The Healthy Dish

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We love the tastes and smells of restaurant cuisine, but with huge portions loaded with saturated fat and sodium, the menu can be a minefield of unhealthy options. How do you choose between General Tso's chicken or moo goo gai pan? Pasta with Alfredo sauce or lasagna?

While some restaurants identify better-for-you foods on their menus, most do not. We're here to help. Use this guide to become a health-savvy diner.

Italian

The trick to healthy Italian is to watch the cheese and know your sauces. Red sauces tend to give you more nutritional bang for the fat and calories. Also, tomato-based dishes are loaded with lycopene, associated with a reduced risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. Choose shrimp or mussels for protein, which don't have heavy doses of fat and calories. And to get health benefits by the forkful, order pasta tossed with extra veggies like broccoli, yellow squash and mushrooms.

Order This:
  • Pasta e fagioli, a pasta and bean soup.
  • Minestrone, an Italian vegetable soup.
  • Red clam sauce.
  • Tomato sauces including marinara, pomodoro and puttanesca (made of anchovies, capers and black olives).
Not That:
  • Parmigiana, such as chicken and eggplant. These dishes are floured, fried and topped with marinara sauce and cheese, making them high in saturated fat.
  • Lasagna and other baked casseroles, full of high-fat ground meat and cheese.
  • Dishes made with pancetta, an Italian bacon.
  • Alfredo sauce. Prepared with globs of butter, heavy cream and Parmesan cheese two cups of fettuccini Alfredo can contain 1,200 calories and 77 grams of fat.
  • Bolognese sauce, made with a variety of fatty meats, cream and wine.

Chinese

The biggest pitfall here is thinking that Chinese food is prepared as healthfully in this country as it is in China, says Joanne Lichten, Ph.D., (www.drjo.com) a registered dietitian and author of Dining Lean--How to Eat Healthy When You're Not at Home. "Meals (in the U.S.) contain more meat than vegetables and way more oil," she says. Lichten recommends asking to have extra veggies in stir-fried dishes and cooked in as little oil as possible.

The sodium content of any restaurant meal is a concern, but especially problematic in Chinese restaurants thanks to MSG (monosodium glutamate), a flavor enhancer. Sauces made of soy and most soups are also high in sodium. One tablespoon of soy sauce contains more than 1,000 milligrams sodium--just under half the daily recommended amount of 2,400 mg--so use as little as possible or skip it. Instead flavor your food with a tablespoon of plum sauce for only about 100 mg of sodium per tablespoon. Leave more of the salty, oily stuff on your plate by eating with chopsticks. Resist the urge to mop it up with your rice or noodles.

Order This:
  • Steamed appetizers like vegetable dumplings.
  • Steamed rice and boiled noodles.
  • Soups such as won ton, hot and sour and velvet corn (but realize that your cup is likely brimming with sodium).
  • Chow mein (without the fried noodles), chop suey, moo goo gai pan, steamed fish with vegetables and stir-fried meat and vegetables.
  • Fortune cookie.  A wish for health and prosperity with only 30 calories and no fat.
Not That:
  • Buffets and fast food or mall fare. Unless your meal is cooked to order, you're stuck with whatever high-fat, high-sodium, low-vegetable dish they've already prepared.
  • Sweet and sour entrees. The sauce is sugar-laden and the meat is usually fried.
  • General Tso's chicken. Made with fried chicken, this dish weighs in at 1,300 calories and 11 grams saturated fat.
  • Dishes with "crispy" in the name or description, which is just another word for fried. This includes lemon chicken and chow mein.
  • Fried rice and fried appetizers like egg rolls and shrimp toast.

Mexican

A favorite after-work gathering place, Mexican restaurants offer rice, beans and dishes with small amounts of meat--a foundation for a healthy meal. But you have to watch out for enticing extras: deep fried tortilla chips, refried beans, fried taco shells, sour cream and cheese, cheese, cheese--all saturated or trans fat horrors. And pay attention to those margaritas, too. They can tip the scales at 400 calories in a mere 8 ounces. And alcohol makes it harder to keep your hands out of the chips.

Order This:
  • Black beans or black bean soup. High fiber and filling, one order can help reach the recommended three cups of legumes weekly. Ask your server what kind of fat is used in the dish. Avoid it if it's lard or animal fat.
  • Tortilla soup, which usually contains  low-fat vegetables or chicken. Limit the strips of fried tortillas.
  • Fajitas. Load up on veggies and leave some of the cheese and meat on the platter.
  • Salsa and picante sauce. Use these tomato-based toppings to dress your salad, spice up your tacos and add to soups.
  • Guacamole. Yes, it's high in fat, but it's the good-for-you monounsaturated kind.
Not That:
  • Chalupas and tostadas, which are fried corn tortillas, served flat and topped with meats and cheese.
  • Chimichangas, a deep-fried nutrition nightmare.
  • Fried salad shells, which can contain 500 calories--half from fat. Ask for your salad to be served in a bowl instead.
  • Refried beans, often made with lard.
  • Mexican rice, frequently fried in oil before it's steamed.

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