the country. You can also know that if your meal is light in fiber, vitamin C, or other fat releasers, you can make up for it in your next meals at home.