Guide to eating clean when eating out
Eating out can be a challenge when you’re trying to eat healthy and avoid ultra-processed foods. While I certainly enjoy dining at restaurants and especially supporting my local favorites, I am also very conscious of the quality of food available and select restaurants accordingly. By understanding some basic principles of the food service industry, you too can ensure that you are able to find quality prepared food without sabotaging your efforts to improve your health.
The Joy of Eating Out
As the consumer, you are seeking an enjoyable dining experience whereby you do not have to do the work of food prep, cooking, serving, or clean-up. You want to be able to order quality food that is reasonably healthy and contributes to your overall enjoyment of the dining experience. Also, dining out allows you to explore foods that you might otherwise not be exposed to, whether due to unique cooking techniques, flavors, or ingredients that are not in your armamentarium.
The Restaurant Business
The restaurant does all that behind-the-scenes work to provide a dining experience that appeals to their customer base. As a business, they are also under pressure to minimize their operating costs, which is often done by seeking cheap ingredients. One expects that an upscale restaurant uses higher-quality ingredients compared to a fast-food restaurant, but that’s not always the case. You, the consumer, must always be vigilant about selecting food items (and restaurants) that are not riddled with harmful substances.
Similar to the processed food industry, restaurants are under the same pressure to provide appealing foods in a cost-effective manner, ultimately to generate favorable reviews and returning customers. Unfortunately, these market pressures often lead to the use of cheap, low-quality ingredients without regard to their health implications.
Engineering Food that is Appealing and Profitable
As sophisticated as we might think our palates are, human brains are wired to appreciate a mix of simple ingredients: sugar, carbs, salt, and fat. Just as ultra-processed foods are engineered with these ingredients to find a “bliss point”, restaurants employ the same tools in food preparation to appeal to the consumer.
Restaurants change their methods over time. McDonald’s used to cook their fries in beef tallow (a good fat for frying). In 1990, they changed to vegetable oil which resulted in an inferior product. The cooking icon, Julia Child, expressed her dissatisfaction with this “erroneous” move.
Things to Watch Out For
The following ingredients are the 3 major culprits in ultra-processed foods (see link for details. Each one is inflammatory and is associated with the development of Insulin Resistance and chronic disease.
- Industrial seed oils. Sources: fried foods, dressings, sauces, anything prepared on the flat top grill.
- Sugar. Sources: sauces, beverages
- Refined grains. Sources: pasta, baked foods (bread, etc.)
The best fats for frying are tallow, lard, and duck fat. In contrast to the typical vegetable oils used for frying, these options are stable at high heat.
Other good fats for cooking include the fat that comes with your protein source, butter, avocado oil, and olive oil.
Tips for Eating Out at Restaurants
- Research the menu ahead of time. Make yourself aware of the potential challenges you face at the restaurant. Save time by figuring out decent options ahead of time to focus your attention on the menu. Save yourself trouble by avoiding restaurants in their entirety that don’t have good option.
- Start your meal with a quality protein. Leading off a meal with protein results in better satiety and lower glucose response to a meal. High-carb options like bread or chips served before a meal result in increased food intake.
- Focus on real ingredients.
- Look for good preparation methods. Choose foods that are “boiled, steamed, poached, or grilled.” Avoid all deep-fried foods; be skeptical of “baked”.
- Avoid salad dressings, mayonnaise, many sauces. Alternatively, ask for them to be served “on the side”. Nearly all of them contain soybean oil. If you really want to eat a salad, consider bringing your own quality salad dressing, e.g. one made with avocado oil.
- Ask your server what oils are used. Keep in mind that cooking oils may be mixed, such as olive oil + canola oil, and they may refer to it as “olive oil”. Ask that your food be prepared with good fats (see above).
- Ask for substitutions, such as vegetables in place of the starch. They may request an extra charge for certain substitutions; the worst they can say is “No.” It may also be possible to order “off-menu”, depending on the chef’s flexibility.
- Take your time eating; savor the dining experience.
- Don’t feel pressured to eat your entire meal. It’s acceptable to take home leftovers.
How to order by cuisine
Each style of dining has its unique challenges, though some more than others. Armed with creativity, you are bound to find good options available at most restaurants.
Farm-to-table – These restaurants are typically focused on real, locally-sourced ingredients with a seasonal focus. Still, watch for products used in preparation.
Mexican – Best options are meat/seafood dishes or fajitas. No tortillas/chips or fried items. Substitute grilled vegetables in place of rice. Beware high sugar content of margaritas.
Fast Mexican – Ask for the burrito bowl – all the fillings minus the tortilla.
Italian – Focus on quality proteins – meat/seafood, perhaps on the Secondi section of the menu. Consider a salad – ask for dressing on the side.
Seafood – Steamed fish, raw oysters, or wild-caught fish cooked over open flame. Avoid fried foods.
Sushi – Sashimi (raw fish without rice) is your best bet. Avoid tempura (batter-fried) and sauces (drizzles, soy sauce, etc.)
Chinese – Avoid due to high seed oil content.
Steakhouse – Steak should be cooked over open flame. Request only good oils be used on a grill. Steamed vegetables and/or baked potato on the side.
American; Burgers – Select a good protein source. For burgers, opt for the lettuce wrap or eat bunless. Hold the mayo or other sauces. Look for side options other than fries or chips, such as steamed vegetables.
Deli/Sandwich shop – Best option is to forgo the vessel and just eat the fillings, but that defeats the purpose of going to a sandwich shop. Sourdough is the best bread option.
Breakfast Diner – Choose boiled or poached eggs. Avoid fried foods or hash browns cooked on flat grill with seed oils.
Healthy Eating Simplified
- Look for farm-to-table philosophy.
- Research ahead of time.
- Ask! You are the customer.
- Be respectful.
Vote with Your Wallet
As in the McDonald’s example above, the food industry is not static. It will change to accommodate consumer demand, but that kind of change needs to start on a local level. Restaurants have adapted over the past few years to offer new items based on demand, such as gluten-free items, low carb variations (e.g. bunless burger), and vegan/vegetarian options.
By simply asking about unhealthy ingredients and respectfully explaining why you want to avoid them, you have power as a consumer. A collective effort on behalf of mindful diners will one day make it easier to find healthy options in the restaurant industry.