Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Eating out healthy - cover story for BTW magazine

Eating out healthy

The one thing I cannot resist is Chinese food, apna Indian Chinese, that is. In fact the totally “paisa vasool” but absolutely unhealthy personal buffet at the Mah Jong restaurant in Khar was on the menu regularly until nutritionist Naini Setalvad, enlightened me, “an ideal restaurant meal should total upto 500 – 800 calories, but in the case of Indian Chinese, which comprises of deep fried, corn flour gravy smothered dishes like Manchrian, Chilli chicken, and fried wontons, your calorie intake can shoot up to a whopping 2-3000 calories at a single meal. Factor in the buffet format, and you can cross all limits!” Needless to say I was shocked…

As a food writer eating out is a hazard of the job and I probably do it more than most but there is not doubt about the fact that between working lunches, convenient dinners from the local take-away, week end fast-food treats for the kids and intimate dinners with friends and family, there is always a reason to eat out and it is a practice we are indulging in more and more. BUT does health factor in anywhere?

Eating out is perceived as a celebratory occasion and it is usually buoyed by the intention to indulging oneself. Conversely eating healthy on the other hand labours under the misconception of lack of flavour and depriving oneself. Health is therefore never a priority when we dine out unless diet related problem or allergies to food are a concern.

Mumbai based nutritionist Naini Setalvad defines the parameters “Ideally the meal should not cross 750 calories. Alcohol, would take up the calorie intake and it is very easy to stay within the limit if you choose sensibly” Delhi’s Dr Shikha Sharma says “The Ayurveda stresses that one should compartmentalize the stomach into three parts, one for solids, one for liquid and the remaining for the air and space for juices to work properly the stomach to digest food. It is a good idea to go for small portions rather than large ones, eat a variety of foods in different portions. Keep refined foods like maida, to the minimum but whole wheat items are a good choice.”

Primary to health is eating at hygienic places, so avoid dirty restaurants. Also ensure that food is freshly and properly cooked especially non vegetarian food. If you are intending to eat out, plan ahead in advance. Adjust other meals in the day, adding fibre and vegetables which contain a fraction of the calories of other foods but are high in bulk and filling. However, do not make this a habit, Setalvad cautions – “If you eat out regularly, adjusting or skipping meals regularly could result in a lack of vitamin and mineral intake.”

Over the years however, I have found I can indulge myself and eat healthy at the same meal – not because I want to lose weight – the primary reason for practicing control but because I want to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eating healthy need not mean flavourless food, subsisting on salads or depriving myself, but in fact eating a nutritionally balanced meal that provided one’s body with fuel from all the food groups without any one element being disproportionably large or small. But with the vast plethora of food options available; Oriental, Indian, Italian how does one keep track?

Some measures that I have found work include deciding on the restaurant and cuisine at a time when I am on a full stomach. We are advised not to shop for groceries on an empty stomach because it triggers purchase of instant and junk foods. The same theory applies here. I find I make wiser choices when I am on a full stomach and extend this theory to ordering as well. An empty stomach also makes our eyes bigger than our stomachs I find a light calorie free snack like some cucumber, a fruit or a handful of channa before I leave for a meal out keeps me from over ordering and consequently overeating to avoid waste. I have also befriended the Doggie bag! If a serving size is large and I can’t share it with dining partners. There is no limit on how much leftover food you can carry home after all. Worse come to worse, I do allow food to go waste, after all a last piece of something might not make a dent in the trash can but it will on your body.

Making choices from an extensive menu is always tough, but being faced with decoding unrecognizable ethnic dish names and exotic ingredients can make things tougher. If you are in doubt about a dish, an ingredient or even serving or portion size, do not hesitate to ask. Your server is supposed to be able to help you order. If a serving seems too large, ask if the restaurant can do a smaller portion. Where possible, request any sauces, or gravies be served "on the side". Some restaurants like Soam at Babulnath in Mumbai will make almost all their dishes with a minimum of oil on request. Similarly you can also ask for extra vegetables instead of French fries at continental restaurants and no Msg at Chinese restaurants.

