Dieting used to be so simple: skip the bread and potatoes. But life has a tendency to get complicated. One second we see carbohydrates as our friends, and consider fats the enemies of our good looks and good health, whether or not we are overweight. The next second carbs are bad and meat and fat are considered “diet” food.
In addition, we eat out more often. Thus, instead of choosing the best from the pickings of our pantry or simply passing up the offenders at the family table, we are repeatedly tempted by a multitude of choices that make up a restaurant menu. Fried chicken or turkey-sandwich-hold-the-mayo?
If I turn down the white-chocolate mousse cake, will I have missed the best one of my life? We know a lot about what’s good for us, but not quite as much about the willpower needed to consistently use the knowledge.
When talking about cutting fat rather than avoiding starches, the problem becomes much more difficult. Starches are visible. You can identify the bread, the potatoes, even the breading or crumbs, and often pick them out of the food. Fat is harder to spot. It is incorporated; it disappears into the sauce or the mousse. How oily is that tomato sauce, how creamy that soup? How much dressing is on that salad? One can only guess.
Thus, simplest is safest. If each ingredient is separate, if the sauce or dressing is on the side, you can at least control the components that are likely to be high in fat.
While starches are no longer seen as culprits, they properly bear a lot of guilt by association. It is easiest to hide fats in starches, since they absorb fats without changing their appearance. Those innocent-looking mashed potatoes can swallow massive amounts of butter and cream. That thrifty breading can invisibly swallow all the fat the meatloaf or roast turkey can release. So indulge in starches, but only in their most natural states, before they have become hideouts for fats.
Let’s start with the beginning of the meal, which at a restaurant usually means the beverage. Alcohol, as appealing and relaxing as it may be, is the epitome of empty calories. So if you care about that, switch to fizzy water – club soda, seltzer or mineral water – and enliven it, if you like, with a wedge of lime, a dash of bitters or a spritz of orange juice.
You can cut your wine with sparkling water – a wine spritzer – or drink red jug wine (don’t waste the good stuff) mixed half-and-half with lemonade. Of course, one delicious way to cut wine consumption is to dine with several other people and share a bottle of glorious wine that’s so expensive no one is tempted to order a second bottle. Or order wine by the glass, which avoids the temptation to finish the bottle because you don’t want to waste good wine. Overall, when you drink wine, do so for the taste rather than for the thirst-quenching qualities: drink your water, sip your wine.
Next, the bread. Bread is not evil – at least eaten without butter. Ask that the butter be removed from the table, and don’t fool yourself into thinking that margarine has any lower caloric or fat content than butter. If you must use butter, let it warm to room temperature, then spread it very thinly.
Of course, not all bread is equal. French and Italian breads contain no fat, unless they have been turned into garlic bread or cheese toast. Whole-grain breads are likely to contain some fat, but the extra nutrients may be worth it. Yeast breads are more likely to be low fat than quick breads – especially fruit breads, nut breads, biscuits and muffins.
Croissants are practically butter wrapped in a little flour, and brioche nearly oozes butter, while bagels are virtually fat-free. Crackers – except Japanese rice crackers and Scandinavian flatbreads – get their crunch from their fat content.
Salad is a fine, healthful appetizer most of the time. The dressing is generally the questionable part: ask for it on the side, so you can add it judiciously. Choose lowfat dressings or yogurt, or just a squeeze of lemon or lime. You can stir a little dijon mustard or Worcestershire sauce into lemon or vinegar for a fat-free quick tableside dressing. When in doubt, the thinner the dressing the better, since less of it will cling to the salad. You can thin it with extra vinegar, lemon or water.
At the salad bar, watch out for cheese, bacon bits, cured meats, croutons, eggs, sunflower or sesame seeds, olives, crunchy fried noodles and such composed salads as potato, tuna, macaroni or other pasta, corn relish or even ready-dressed vegetable salads.
Soup is a sensible beginning because it is eaten slowly (try using a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon) and it is filling. Clear soups are the wisest choices, since you can generally see the fat, and, if necessary, skim it off with a spoon.
Fresh fruits are also lightweight appetizers (look among the desserts if they are not listed as an appetizer), as are steamed clams (without the butter), boiled shrimp, plain crab, smoked fish or ceviche. And anything you eat slowly makes a good beginning, since it passes the time without your inhaling unnoticed calories and allows your appetite to abate before tackling the main dish. Whole fresh artichokes fill this function (artichoke hearts are another matter). Asparagus spears drizzled with lemon and eaten by hand are almost as useful. Steamed crab, lobster, and shrimp in the shell allow for languid, lowfat dining – as long as you dress them with vinegar, lemon or broth rather than butter.
As for main dishes, keep in mind the words poached, simmered, steamed, grilled, broiled, roasted and baked. Avoid foods described as fried, pan fried, sauteed, crisp, rich, battered, crusty or pastry-wrapped. Keep in mind that a lot of butter and cream can be hidden in anything stuffed, mashed, whipped or pureed.
Sauces with cream, cheese or butter are obviously heavyweight. Sauces that cling are likely to add more fat to your body than those that run off the food. Be cautious with nut sauces, peanut sauces, tahini, hollandaise, mayonnaise, sour cream, creme fraiche, olive sauces or guacamole, or anything made with avocado.
Trust whole foods more than those that are mashed or chopped and bound with a sauce. Watch out for lasagna, thickened stews and navarins – a French name for stew.
Fish and shellfish are generally leaner than meat, pale meats less fatty than darker or redder ones.
To lighten your dinner, skin the chicken, trim meat or blot greasy food. Pour off grease if necessary; it makes a strong statement to the restaurateur.
Vegetables should be assets rather than deficits. Once you get used to the idea, a baked potato is great with just salt and maybe a splash of Worcestershire or lemon. You can moisten it with a dollop of cottage cheese or yogurt (but not, as I was once served, strawberry yogurt). The rice and beans in a Latin restaurant are wholesome, though if the beans are mashed and refried they are likely to be steeped in fat. In Chinese restaurants, order stir-fries that have plenty of vegetables, and don’t ignore the rice. Eggplant is often a hidden source of considerable fat, since it acts as a sponge when sauteed or fried.
For dessert, fresh fruit is usually available, and sorbets these days are not only prevalent, they are wonderful.
Fast foods need not be nutritionally evil. Roast beef is often the leanest of all the sandwiches; at Arby’s, the French Dip is less fatty than the regular.
If you order a burger or fish sandwich without the sauce, you’ll reduce the fat content substantially. Fried chicken is available in lighter versions but remember that Kentucky Fried Chicken’s extra crispy has more fat than its original recipe. Better yet, order your chicken grilled or barbecued.
Even mashed potatoes have less fat than french fries, and salad or corn less yet. Try ordering pizza with little or no cheese, and top it with vegetables – mushrooms, onions, peppers, broccoli – rather than pepperoni or sausage.