When you're dining out, it's easy to rack up more than 1,000 calories during one meal. But contrary to popular belief, dining out on healthy and tasty fare is possible. Top nutrition experts from around the country weighed in with their most creative tips. Whether feasting on Mexican, Japanese or Italian, these experts explain what to do in order to keep your taste buds and waistline happy.
Consider these creative and out-of-the-box approaches to healthy dining:
Registered dietitian Stephanie Middleberg, founder of Middleberg Nutrition, gives her no-nonsense approach: "You get one treat – bread, alcohol or dessert, not all three."
You may be surprised to hear that registered dietitian Jo Lichten, author of "Eat Out Healthy," advises folks to skip the salad. She says: "If you're ordering the salad 'because it's healthy' or to 'get your veggies,' forget it! Salads often consist of lettuce of low nutritional value (dark greens have more nutritional value than iceberg lettuce), along with high-fat and high-calorie ingredients such as croutons, cheese, bacon and dressing – adding up to as much as 500 calories for a 'side salad.'"
Ask and You Shall Receive
Many folks are shy or don't think the restaurant will accommodate their requests, but Ilyse Schapiro, a nutritionist in private practice in New York and Connecticut, says, "Don't be afraid to ask for your food to be prepared without butter. Many restaurants cook food in tons of butter to make it taste delicious, but it can pack on the calories. It is not uncommon to ask for food to be prepared as you like, so don't be afraid to speak up!"
Mindful eating is a technique where you use your senses in order make conscious decisions when it comes to food. Part of mindful eating is being aware of your level of hunger, the surrounding environment and the foods you choose to eat. Several experts provided tips in line with the mindful eating philosophy, including registered dietitian Tara Gidus, who co-hosts "Emotional Mojo." She says to "put your fork down while you're talking to eat slower, and you'll fill up faster."
And as Lichten points out: "Have you ever noticed that it's often not until you stand up at the end of meal that you notice how full you are? Eat slowly to give your stomach time to send the 'full' message to your brain (it takes about 15 to 20 minutes). Then, stand up halfway through the meal and ask yourself if you've had enough. Often, you'll realize that you're already full."
"Most of us need a signal that the meal is over," Lichten says. "For many of us, it's when the food is gone and the plate is empty. Given that dinner portions often contain more calories than you need in an entire day, that's a sure prescription for weight gain. Instead, use an alternative closure technique to reduce the temptation to keep nibbling. This includes moving your plate away (or covering it with hot sauce or your napkin), popping gum or a mint in your mouth, or sipping a cup of hot tea or coffee."
When it comes to international fare, the lingo and ingredients can get confusing. Use these tips to keep you on track:
Registered dietitian Cynthia Sass, author of "S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches," says: "When dining at Asian restaurants, ask for 'stock velveted' which generally means a dish is cooked in seasoned water as opposed to oil. This trick can reduce the fat in some dishes by 30 grams or more."
[Read: The Traditional Asian Diet.]
Jessica Fishman Levinson, a nutrition consultant and founder of Nutritioulicious, says that "most people think of sushi as a light, low-calorie meal, but all that rice adds up – not to mention those 'crunchy' flakes we all love added to maki rolls. To save some calories, ask for your rolls to be made 'naruto' style. Naruto rolls are made with thin strips of cucumber surrounding fish and other sushi roll fillings."
Another great tip comes from registered dietitan Wendy Jo Peterson, who's the co-author of "Mediterranean Diet Cookbook For Dummies." She suggests sticking with "protein rolls, the kind without the rice. Opt for a lot of wasabi with just a dash of low-sodium soy sauce (or Bragg Liquid Aminos for my gluten free clients). Ditch anything fried – it's not traditional anyway. And the ginger is more than just a palette cleanser so nosh on that, too."
Peterson also gives great suggestions about ordering pho. She says "the key is lean meat, lots of veggies and herbs, and a touch of spice. Be sure to add in sprouts, vegetables and herbs (even ask for an extra helping if you can), squeeze a little sriracha on top, and sip the broth at the end. Skip the bobo drinks and hydrate the traditional way with hot tea – or just the broth from the pho.
[Read: 10 Tips for Ordering Healthy Sushi.]
Who doesn't love a Mexican fiesta? To keep calories in check, Sass suggests using pico de gallo and guacamole as your dressing on taco salads. "Two ounces of salad dressing packs about 260 calories, 90 more than 3.5 ounces each of pico and guac," she says. "And the latter combo offers a much broader spectrum of nutrients and antioxidants with all the satisfaction."
Registered dietitian Martha McKittrick, a nutritionist in New York, employs a creative tip when ordering Italian fare. She suggests opting for "mixed seafood in a red sauce over steamed spinach instead of pasta. This will save you hundreds of calories."
As Levinson says, "Who doesn't like trying a variety of delicious small dishes?" "Although the portions are small, be careful not to overeat," she adds. "Studies have shown that when we taste a variety of flavors, we take in more calories than when we have one or two flavors on our plate. So limit how many small dishes you share and ask the server to pace the meal – this will help you better register how full or hungry you really are."
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Toby Amidor , MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the forthcoming cookbook "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and blogs for various organizations including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.