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Menu cheat sheet for eating out

By Joe Marino

Fact: A recent report published by food-service provider Aramark revealed that Americans on average consume more than 5.6 meals away from home each week, citing time, convenience, and value as top motivators. That's a lot of meals.

Fact: The nation's obesity epidemic is at an all-time high.

Coincidence? We don't think so. Eating out is problematic to weight-conscious individuals, because you have little idea how many saturated fats, processed carbohydrates, and other unhealthful ingredients are in each bite you eat. Plus, you can be sure that most restaurants pack in those ingredients, because they taste good and will keep you coming back for more.

If you eat out as often as most Americans, you need to understand how to improve your away-from-home eating habits so you don't blow all of the healthful eating habits you have at home. Here, a step-by-step cheat sheet to eating out.

1. As soon as you are seated a basket of rolls arrives, filled to the brim with packets of butter and jelly.

Fact: One popular Italian-style chain serves 2.2-ounce garlic rolls at 170 calories a pop (4.5 grams of fat and 28 carbs). "Most restaurants use highly processed breads, rolls, or baguettes," says Wendy Luecken, R.D. "This particular carbohydrates choice can lead very easily to weight gain, especially when slathered in butter."

Strategy: Kindly ask your waiter to take your basket of fats and simple carbs away.

2. Would you like something to drink?"

Fact: Two glasses of red table wine contain almost 150 calories total. Two light beers can slam you with 50 more calories.

Strategy: Order calorie-free beverages like bubbly or tap water with a slice of lemon or an unsweetened iced tea. "Why drink your calories?" says Luecken.

3. "What can I start you out with?"

Fact: Appetizers will not only ruin your appetite, they can also destroy your waistline. A fried calamari appetizer alone will cost you nearly 600 calories and 40 grams of fat!

Strategy: "Order one appetizer for every two people," advises Connie Holt, R.D., an assistant professor of the Philadelphia-based Widener University School of Hospitality Management. Or skip those 300 calories all together and say no thanks. Whatever you do, "Do not go to the restaurant famished. Drink a glass of milk; eat a handful of almonds before leaving," adds Holt.

4. "Tonight's special....crispy garlic rotisserie chicken with a side of garden-fresh coleslaw and Au Gratin Potatoes..."

Fact: While your rotisserie chicken is baked, it's painted with butter to make it extra juicy. The word "crispy" is code for skin and fat. Your coleslaw may contain "garden-fresh" veggies, but it's loaded with mayonnaise and your white potatoes are drowning in cheese and low-fiber/high-preservative breadcrumbs (more simple carbs!). Total damage on this meal: 985 calories, 61 grams of fat and 34.5 carbohydrates.

Strategy: "Pick entrees and vegetables that are broiled, baked, steamed, blackened, or grilled, and pass on anything labeled Alfredo, breaded, crispy, cheesy, fried, sautéed, or creamy," says Lisa Talamini, R.D., chief nutritionist and program director of Jenny Craig weight loss programs. "When in doubt, choose 'red' over 'white' sauces."

5. "That comes with a salad; what dressing would you like?"

Fact: Just one ounce of ranch dressing contains about 101 calories with 11 grams of fat. Somewhat better than bleu cheese (177 calories and 19 grams of fat per spoonful), but pour the entire cup over and your healthy side salad is suddenly more than 600 calories and at least 66 grams of fat.

Strategy: Request olive oil (unsaturated, heart-healthy fat) and Balsamic vinegar or light vinaigrette dressing, served on the side, recommends Holt. Dip your fork in the cup before each bite rather than drowning your greens. "Or just squeeze a lemon wedge over the salad and skip the dressing," suggests Holt.

6. "How are we doing?"

Fact: This is your chance to ask the waiter to take your plate and bag the rest of your meal before you eat the entire thing.

Strategy: Learn correct portion sizes. For example, one serving of meat should equal three ounces, the size of a deck of cards on your plate, while pasta should equal the size of a small fist, advises Talamini. Once you have consumed that much, ask your waiter to pack your food.

7. "Can I interest you in dessert? We've got low-carb chocolate mousse cake, Creme Brule..."

Fact: This is a trick; low-carb does not mean low-cal or low-fat. A popular restaurant chain serves up a low-carb chocolate mousse cake weighing in at a hefty 632 calories and 40 grams of fat per slice! Creme Brulee is made with lots of sugar and heavy cream, but it's comparatively less damaging with 280 calories and 18 grams of fat (careful, there are 10 grams saturated) for the entire thing.

Strategy: If you must indulge on dessert, split the Creme Brule. Better yet, order a bowl of fruit (70 calories and no fat), suggests Leucken.

Joe Marino is a Hollywood, Calif.-based healthy lifestyle writer.