When ordering start with water with a twist of lime or fresh lime soda (with sugar syrup on the side) in place of an aerated drink, or and alcoholic beverage because these can go up to 300 calories and yet bring no nutrition to your meal. Diet sodas are an option but I am always wary of the chemicals they contain. I fing coconut water is a good option if available. Fruit juice and alcohol are high in sugar so ordering moderately is advisable.

Chances are you will be hungry by the time food comes to the table which makes the starters course most hazardous. Chose wisely when ordering appetizers, look for options that are not fried and try to share selections with dining companions. I find adding a salad to the appetizer course helps me bulk up on fibre. When opting for the Salad bar, eat limited quantities of pre mixed salads on the bar - they are usually too heavy on fat laden dressings and watch out for high-fat dressings, cheeses and fried croutons individually as well. In a pinch vinegar or lemon juice and a dash of good olive oil work perfectly too. I prefer lower-calorie options for salad dressings but these can also add up so I prefer to request them on the side and dip my fork in the salad dressing before spearing bites of salad. I consume less dressing and keep my salad crunchy to the end.

Soups can serve as a great precursor to a meal because they are excellent for filling up on but avoid “cream off” anything soups, cream-based soups which are higher in fat and calories. Instead, opt for clear soups which are full of flavour but low on calories. If served bread with your soup, by all means have some but pick up whole wheat or grain bread which can be identified by the light to dark brown of their insides or any grain scattered on top. Plain bread is ok if there is nothing else but the butter and oil you eat it with can add that increases the fat and calories even if it is Olive oil. According to Setalvad 6 tea spoons of olive oil = 1 cup of ice-cream!

When ordering your main course, look for items on the menu that are baked, grilled, sautéed, broiled, poached, or steamed, all cooking techniques that use less fat and generally lower in calories compared to foods that are breaded or fried. In case food comes breaded, peel off the outer coating and discard if possible. Choose mains with fruit and vegetables that are a good source of dietary fiber as well as of many vitamins and minerals. Foods made with whole grain, like whole-wheat bread, pasta and dishes made with brown rice are better options than those made with processed flour. Try to eat the same portion as you would at home and chewing slowly because your body takes a while to tell you it is full. If you are craving dessert, opt for something like sorbet, fresh berries or fruit or share with your dining companion. Half the dessert still equals half the calories!

Street food is perhaps the hardest food to make healthy choices with. Being the cheapest option available, also makes it the most nutritionally unbalanced since it maximizes on the use of high carbohydrate foods such as rice and potatoes which are cheaper. By the same rule, street food is usually partially or fully fried because that is the easiest way to cook food fast economically. Watch out for deep fried offerings such as Vada Paav, Samosa and Medu Vada, the Dabeli is only marginally less dangerous since it comes sans the fried potato vada in it. Paav Bhaji can be improved on if the vendor does it with minimal butter for you. Of the many puri offerings most would be inadvisable because the puri itself is fried but Bhel without the Puri and sev could be more acceptable. Your best option with street food would be Dosa without added butter or cheese and idlis. The accompanying coconut chutney should be consumed in moderation. Chinese street food of street carts is perhaps the worst version of Chinese you could eat. It is usually too oily and maxes out on rice and maida thickened gravies. Vegetables are expensive and you will only see a smattering of them.

One step up from street food is fast food. Higher priced than street food but still a cheaper option than many, marketing has made it attractive to children. Remember though, you can clock up more than 1000 calories in just one fast food meal and it’s easy to eat an entire day's worth of fat, salt, and calories in just one fast food meal. Making wise choices will afford you a relatively healthy meal in comparison to ordering blindly, however. If fast-food is on the menu I try to ensure other meals that day contain healthier foods, with more fruit and vegetables and that the cooking style of all the food is not deep fried or heavy on fat. When ordering fast food treat words like jumbo, giant, deluxe, and super-sized like the plague. They only mean larger portions and more calories, fat, cholesterol and salt than body might require. Stick to a regular or junior-sized portion and go back for seconds if required. Avoid toppings like mayonnaise and remember that extra slice of cheese carries an extra 100 calories per ounce, as well as added fat and sodium.

