Ethnic Eating-Out Tips: Thai, Indian, and French

Fabulous foreign food doesn't have to be fattening

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Many of us already know how to navigate the menus at fast-food, family style, Mexican, and Italian restaurants but what about more exotic cuisines like Thai, French, and Indian?

Follow the tips below for healthy meals in these delicious ethnic restaurants.

Thai

This cuisine is growing in popularity, in part because of its reliance on vegetables and focus on healthy foods.

The foods and spices are aromatic, Asian, and easy to enjoy. Spicy dishes can be modified to suit your tastes while retaining flavors that are not familiar in most home kitchens.

Brown rice has found its way onto hip Thai restaurant menus across the country and is a great way to add more fiber to your meal.

Choose Avoid
Sauces: lemon grass, lime, curry, sweet and sour, basil, chili, fish sauce Dishes made with coconut or coconut milk
Stir-fried, sauteed, and braised dishes Sauces with peanuts
Thai salads Fried foods, including fried spring rolls
Basil rolls "Mee-krob" -- crispy noodles
Broth soups  
Any dish with lots of vegetables  
Bean thread noodles  
Seafood, tofu, poultry, lean meats  
"Satays" -- skewered meat  

Indian

Indian curries resemble Thai food, and can be ordered to your desired degree of spiciness. Enjoy a serving of raita, a cucumber-and-yogurt side dish designed to balance the spiciness of Indian food.

Chutneys are blends of dried fruits and spices (with a texture similar to preserves) that often accessorize curries.

Choose Avoid
Basmati rice "Ghee" -- clarified butter
Legumes (chickpeas and lentils) "Molee" -- coconut milk or cream
Vegetable dishes Any kind of fried foods
Yogurt-based sauces High-fat beef and lamb dishes
Lean meats, poultry, and seafood Creamy curry sauce
Mulligatawny or lentil soup "Korma" -- cream sauce
"Papad" -- baked lentil wafer (Limit portions of coconut and nuts)
Tikki, tandoori, or kebab preparations  

French

A recent bestseller claims that "French Women Don't Get Fat," so you might assume theirs is a low-calorie cuisine. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The portions may be smaller, but French foods tend to be high in fat and calories.

Simple is the best approach in French restaurants, as it is the sauces that are usually loaded with fats and calories.

Choose Avoid
Broth-based soups Cream soups
Plain vegetables Cream or cheese sauces: au gratin, hollandaise, bearnaise, bechamel
Vegetable salads with light vinegar-based dressing Caesar salads or any with creamy dressings
Wine or mustard sauces without cream Anything fried or seasoned with breadcrumbs
Roasted or grilled lean meats, poultry, and fish Pate, fatty meats, duck, and sausages

At Any Restaurant

No matter what type of cuisine you choose, here are a few basic strategies for dining out without sabotaging your weight loss plan:

  • Keep it simple. Stick to preparation styles that are uncomplicated, and dishes that don't have a lot of ingredients. If there is a sauce, ask for it on the side. A creamy sauce is almost certain to be full of fat, so enjoy it sparingly by dipping the tines of your fork into the sauce instead of ladling it onto your food. Stay clear of casseroles and foods with lots of cheese, which tend to be high in calories and saturated fat.
  • Have it your way. Restaurants are in the business of customer service, so don't be shy; ask that your food be prepared the way you like it. Ask questions, and see what the chef is willing to do to make your selection healthier. Restaurants are almost always willing to serve salad dressing and sauces on the side so you can control the amount you use.
  • Plan ahead. If you know you'll be going out to eat, bank a few calories earlier in the day so you can splurge a little at the restaurant. Or, step up your workout to burn extra calories in anticipation of your meal.
  • Choose restaurants carefully. Avoid donut shops. Need I say more? Buffets are an absolute test of willpower, so permanently cross them off your list of favorite restaurants. And do yourself a favor and drive by those tempting fried chicken restaurants. Deep-fat frying adds plenty of fat calories that are bad for your waistline and your arteries.
  • Portion control. We eat an estimated one-third of our calories outside the home. And when we eat out, we tend to eat more food. This is not surprising, since most restaurants serve larger portions than we do at home. So keeping your portion guide in mind when you eat out. Consider ordering an appetizer and a salad, or a soup and salad for your meal. Or save half your dinner and bring it home for tomorrow's lunch.

Originally published April 7, 2005.
Medically updated March, 2006.


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