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Manuel's Top Five: What to Order When Eating Out

By L.K. Regan

Last week, our nutrition expert Manuel Villacorta of MV Nutrition, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You, gave us his top five tips for eating out for guys with no choice but to eat out often. This week, he's continuing along the same thing by telling us the healthiest menu choices at the most common types of eateries.

As Villacorta points out, "Eating at home is the best option," but sometimes that's not realistic, or even desirable. Whether for work or social reasons, you may like or just need to eat out, and if you don't want the grilled vegetable plate, but do want to minimize the dietary damage, here are the healthiest choices likely to be available at five different types of restaurants.

  1. Italian: Let's start with appetizers. Villacorta advises, "Any salads that use olive oil vinaigrette are much better than the cheese and cream-based dressings. And do order this; always start with a salad to start filling up." If you don't want salad, roasted or grilled vegetables are another option, or even carpaccio (thin-sliced raw meat), which is very lean. Minestrone soup is also a good option. "At that point," Villacorta says, "you should be feeling pretty satisfied before you've even looked at the entrées, which is a big plus."

    Among the entrées, grilled chicken breast or fish are fine as long as there's no breading on them (ask the waiter). For pasta, Villacorta says to stick with the tomato-based sauces (so, pasta either al pomodoro or puttanesca). Watch the portion sizes, and avoid the creamy sauces (no fettucini alfredo, friends). "If you want to add cheese," Villacorta says, "ask for it on the side so you have control over how much you add." Finally, chicken marsala is a less heavy alternative as well.

  2. Mexican: "People always think this one's the worst," Villacorta says, "but actually, it's the safest, because Mexican can have many fresh, grilled choices. The problem comes with the cheese, avocado, sour cream, deep fried stuff." Avoid those and you will be well on your way. You might start with a ceviche as an appetizer (that's fish cured with a little citric acid). Chicken tortilla soup is also a healthy option. Or, try a Santa Fe salad: corn, black beans, tomatoes, and lettuce. This often comes on a tortilla shell, but ask them to hold the shell if you think you will tempted to eat it. "I don't believe in will power," Villacorta says, "so I think it's better not to be tempted. Knowledge won't always stop us, so better not to have it around." If you don't think you can resist eating something that's an ingredient in the food, ask the kitchen to leave it out.

    For the entrées, a burrito is a workable alternative, Villacorta says, "as long as you remember that the tortilla is the grain." So just get chicken, pico de gallo, lettuce and the tortilla. Or, just rice, beans, and the tortilla. Avoid the cheese, sour cream and guacamole. If you want to add a little fat, have sliced avocado, not guac. "You can also ask for a plate to order—any Mexican restaurant should be able to put together a plate of grilled chicken, black beans, rice, and lots of pico de gallo on the side." Soft tacos with grilled chicken or fish will also be delicious if you add a salsa, such as a pico de gallo or a salsa verde, instead of sour cream and guacamole. "Salsa keeps the food moist in place of the sour cream or cheese," Villacorta says, "and it actually tastes better."

  3. Indian: This one is a little more difficult. "There are very few reliable choices here for good health," Villacorta says. But, for the intrepid, you can have Dal (lentil soup) for an appetizer, and salads with vinaigrette on the side to help fill you up. For your entrée, Tandoori chicken, fish or shrimp is a fairly safe choice. You can also try a version of vegetables masala—chick pea masala, for instance. The trick is to watch out for anything with coconut milk in it; if you are watching your fat intake, coconut milk is something to be very wary of, as it has very high fat levels, and it is used in many recipes in Indian restaurants.

  4. Thai: Thai restaurants offer some delicious and relatively healthy options. Among the appetizers, try the fresh salad spring rolls. The satays are also a lean option, whether chicken, beef, or pork. Look also for soups that are made without coconut milk—or, Villacorta says, "Be aware that if you have the coconut milk, you might want to go easy elsewhere to make up for that fat intake." You may also find a green papaya salad on the menu. For entrées, Thai offers grilled chicken, fish and shrimp. The stir frys are a workable option as well, "so long as there is no breading or deep-frying," Villacorta says, which is not ordinary in Thai cuisine. "So long as the meat is plain and comes with lots of veggies," he says, "it's a good option." Finally, choose brown rice as the accompaniment.

  5. Chinese/Japanese: We realize these are very different cuisines, but the fact is, Chinese food can be pretty dangerous in the forms prepared in most American restaurants. So you may want to go in another direction altogether and head out for Japanese instead. If you are committed to Chinese, the safest appetizers are the soups: won ton or hot and sour. Steamed dumplings (rather than fried) can also be ok. Among the entrées, Mu shu chicken or pork is relatively low in fat, Villacorta says, and the chicken or beef stir fry, "As long as it is not battered or deep fried." You can also maximize your health benefits by eating brown rice rather than white, and by going to restaurants that serve MSG-free food. Even so, there is likely to be a fair amount of oil used in the cooking, and the healthy options will be limited.

    So perhaps you could redirect your party to go out for Japanese instead, in which case, Villacorta says, "There are lots of options: miso soup, sashimi, edamame (soybeans), steamed spinach salad, not to mention the many forms of sushi." For entrées the teriyaki dishes, such as chicken or salmon, are delicious and typically grilled, but you may want to scrape some of the sauce off to the side before eating, as it is quite high in sugar.

Villacorta is a great believer in home cooking—but also in living one's life. If your lifestyle takes you to restaurants frequently, we hope these tips will help you to eat healthily, and well. Happy ordering!