Healthy Eating in Restaurants

If you buy your own groceries and cook for yourself, you have a huge amount of control over the healthfulness of what you eat. But for many of us, our busy lives involve eating out for social and business purposes, often in cities or restaurants that are new to us. So how does one deal with that? Here are some ideas.

Know which foods contribute to our health, and which ones are killing us. I’ve captured the findings of a number of studies onto this concise list but an even shorter summary is this: eat whole plants including vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruits. Avoid all animal products including meat, fish, poultry, and all dairy products. Avoid processed foods with added oil or sugar.

Plan for long trips. When I recently went on a trip to Europe, I took oatmeal packets and salad dressing packets in my suitcase. I bought McDougall’s Oatmeal packets from Amazon. I prefer the maple flavor and they have half the amount of sugar as other oatmeal packets. I took enough oatmeal for two packets every morning. I just added hot tap water from the hotel room sink and in a couple minutes had a hearty healthy meal to start off the day. If convenient, I would find and eat a fruit for breakfast. For lunch and dinner, I would try to find a healthy dish on the menu, but if there were none, I could always order a salad. If they had a dressing with no oil (e.g. balsamic vinegar), fine. If not, I would take out my single-serving packets of salad dressing that I brought with me. Walden Farms sells a number of flavors of oil-free dressings in single-serving packets, including a blue cheese dressing that has no dairy. You can get them from Amazon or from Sprouts grocery stores. These dressings do have sucralose in them, which is a relatively new no-calorie sweetener. It might be harmful, but I will take that chance over the products with oil that are proven to be harmful. By the way, I keep packets of this dressing in my business suit pocket and in my car so that at any time I am forced to eat out, I can always order a salad and have something healthy to eat.

Finding a healthy restaurant. I often rely on for listings of vegan restaurants. I’ve used them on the west coast, east coast, and Europe. Once you’ve found a vegan restaurant, you must understand that vegan does not equate to healthy. Potato chips and Coca-Cola are vegan, but in no way healthy. A restaurant near U.C. Berkeley called Cinnaholic makes vegan cinnamon rolls which taste just as good as Cinnabon. However, the Cinnaholic rolls contain lots of white flour, sugar, and oil and are in no way healthy. And in vegan restaurants, meat substitutes often are highly processed and contain dangerous levels of concentrated protein and fat. So you need to be discerning even in a vegan restaurant, but you’re likely to have a much larger selection of truly healthy foods to choose from than in a non-vegan restaurant. Tell your waiter that you want a whole-plant dish with no fake meat and no oil. Most vegan restaurants will have many such options.

Thai, Chinese, and Indian restaurants can usually make meat-free dishes. Often tofu or tempeh is offered as a standard alternative to meat. Ask for no oil and in addition to saying you want the tofu option, be sure to tell them that you want no animal products. For example, some Thai dishes are typically flavored with fish sauce, but if you ask, they can leave it out. It will still taste great.

At a Mexican restaurant, you can order a tostada with a corn tortilla, rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa. Usually the flour tortillas will have oil added to them so avoid them but usually the corn tortillas won’t so they are healthy. But be sure to ask. Don’t choose any deep fried tortilla and avoid the restaurant’s chips. When I know I’m going to a Mexican restaurant, I take along a bag of LaReina baked unsalted corn chips (ingredients: corn, and a trace of lime – that’s all) which I get at Whole Foods. I treat my friends dining with me to my chips, and we all enjoy the restaurants salsa with the chips.

Negotiate with the chef. They like it better if you call ahead and give them advance warning, and that way you can talk directly to the chef instead of going through the waitress or waiter. But even if you don’t call ahead, it’s often worth a try. I will often tell the chef or waitress that I want a whole plant-based dish with no oil and then ask them what they can offer. They seem to like the challenge and I am rarely disappointed.  I might end up with tasty steamed vegetables, grilled vegetables, baked potato with veggies and/or beans (just no cheese, butter, or sour cream). Many restaurants offer tasty soups with only plants in them.

Clean up the food. In Italy, I ordered grilled vegetables and was very clear that I wanted “sensa olio” – no oil. But when my grilled vegetables came they were dripping in oil. I used my napkin to remove as much of the oil as I could. I’m sure there was a little oil left behind which I ate, but not nearly as much oil as before my wipe-down operation. And the veggies tasted great.

I hope these ideas help you. Perhaps you will come up with other strategies that you can share with me. At first, the obstacles to eating healthy at restaurants seem daunting, but after you do it for a while, it becomes easy and you don’t even notice it. And if you really go all in on a plant-based diet, the resulting reduction in cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and weight make it really worthwhile.

John Tanner, PhD   1-3-2014
Director, NuSci, The Nutrition Science Foundation

(626) 872-4050 Pacific Time


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