In restaurants, health is the order of the day


Eating out and eating light -- an impossible order?

Not if you remember who's in charge: you.

So says the author of a new book on healthful restaurant eating.

Americans are eating out more than ever. They're also more aware of health and nutrition. The upshot: Many restaurants are offering more healthy options on their menus or trying harder to fill requests for foods low in fat, cholesterol, salt and so on.

But to get what you want you have to speak up, advises Cheryl Sindell. She's a Los Angeles nutrition counselor, a nutritional newscaster on ABC-TV and author of "Not 'Just a Salad,' " (Pharos Books, $12.95), on how to dine out pleasurably while watching your waistline, your cholesterol count or other health markers.

A diner must learn to "take charge of the preparation of your food in restaurants," she writes.

Examples: Order salad dressings and sauces on the side, so you control how much you use; ask for steamed vegetables minus butter; have chicken grilled instead of fried.

Ms. Sindell travels often, at home and abroad, and said in a phone interview that she's found waiters and chefs cooperative almost without exception, even with detailed requests. Once, in Australia, she asked for chicken broth, tomatoes, garlic and basil to replace oil in a dish -- and got it.

She makes her requests politely, and said she never raises a fuss. Still, she advises sending food back -- courteously -- if it's not to your liking.

Bradley Komen, chef at Seattle's Palomino Bistro, says customers' requests "are not a bother to us at all. . . . We go out of our way never to say no."

Most requests, such as for no added salt, no butter, less oil or no sauce, are easily met, said Mr. Komen. His customers also often ask to split desserts or even entrees, and the restaurant usually complies.

John McNabb, chef at Benjamin's Restaurant in Seattle, sees a "moderate" demand for light fare. Many patrons want no butter or request low-fat pasta dishes. The menu includes heart-healthy entrees, and the kitchen tries to accommodate individual needs, said Mr. McNabb. Yet here or elsewhere, it pays to ask what's in a dish, as even something low-fat may be topped with a butter sauce to enliven the flavor.

Nor do health-conscious customers show up only at trendy eateries. Mark Turner, owner of a Denny's restaurant, says 25 percent of his orders are for lighter fare. Options include a broiled-chicken salad with no dressing or dressing on the side; a salad of fresh melon and cottage cheese; sandwiches made with lean cuts of turkey or roast beef; and omelets made with a yolkless egg substitute.

Ethnic restaurants offer many options for light eating. The Chinese diet is among the most healthful, Ms. Sindell says, with lots of vegetables and rice or noodles. Meats are often lean cuts and usually used only as condiments.

Yet even at Chinese restaurants, patrons should watch out for too much soy sauce (high sodium) or fried appetizers (high fat), says Ms. Sindell, whose book also points out the pitfalls and healthful choices at Japanese, Indian, Italian, Mexican and other ethnic eateries.

Despite her emphasis on dining out healthfully, Ms. Sindell says she avoids going to extremes. "I don't believe in being on such a strict diet that you don't enjoy yourself."

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