People love to eat. We are lucky to be living in an era when we have access to so many delicious, and varied foods. We are a society obsessed with consumption, a hobby that is making some well-publicized changes to our waistlines. We love eating, and because of it we have a range of health problems, from heart conditions to diabetes. North Americans have a love-hate relationship with food.
No matter how many diet trends come and go, we cannot be convinced that if we simply eat less and eat better, then we will live longer, healthier lives. We make all sorts of excuses that we do not have time to think about and plan to eat healthy, because we are always on the go. We are a culture of convenience, but convenience comes at a price. We have a variety of foods available to us on every street corner, at almost any time of the day or night, and with the pace of our lifestyles, we are glad. But eating out and eating crap, too often, are simultaneous ventures.
The best way to control what goes into your body over your lunch hour is to make your lunch yourself and brown bag it. That is really the only way you have of ensuring what is going into your lunch. If, however, you are among the vast majority of people who just grab something at or close to work, then you need to be careful what you are grabbing.
The two biggest problems with eating out are these: portion size and empty calories, meaning calories consumed with little or no nutritional value. After those two issues is the fact that you have little knowledge of or control over what is going into your meal and how it is prepared.
If you are grabbing lunch, you want something quick, and possibly something you can take back to the office, the most logical and popular option for a quick lunch is fast food. Most fast food restaurants have finally taken enough heat as the scapegoats of the obese generation to offer what they consider healthy menu choices.
Whether or not they are healthy really depends on the restaurant and the item, but here are some tips for eating healthy and fast:
- If you are eating a sandwich, go somewhere that offers a whole wheat or whole grain choice of bread. White bread is virtually devoid of nutritional value, and provides your body simply with empty carbs. Whole grains, however are high in fiber, which is important for keeping your digestive system running smoothly.
- If you go to a sub place, take a look at just how much bread they give you. It’s a loaf of bread. Opt for the whole wheat wrap, skip the sauces and processed cheese.
- If you are getting a sub or a sandwich, the more veggies you include, the better. Also, try to avoid processed cheeses and meats. Grilled chicken breast is a nice, low fat option. As soon as it is slathered in sauce (BBQ, teriyaki, etc.), recognize that you are adding a ton of sugar, and therefore empty calories to your meal.
- If you grab a salad, ask if they have any calorie-reduced dressings. Creamy dressings are high in fat and in empty calories. A huge salad is great for you, as it provides you with greens, and hopefully a variety of other vegetables. Where many fast food places fall of the wagon with their salads is when they add things like deep fried chicken fingers or heaps of processed cheese on top.
There is almost zero nutritional value in a hot dog, and a ton of fat and empty calories. At a restaurant, always opt for smaller lunch portions, don’t load up on free bread. If you grab a cup of soup, go for the non-creamy variety.
Like fast food chains, many restaurants have recognized that their clientele is increasingly aware of their bulging waistlines and will help you out by indicating low fat or healthy options on their menus. This is especially prevalent in larger chain restaurants. These are helpful guidelines, but left to your own devices, there are always healthier options.
One of the dangers of dinner is that, for some reason, many of us have been brought up to believe that a heavy, multi-course meal a few hours before bedtime is a great idea! This defies logic, but we do it regardless.
Luckily, North Americans, if they are in an average chain restaurant, and many smaller ones mimic those, there are many items that you can count on, and a few that you can have. Here are some guidelines to the average North American restaurant (this includes some ethnic food, but only Americanized versions that are fairly commonplace):
- Appetizers are delicious, mostly because they are, almost without exception, really high in fat. Fried calamari, wings, cheese baked whatever (mushrooms, bread, escargot, etc.). Due to their nature, appetizers need to be quickly prepared and full of flavour. To North Americans, those two elements usually lead to an adventure in deep frying.
- Salads are a healthy alternative to an appetizer. You need lots of green leafy veggies in your diet for fibre and vitamins. Again, however, the addition of calamari, a large hunk of baked cheese, or a creamy dressing will up the fat content of your salad and negate your efforts.
- Non-cream based, non-baked soups are healthiest. Of the stock soups, vegetable based stocks contain the least amount of fat.
- When ordering your entrée, chicken breast and fish are two healthy choices. While higher in fat in general , beef and pork should be lean cuts, and keep the portion size under 8 oz. In fact, 6 oz is ideal.
- Ordering meats, like chicken breasts, that are stuffed (usually with another meat and cheese) will raise the fat and calorie content.
- Pick food that is grilled, broiled, baked, or steamed to eliminate extra fat added in the process of cooking.
- If there is a vegetarian option on the menu, it is not necessarily low in fat. For instance, many places that offer a veggie burger deep fry the patty, offsetting the nutritional value with saturated fat. Throw it on a big white bun with melted cheese and some chili mayo, and what you have is probably equal in fat to a fried, breaded chicken burger.
- Sauces are the silent killer in meals. You can order a beautiful broiled fish, which is high in anti-oxydents and low in saturated fat, but once it is smothered in buttery cream sauce, you just tripled the calories and the bad fat content. Ask for sauces and dressings on the side, that way you can control the amount going on your meal.
- Always make sure you have at least one vegetable (preferably steamed) on your dinner place, even if it has to replace a starch or be ordered as a side.
Preparation and portion are the focus when eating out. The biggest diet killer in America is our absolute lack of perspective when it comes to portions. Almost every chain restaurant you go to will give you a portion big enough for two meals. If you cannot resist cleaning off your plate, ask your server to serve you only half the portion of the meal and immediately wrap up the second half to take home.
Remember that more convenient the food, the less likely that natural, whole ingredients are going into it. It is easy to become overwhelmed by rules and parameters when you are trying to eat healthy, but only for the first little while. Soon it will become second nature to you to evaluate your meal for nutrients and portion size and you will be making healthier choices every day.