Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
When we go out to eat a meal at a restaurant, we put selective blinders on. If we’re not cooking it ourselves, we don’t see how much of which ingredients are going into the dish, so it’s easy to forget about how many calories we’re actually ordering.
On special occasions, it’s nice to treat yourself and not think about how many calories really are in your meal, but eating out isn’t just for special occasions anymore. In fact, according to the National Restaurant Association, Americans eat out a LOT — on average five to seven times per week!
Of course there are other factors, but the huge portions and high-calorie meals we eat in fast food and other restaurants are becoming a major contributor to our nation’s obesity crisis.
Now for some (sort of) good news: More than 60 large chain restaurants have finally gotten the message, and are adding lower-calorie options (not that they’re eliminating their high-calorie dishes). According to a study at Johns Hopkins funded by the National Restaurant Association, additions made to menus in 2013 had 12 percent fewer calories than items that had been on the menu in 2012. That’s a good start, but it only translates to perhaps 60 fewer calories in a main dish, which along with beverages and children’s meals are where the calorie reductions show up. Kids’ meals showed the greatest decline at 20 percent.
Instead of relying on menu changes at chain restaurants to help you slim down or stay slim, what can you do to enjoy the convenience and conviviality of eating out without ballooning up? After many years of traveling and eating countless meals in restaurants, I’ve come up with ways to stay on the straight and narrow. Of course, a sit-down casual restaurant like Olive Garden or Chili’s is more likely to cater to your preferences than McDonald’s and other fast food places. But even there, you can cut calories. Here’s how:
1. Do your research. Most restaurants and all chains post their menus online. Decide what you’ll order before you go there and face temptation. In many states, the calorie count is right there on the menu.
2. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Don’t torture yourself with temptation. Avoid places that only offer problematic dishes like pizza or heavy pastas you won’t be able to resist. There are few of us that have the strength to order a garden salad with chicken breast at a pizzeria.
3. Practice portion control. Have you ever noticed how the plates at restaurants have come to look like platters? This illusion can make a ton of food look like a normal size meal. Split a dish with your dining companion, or immediately place half of it in a doggie bag to take home for another meal. You don’t want to find yourself whining, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!”
4. Pass on the bread (or chips). It’s all too easy to mindlessly put away a few slices of bread and butter or a bowl of chips and salsa if it’s under your nose. Ask the waitperson not to bring it to the table at all so you won’t be tempted. Sip on some seltzer water with lemon to keep your taste buds occupied until mealtime.
5. Salad does NOT necessarily mean “healthy.” While many people watching their weight only order from the salad section, be warned: “Salad” is not a magic word. I like to think about it this way — what would you have if you subtracted the lettuce? That buffalo chicken salad you’re ordering is just a dressed-up order of buffalo wings — plus cheese and dressing and croutons.
6. Style your sandwich. Ask for an open-face sandwich, any dressing on the side. If that’s not possible, simply deconstruct it and eat it with a fork. That alone can save you more than 100 calories!
7. Modify main dishes. Ask if the sauce — often full of butter, oil, cream and sugar — can be omitted or served on the side. Opt for grilled or baked chicken, fish or shellfish instead of breaded or batter-dipped.
8. Avoid certain sides. You know what they are: French fries, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes … the list goes on. Instead, ask for a serving of veggies.
9. Skip dessert. If you must have a sweet, share it with your dining companions. Or opt to end your meal with some coffee or tea instead of a sugary calorie bomb.