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It's dine out, not pig out

Once a month Debbi Boyd takes a gang of people out to dinner _ the same people she has been lecturing once a week about cutting back on fat, cholesterol, calories and salt. Torture? No, it's usually a pleasant surprise for the people in the St. Joseph's Hospital Healthline weight management program in Tampa.

She uses the meals to teach her patients an essential new skill. You can eat healthfully and enjoyably in restaurants _ if you resist temptation, choose wisely, speak up and stick to your guns.

Meals out used to be an occasional indulgence and thus a tolerable exception to a diet strictly monitored at home. Today, health-conscious people cut back on fat and salt as well as calories, dining out or at home.

Now weight loss and general fitness programs like those offered at St. Joseph's or the Safety Harbor Spa and Fitness Center, or in diet and nutrition books like The New Pritikin Program, include advice on smart restaurant eating. They recommend changes in attitude and strategy as well as specific choices.

"Traditionally, people find it easier to maintain some routine when they're at home. They bring in to their home low-fat food, low-fat snacks," says Boyd. "They don't have to fight temptation."

In restaurants, that's a constant battle. "When you open a menu, you have exposure. All of a sudden there are visual triggers, smells and sort of a mental relaxation that "I'm entitled to eat differently.'


Boyd's tactic is simple: If possible, look at the menu before you sit down, choose quickly and shut the menu as soon as you can.

Also, don't be afraid to ask how foods are prepared, how large the portions are or if a dish can be fixed without salt or with sauce on the side.

Further, if there's going to be too much food on the plate, ask the waiter to put half the portion in a doggie bag _ before it leaves the kitchen. "Don't even allow it to be served to you," she says.

She also avoids fast food, and not because of lack

of nutrition. "Fast foods are a problem for us because of the privacy (so that breaking rules is easier), and it's very convenient and relatively inexpensive."

Wherever we eat, the new rules should hold, and they are, basically, to eat less fat and less protein and more vegetables and carbohydrates.

"As Americans, we have been raised eating far too much protein, we'll go out and eat 80 percent of our diet," Boyd says. "We're better off eating more of the things that we usually leave behind."

In short, eat your vegetables.

So avoid a meal of entree plus trimmings. "I like creative meal-designing, looking at the appetizer area, rather than feeling you have to have the traditional entree. Why not a baked potato, vegetables and a salad?"

Boyd instructs her charges to know fat and calorie counts of various foods, rather than rely on menu notations that an item is "low-calorie."

She also warns that diners are often deceived by the little things that can be the most "costly" in fat and calories: sauces, dressing, butter, cheese and condiments.

Here are some tips on healthful dining in restaurants:

Salads and salad bars: Don't assume that salads are low calorie and low in fat. Avoid composed salads or anything made with mayonnaise, but take advantage of greens, tomatoes, mushrooms, beans etc.

Be skeptical of dressings. Even vinaigrettes may contain too much fat; if the dressing is shiny or has visible drops of oil, go easy. A squeeze of lemon juice, a dash of vinegar and pepper is often better.

Sandwiches: Use mustard rather than mayonnaise, butter or margarine.

Italian food: Pasta makes a fine low-fat meal _ if you avoid white sauces and cut back on cheese. Tomato sauces or pasta primavera without cream are best.

Mexican: Avoid the cheese dip and fried chips and the refried beans (they can be high in fat, made with lard and topped with cheese). Better to order steamed tortillas, boiled beans and lots of rice with a little meat. Enchiladas or tacos made with soft tortillas are good, if you ask them to hold the cheese.

Chinese food: There are usually many healthful choices in a Chinese restaurant, but avoid snacking on fried noodles and the egg roll. Choose plain steamed rice instead of fried; adding oil makes the rice 400 calories a cup, half of it fat calories. Go easy on soy sauce, too; it's full of sodium.

Dessert: Indulge only when it's very special. "The best approach is that if they have tremendous Key lime pie, then allow for that," Boyd says. "And plan your meal around it; skip the butter." And share it with several people. One bite is all many people want.