Eating out has become a national pastime and, all too often, a nutritional disaster.
Love Italian food? A plate of fettuccine Alfredo can cost you about 1,500 calories. Mexican? A taco salad is 1,100 calories. But nutritionist Hope Warshaw says that all of those restaurant meals don't have to add up to extra pounds.
"Today, food is available 24-7 -- it is omnipresent," says Warshaw, author of Eat Out, Eat Right: A Guide to Healthier Restaurant Eating.
Rather than telling people to avoid restaurants, Warshaw's book helps them to navigate menus and to make healthy choices, even in restaurants that are not typically known for their healthful offerings.
Based on eating trends, consumers need all the help they can get. The National Restaurant Association predicts that the number of restaurants in the United States will grow to nearly 900,000 this year, an increase of almost 80 percent from 1972. The association also says that 46 percent of Americans' food dollars are spent in restaurants, and that adults eat out an average of 5.4 times a week.
Warshaw says diners need a game plan when eating out. Her strategies include controlling food portions, knowing the caloric content of menu items and substituting nutritious side dishes for unhealthy ones. Armed with these and other techniques, she believes, you can find a healthy meal almost anywhere.
To prove her theory, Warshaw -- in town on a promotional book tour -- agreed to join a guest for lunch at a Baltimore establishment known for its hearty, if not always completely diet-conscious, fare: the Sip & Bite.
At the popular Canton diner, opened in 1948, old-style jukeboxes and worn linoleum floors are part of the charm. Warshaw and her guest squeeze into a booth toward the rear of the restaurant one afternoon when the place is packed with a lunch crowd.
Watch portion sizes
No bread or chips are on the table, which Warshaw says is a good thing. At many restaurants, food is "sitting at the table waiting to haunt you," she notes. Send unwanted food back, she advises, or place it at the other side of the table -- as far away as possible.
Warshaw, 4-foot-10 and trim, scans the menu. "This is a great thing," she says. "You can order a half sub. If you can control the portions from the get-go -- which is one of my principles -- you have less food in front of you. You don't have to be super-sizing."
Splitting an entree with a dining partner is another good way to control portion size. Or, ask for a to-go box at the beginning of the meal and wrap up the portion you don't want to eat.
"Out of sight, out of mouth," Warshaw says.
This technique might not work if you order something too high in calories or fat. That leads to another of Warshaw's principles: Learning nutritional information.
Most fast-food chains provide nutritional information on their Web sites. Warshaw says she is impressed with Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, which includes a nutrition calculator on its site.
Most sit-down restaurants do not provide such information, however, which means that diners must do their homework. Warshaw recommends using the Web site www.calorieking.com to look up nutritional information on numerous foods.
Warshaw, 49, who has written six other nutrition books and specializes in nutrition for diabetics, notices two lamb gyro items on the Sip & Bite menu. She asks the server if the dishes are prepared differently and learns they are not. (One comes with a side order.) Asking questions about preparation is another of her strategies.
"People are so timid about making special requests," she says. "You can get things as you want them. You are the customer -- the restaurants want you to come back."
Warshaw doesn't ask for any preparation changes to the lamb gyro with tzatziki sauce -- something she later regrets. But rather than accepting the side of home fries that comes with the meal, she orders coleslaw.
"You don't have to have a basket of French fries staring you in the face," she says. Instead, she recommends substituting side orders with vegetables. "No matter what you are ordering, whether it's an omelet or a pizza ... order as many veggies as you can."
For a drink, she asks for water and hot tea (to which no sugar is added).
So how did Warshaw do nutritionally with her meal?
Her gyro, though tasty, was "covered with gobs of sour cream," she says. "And I thought there would be more vegetables" on the sandwich. She estimates that the meal was about 600 calories and 25 grams of fat. (The Food and Drug Administration recommends a diet consisting of 2,000 calories a day and 65 grams of fat.)
Still, by ditching the home fries, Warshaw estimates she saved at least several hundred calories. Next time she would ask for the sauce on the side, and order broccoli instead of coleslaw.
Her guest, who ordered a cheese omelette -- choosing feta rather than a richer cheese, at Warshaw's suggestions -- also substituted vegetables (corn) for home fries. Total calories for the meal: 400. Total grams of fat: 24.
Warshaw notes that dieting shouldn't take all the fun out of eating. "Food is to be enjoyed," she says. "We need to find a balance between doing things that are healthful and doing the things that we love."
Some sample menus
Even the meals below, not traditionally thought of as dieters' fare, can work for weight-watchers who make careful choices, says nutritionist and author Hope Warshaw.
* Chili con carne
* Dinner salad (hold the cheese; use salsa for dressing).
* Chicken taco, soft
Nutrition Summary: 480 calories, 35 percent calories as fat, 26 percent calories as protein, 39 percent calories as carbohydrates.
* Greek salad: green leaf lettuce with green pepper, tomato, and feta cheese. Dressing: olive oil and vinegar (on the side).
* A slice of pizza, topped with green peppers, broccoli and onions.
Nutrition summary: 390 calories, 35 percent calories as fat, 19 percent calories as protein, 46 percent calories as carbohydrates.
* Hot and sour soup
* Steamed white rice
* Yu Hsiang chicken (strips of chicken stir-fried with bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, Chinese cabbage and other vegetables).
* Fortune cookie (read fortune, skip cookie).
Nutrition summary: 570 calories, 35 percent calories as fat, 29 percent calories as protein, 36 percent calories as carbohydrates.
Source: Eat Out, Eat Right: A Guide to Healthier Restaurant Eating (Surrey Books, $11.95). Nutrition information above is estimated and can vary from restaurant to restaurant.