Food, Friends and Family: Minus the side of Fat, please.

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Eons ago, food played a singular role in our existence: survival.

Now, the modern food climate is more complicated. Our social ties to food have the ability to make or break our healthy lifestyles. In the face of 2000 calorie entrees and endless temptations, drinks with friends or another dinner out provide a real dilemma: If I go out, I bid adieu to bikini season. If I stay in, I miss out on the fun.

Luckily, with a few small tweaks, it’s possible to eat out without losing shape and fitness. It’s imperative to devise a healthy plan before you leave the house, which is easier than making difficult decisions in the face of overwhelming temptation from friends, family, and dessert menus.

First, know what’s at Stake 

It’s time to accept that it’s best to dine out no more than once a week: any more than that can tip the scale in the wrong direction.

Consuming a mere 100 calories/418 kilojoules per day in excess of your total energy needs can promote a weight gain of 10 lbs/4.5kg per year, and a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that average restaurant meals contain 1400 calories/5858 kilojoules.

Even dishes that sound healthy can be stealthy calorie bombs: A “mucho veggie bowl�? from Salsa’s Fresh Mex Grill sounds relatively virtuous, but it actually contains 852 calories/3565 kilojoules.

The Rule of One

Eating out is a treat in itself – relative to home-cooked meals, but the average restaurant or quick service dish contains infinitely more calories, fat, and sodium.

When we cook at home, we generally don’t include appetizers, bread baskets, alcohol, and dessert: therefore, it’s best to opt out of these courses at restaurants as well.

The “Rule of One�? reminds us to choose one menu item and forgo the rest. If someone else in the party orders an appetizer or round for the table, it’s fairly simple to opt out politely. Responding to food-pushing behaviors can be awkward at first, but becomes much easier each time you exercise your right to make your own decisions. Simply thank the person for their offer, provide an explanation, and then change the topic to more important (and interesting) topics.

Special Requests

One of the easiest ways to reduce the calorie and fat content in a dish is to request special preparation, such as cooking a dish without oil, or removing a fatty sauce, dressing, or topping.

However, there is a right way and a wrong way to request that special preparation: many health-conscious diners are unintentionally demanding in an attempt to have their needs met by servers and chefs. Courteous, kind requests will generally be met with reciprocal respect and consideration.

Smile and make the request in the form of a favor, asking, “Could you do me a favor and ask how this dish is prepared? Is it possible for it to be prepared without oil, etc? I would really appreciate your help.�?

The Easiest Fixes

The most caloric contributions to a dish usually come in the form of added fat, toppings, and excess carbohydrate. Oils, sauces, dressings, cheese, croutons, nuts, and toppings are generally the easiest items to exclude altogether – request that a sauce be left off, or served on the side.

Ordering a non-carbohydrate based dish can save hundreds of calories in sheer portion size alone. Carbohydrates are among the cheapest (and most profitable) items served in restaurants. Pasta dishes often contain 2-3 cups of pasta. That’s 400-600 calories from pasta alone, not to mention added cooking fat, sauce, or any “side�? bread.

The healthiest preparation method in a restaurant is generally that which requires the least amount of work: if an item is grilled, roasted, or raw, for example, it’s more likely to have a reasonable fat and calorie content than an item that is sautéed, stir-fried, or deep-fried.

This is not the Last Supper

It’s easy to be underwhelmed when your healthy meal seems to pale in comparison to the 6 layer nachos being served one table over.

As human beings, we constantly compare ourselves to others in a variety of helpful and, in this case, unhelpful ways. When you’re feeling deprived or tempted, remind yourself that this meal is not the last time you’ll ever eat. It’s easy to get caught up in a compare-athon with other people and their meals that leave us feeling slighted and grumpy.

Reminding yourself of the reasons belying your plan (weight maintenance, health) will help make the sacrifice easier. And look at it this way: their goals might be different than yours, or they may be acting in a way that is keeping them from achieving their goals. Your actions are aligned with your goal. That thought makes the rewards of passing up the dessert menu that much easier.

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