The Diet Detective: Restaurant Shockers--You Think You Ordered Healthy?

Most people believe that if you want to eat healthy at a restaurant all you have to do is know the "right" way to order your food. However, we've learned secrets from several restaurant insiders that will shock even the savviest restaurant aficionados who think they're ordering healthy.

 

You've Been Grilled

That's right, even the grill isn't sacred. I don't know how many times I've recommended that people order their food grilled. But according to food-safety expert Jeff Nelken, "Often times breakfast cooks save the bacon fat and use it on the grill to make lunch and dinner foods." Also, the grill itself may not be what you think it is.

When we order foods grilled, most of us assume they'll be cooked on an open flame, but many times it's a flat-top grill, where some type of grease or oil is necessary to create an even cooking surface, increase the cooking speed and prevent the food from sticking.

Many restaurants will call a food "flame grilled" on the menu, but even so, the food or the grill may have been brushed with oil to prevent sticking. Even "grilled" fish/seafood is always brushed with some type of oil, says John Greely, chef at the famed 21 Club in New York City.

Healthy tip: Ask if they're using a flat-top grill or a flame grill. If it's flat-top, request your food grilled in a pan with cooking spray instead of oil. Nelken suggests telling the server you "just returned from the hospital and need the food prepared according to doctor's instruction."

Another option is frequenting restaurants where you can see the food being cooked in an open kitchen, says, Kimberly Johnson, R.D., a chef and instructor in the Nutrition and Hospitality Management Department at Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY.

Oil Slick

There's oil on almost every restaurant dish, and while some oils (e.g., canola, olive) are healthier than others, they all have approximately 120 calories per tablespoon. So you may go to the trouble of ordering an egg-white omelet, believing you're making a "healthy" choice, but it could be doused in oil.

Or you might order grilled or steamed vegetables, but they may have been marinating in oil for hours, if not all day. It's difficult to get grilled or steamed veggies without oil, because they must be made to order--and that takes a lot of time in a busy kitchen. And certain vegetables are worse than others. "Eggplant, for example, absorbs a lot of oil--just poke it around in your dish, and see what comes out," says Greely.

There's oil in other "healthy" foods as well. Because fat and oil help preserve cooked food, busy restaurants usually partially cook poultry/fish and then coat it in butter/oil until it's ready to be finished, says Billy Strynkowski, executive chef of Cooking Light magazine. "Even if you order your chicken 'dry' with the sauce on the side, poultry is always pan-fried in oil or clarified butter."

Pasta, potatoes and rice, again, are often partially cooked and filmed with some type of fat so they stay fresh and don't clump together, adds Juventino Avila, chef and instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. Oh, and if you think that having simple rice and beans at your favorite Mexican restaurant is healthy, think again--the rice is fried, then steamed.

Healthy tip: Be aware of where you're eating. Restaurants typically want to please their patrons; however, most of the time, unless the restaurant promotes itself as healthy, it just doesn't have the equipment, materials, time or utensils to do it right, offers Avila.

Almost all the chefs agree: If you want it cooked a certain way, make sure to tell your server that you have an allergy (to butter, or whatever it is you want eliminated). This usually encourages the chef to make up a new batch of veggies, chicken, etc., without those added calories. Avila recommends calling the restaurant in advance and making sure it can provide the food exactly the way you want it prepared.

Butter Me Up

Even if something isn't doused in oil, you still may not be calorie-safe--it can have added butter or cream. Toasted buns are often covered in butter; even steaks have butter drizzled on them before they're sent out. "And restaurants always finish sauces with butter or cream--even if the words butter or cream aren't in the sauce's name. For example, a white wine sauce is always finished with butter," says Cooking Light's Strynkowski.

Healthy tip: Be suspicious, be inquisitive, and make sure to get a straight answer from the server (who should ask the chef). Always invoke the "allergic reaction" or "medical condition" excuses to be on the safe side.

Puree Fantasy

Pureed soups, potatoes and vegetables are full of cream and/or butter to make them smooth and tasty, says Greely. Also, anything that looks creamy and velvety probably has butter or cream. Some restaurants do make thick "creamy" soups without butter or cream. But if that's the case, your server will almost always make a point of telling you. Restaurants know that many customers are concerned about cutting the fat in their diets, and they want to let you know when they think they've done something you'll appreciate.

Healthy tip: Ask your server about the ingredients and the preparation method, specifically if the dish has any cream, and, if not, what was used instead. Natural, healthy, low-calorie thickening agents include pured potatoes, roasted garlic and arrowroot. If there's no thickening agent, well, they probably used butter or cream.

Sodium Surprise

Calories aren't all you get when dining out: Many restaurants go heavy on the seasoning, including sodium, reports Nelken. Most places put salt on almost everything they make, especially the marinades. Some chicken producers even inject chickens with a sodium solution to add flavor.

Healthy tip: Ask for no salt or sodium, and ask if your dish has been marinated, and if so, in what.

Allergies

Almost 11 million Americans have allergies to foods such as peanuts, fish, milk and wheat, and even if your food isn't made with the offending ingredient, it still may not be allergen-free. Cooks, food handlers, utensils, almost anything can infect an allergic individual, warns Nelken. A server comes out with four or five plates, and if one has a peanut sauce or fish oil, the odds are the server has it on his or her hands and can transfer it to your dish.

Healthy tip: Call ahead, and don't take risks. If you believe something contains or has been contaminated with the allergen--avoid it.

Salad Surprise

According to chef Greely, any pre-tossed salad (particularly those made in large batches) could have up to a quarter-cup of dressing when a tablespoon usually suffices.

Healthy tip: Order a simple "vinaigrette" dressing made with vinegar, olive oil and an acid such as lemon juice or grapefruit juice, and always ask for it on the side.

Whole-grain Mystery

When we see wheat-crust pizza, whole-wheat pasta or wheat buns on a menu, most of us automatically think "healthy." But according to Marjorie K. Livingston, M.S., R.D., a professor at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, there's no real way to be sure that you're really getting a whole-grain product.

In fact, most of the time you're getting products that just have brown coloring, maybe with some whole-grain flour. "There really is no definition of whole grain for restaurants. Even something like a bran muffin often has very little bran in it--you're mostly getting a muffin with coloring," says Livingston.

Healthy tip: Ask the manager to find out if what you're ordering is truly a 100 percent whole-grain product. If he or she isn't 100 percent sure, it's probably not.

It Must Be True

Even though there's no law requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information, they are required to do so if they make a nutrition (e.g., low-sodium, low-fat, low-cholesterol, healthy, light, etc.) or health claim about the relationship between a nutrient or food and a disease or health condition (e.g., "heart healthy").

The following are sample nutritional claims:

  • Light: Means the item has fewer calories and less fat than the food to which it's being compared. (Restaurants may, however, use the term "light" for reasons other than as a nutrient-content claim--for example, "lighter fare" may mean smaller portions. However, the intended meaning must be clarified on the menu.)
  • Healthy: Means the item is low in fat and saturated fat, has limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium and provides significant amounts of one or more of the key nutrients vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber.
Healthy tip: Keep in mind that restaurants aren't required to have their food analyzed as are food manufacturers, so the information they provide is probably not 100 percent accurate. Restaurants may make their claims based on any "reasonable" information, such as databases, cookbooks or other secondhand sources that provide nutrition information.

Charles Stuart Platkin is an Active Expert, nutrition and public health advocate, author of the best seller Breaking the Pattern (Plume, 2005), Breaking the FAT Pattern (Plume, 2006) and Lighten Up (Penguin USA/Razorbill, 2006) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Sign up for The Diet Detective newsletter free at www.dietdetective.com.

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