Some people seek the answer to the question, "Is there life after death?" I feel an equally important question is, "Is it possible to diet and still eat out?"

Chances are if you read this column with any degree of regularity, you have more than a casual interest in food. Therefore, if you have more than a casual interest in food, there is a good chance you do battle with the bathroom scale on occasion.

I took my question to an expert, Rhoda Davis. Davis is an executive with the Social Security Administration at Woodlawn during the week. But come Saturday morning you'll find her at Weight Watchers in the Glen Burnie Village Shopping Center, 7586 Ritchie Highway, dispensing words of wisdom and inspiration to would-be losers.

How expert is Rhoda Davis? She lost 37 pounds and has maintained the weight loss for five years. Furthermore, she eats out often. She eats out when she travels for work. She eats out when she's had a long hard day and doesn't feel like cooking. She eats out when she has a special occasion to celebrate.

What's the secret to eating out and losing weight or eating out and not gaining weight?

"Let's be honest," says Davis, "I didn't get fat eating in a restaurant.

My own refrigerator was my enemy. You don't have to be afraid of restaurants if you have a plan."

What's the plan?

First of all, don't go hungry and ready to eat the napkins. "If you usually eat dinner at 6 p.m. and your reservations are for 7:30, eat an apple to take the edge of your appetite," she recommends.

Next, have a menu strategy. If you are already familiar with the restaurant's menu, plan ahead what is best for you to order and don't even open the menu. When you must read the menu, look for grilled meats, salads, baked potatoes and vegetables without sauces.

Make intelligent choices. Do you eat the baked potato plain? If you decide to top the potato, take note that while one tablespoon of butter has 100 calories, you could have three tablespoons of sour cream for the same calorie count.

What if everything seems to come with rich sauces?

"The better the restaurant, the more demands you can make," says Davis.

Ask to have the entree broiled or to bring the sauce separately.

If you are with a group people and everyone is ordering appetizers, order a small salad and ask that it be served when the others receive their appetizers -- and make sure the dressing is "on the side." That's dieter lingo for having the salad dressing put in small cup from which you dispense the dressing.

That's your strategy for the appetizer mine field, but what do you do about the bread trap? Davis says it's perfectly "legal" to eat bread but to remember, "If bread is worth eating, it's good without butter." Restraint and moderation are good words to think about when the warm bread is brought to the table.

When the entree is served, think "doggie bag" if the portions are large.

Take some home to have as your lunch the following day.

Dessert, anyone?

"Think about it," says Davis. "I've found that desserts usually look better than they taste. When they wheel the dessert cart over, ask yourself 'Is it worth it?' Try to say the magic phrase, 'No thank you, I'm not hungry.' " So much for fine-dining strategy. What about fast foods? Can a dieter safely eat in a fast food restaurant?

"More and more, fast food restaurants are offering good options for the dieter in the form of salads, grilled chicken and plain hamburger. The problem is," cautions Davis, "can you handle the temptation? Are you strong enough to resist the shakes and fries and stick with the healthy choices?"

Davis' fast food advice is, "Use the 'Keep It Simple' principle. Look for the grilled chicken, grilled shrimp, the plain hamburger or the salads."

Are Sunday brunches and all-you-can-eat buffets forbidden territory for dieters?

"They are not my first choice. I have found the 'Weight Watcher' options are not that good. But if you do eat there I have two strategies. First, before you get in line, look at all the choices and plan what you are going to put on your plate. Second, as you finish filling your plate, be able to see the bottom of the plate through the food. If you can't see the plate, you've taken too much food.

But what about the traveler who is forced to eat out?

"I look at traveling for work and vacationing as two separate situations," says Davis. "When I travel with my job, I'm there to work, not eat, so I keep it simple; cereal and yogurt for breakfast, grilled meats and salads. I look at it as eating to survive and I forgo the treats."

"Vacations -- this is where my Weight Watcher instinct kicks in. It's just not worth it to blow it. That's not why I'm on vacation. Plus you feel better if you don't overeat."

Is there a certain type of restaurant to avoid? She laughs. "Yes, but I don't know quite how to categorize them. They are trendy, with liquor bars and have a strong appeal to the young professionals." More importantly, almost all the food is fried and covered with cheese.

"But sometimes you just can't avoid places like that -- you know -- it's where the luncheon is that you're required to attend. That's when you look for the lesser of evils. You have to be creative. Instead of the sandwiches dripping with cheese, look for a salad or something off the appetizer list like steamed shrimp.

"Weight Watchers has taught me there is no reason to be afraid of restaurants. You don't have to carry your own salad dressing, because most places have oil and vinegar. You just have to know the ways to adjust your eating plan."

Oh, what wonderful words. If you'd like to know more about "food without fear," Weight Watchers at the Glen Burnie Village Shopping Center meets at least once a day, every day of the week. For times and other locations, call 1-800-825-1210.

Joan Whitson Wallace, a free-lance writer, lives in Severn. She has written about food for a number of publications, and is working on a cookbook, "Mom Taught Me How to Cook."

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