Eat Out, Eat Smart

From deli to Tex-Mex, here are dining-out choices that won't do in your diet

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Pork fried rice, taco supreme, cheeseburger all the way. No matter what kind of restaurant you like, chances are that its menu is loaded with diet-busting options.

And since Americans eat almost 24% of our meals at restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association, making poor choices when we eat out can really wreak havoc on our waistlines.

The good news is that, armed with a little knowledge, you can put together a healthier meal at almost any restaurant.

"Good choices consist of meals that have lots of fruits and veggies, lean fish or chicken, lean cuts of meat, veggie-based sauces instead of cream sauces -- there are always healthy options on every restaurant menu," says Sheila Cohn, RD, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association.

Experts took us through a range of menus, from deli fare to Italian, for a step-by-step guide to dining out light.

The Delicatessen

"The benefit of a deli-type restaurant is that you have more control over what you eat," says Rick Hall, RD, of Phoenix. "Often, a deli gives you the option to build your own sandwich, so you can choose whole-wheat bread, rye, or pumpernickel -- something that's not just pure white bread."

Beyond the bread, be careful of the meats and cheeses.

"As far as the meat goes, a lot of the deli meats can be high in salt, so sodium can be a concern," says Hall, who is a lecturer at Arizona State University on nutrition issues. "Pepperoni, salami, genoa ... these tend to be high in fat and salt, and cheeses tend to be high in fat, so go easy on these, and opt for the low-fat turkey or even low-fat ham."

Then, start adding veggies.

"When you are building a sandwich, choose high amounts of veggies, like tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, and red peppers, which add a lot of nutrients," says Hall. "And for condiments, skip the mayo and go for mustard or a small amount of olive oil and vinegar, maybe with a little pepper for spice."

Chinese

"I've been to China," says Hall. "I've eaten a typical Chinese diet, and it's nothing like we have here in America. It's high in rice, and it's high in vegetables, but not high in sugary sauces."

When it comes to a typical Chinese restaurant menu in the U.S., it's easier to list what to stay away from than what's healthy.

"You want to stay away from the deep fried options," says Hall.

Unfortunately, that includes a good chunk of the menu, including favorites like the pu pu platter, typically made up of egg rolls, fried shrimp, chicken wings, chicken fingers, and crab rangoon.

"And watch out for foods on the Chinese menu that tend to be dripping in sauces, like the sweet-and-sour chicken or pork," says Hall.

The key is to choose foods that are more like those actually eaten in China -- with less meat and less sauce.

"Go for the non-fried chicken at a Chinese restaurant," says Hall. "Look for options that are heavy on the veggies, and light on the sauce, like brown rice with vegetables."

Susan Moores, RD, of St. Paul, Minn., suggests these dishes as not-so-unhealthy options: "moo goo gai pan, moo shi (with vegetables, pork, chicken or shrimp, also called moo shu), shrimp, pork, or chicken with Chinese vegetables, Szechwan green beans, or lo mein (with vegetables, pork, chicken, or shrimp)."

And, she says, "boiled, steamed, or lightly stir-fried seafood, chicken, vegetable or bean curd dishes are generally low in fat."

In fact, many Chinese restaurants offer low-cal specials: dishes that are steamed without oil, sugar, or salt. In this category, you can usually find chicken with vegetables, shrimp with vegetables, or an all-veggie platter.

Even those who don't list low-cal dishes on the menu are often willing to steam a dish instead of frying and make other modifications.

Italian restaurants offer up some tasty options for people watching their diets.

"Order pasta with marinara sauce instead of creamy white or butter sauces such as Alfredo," says Moores, who is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Not on the mood for marinara? Opt for "chicken cacciatore or piccata, grilled meat or fish, grilled eggplant pomodoro, or polenta and mushrooms," Moores tells WebMD.

As for Italian items to stay away from, "avoid pastas stuffed with cheese or meat, as well as topped with cheese," says Moores. And keep in mind that "parmigiana-style usually translates into higher fat," she says.

But what about that cheesy favorite, pizza?

Portion control is key for this easy-to-eat food, so have one or two slices and round out your meal with a salad, suggests the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Recipe Doctor" Elaine Magee, MS, RD. Choose thin-crust pizza, and top it with vegetables instead of meats. Ask for extra sauce -- and half the cheese.

Tex-Mex