Pizza can be a relatively good fast food choice but opt for thin crust pizzas with lots of vegetable toppings and grilled chicken. Limit yourself to 1-2 slices and keep in mind extra cheese adds calories, fat and sodium. In the case of Mexican fast foods, order non-fried items, go easy on cheese and sour cream, and pile on the lettuce, tomatoes, and fresh tomato salsa. Chinese food may seem like a healthy choice, but many dishes are deep fried or high in fat and sodium, especially in the sauces. It might also be worth your while to skip the cookie or ice-cream and opt for a low fat Gelato or fruit at home. Sorbets and low cal gelatos have less fat and fewer calories than ice cream and can be chock full of sugar so sugar free versions might be an option. I sometimes carry a low fat dessert option with me from home - something I love - so I will look forward to it and not be tempted by other things. I also love the berry yoghurt from Amore and grab any chance to indulge in it.

There are a few healthy options for junk food. Grilled or broiled patties in burgers are now a possibility at the Bembos chain of burger joints. Subway sandwiches for a lunch on the go or a family meal out are also an option. The chain consciously chose a marketing drive that focused on nutrition that is usually ignored by clientele but paying attention to it will offer you the option of a more nutritionally balanced meal. I am also a fan of Wraps and rolls, the company is consciously trying to promote healthier options, they now offer rotis made of multi grain, soya and palak in addition to the less healthy maida and most of the rolls are relatively healthy since they are stuffed with chicken or paneer and do not have mayonnaise – the ones to watch out for are the Smokey chicken and the falafel.

Here are guidelines to eating out healthier at more upmarket places as well.

With regional foods, Setalvad points out that “Creamy, rich gravies in vegetables, heavy ghee tadkas in dals and other preparations and a liberal use of butter and oil in pickles, papads and other side dishes can be difficult to avoid in regional Indian food.” She suggests that one opt for vegetables that are grilled or sauteed, kachumbars, dals with minimal tadkas and rotis made of whole wheat, jowar or bajra. “Udipi cuisine, although perceived as healthy, can be excessive in its use of coconut and ghee in most dishes so opt for Rassams, vegetable stews, neer dosa, idli, uttapas and appams.” In the case of coastal cuisines, too much coconut and fried fish can be pitfalls. Try to strike a balance between a coconut gravyied dish but lighter vegetable dishes and grilled fish with Neer dosa.

According to Dr Sharma “one cannot think about mughlai without the meat dishes but it is advisable to stick to white meat like chicken. Options like Shorbas without cream, Chicken tikka masala, khadhai chicken, egg curry without yolk (discard the yolk), Murg methi & fish curry are advisable. In the case of kebabs and tandoori style foods, paneer / hara kebabs could be a healthy delight if the binding used is wheat bran or egg complimented with a combination of green chutney/ mint chutney. Chicken and paneer could be grilled and roasted in tandoor to enhance the flavor and taste. Try to avoid ketchups and thickened sauces.

With world cuisine, Italian just happens to be the favourite in India and although Italians are some of the healthiest people in the world, Italian cuisine has gained a propensity for using excessive amounts of cheese and white flour with its arrival onto Indian plates. Olive oil, be touted as healthy is liberally used as well. Setalvad advises bulking up on anti pasti, opting for grilled fish/chicken, whole grain pastas in tomato based or Pesto sauces and skipping the Tiramisu at the end or sharing it. In the case of Indian Chinese the other favourite in India, Setalvad advises against dishes that contain M.S.G. and excessive oil. “Opt for clear soups grilled sautéed or steamed starters, insist on sautéed vegetables and meats that are not drowning in corn flour gravies and remember steamed rice is better than fried and stay far far away from desserts like honey noodles and fried ice-cream.”

That said Oriental and Japanese cuisines are some of the healthiest available if done right. There is very little in Japanese cuisine that is detrimental and eating a nutritionally balanced meal is easy. The only things to watch out for are occaissional fried dishes such as Tempura and fried Tofu. Thai food is also fairly healthy if the curries are cooked solely in coconut milk with no added oil to them and one stays away from the fried starters and pork dishes. I love Thai and usually start light with a Som Tam salad of green papaya and a Tom yum soup so I can indulge myself with a Thai curry and steamed rice for my main course with perhaps a grilled side dish.

Healthy options on the Menu are no longer a foreign concept. Restaurants have recognized that people want to eat well and stay fit.

Soam restaurant at Babulnath, in keeping with their Home style ghar ka khaana theme recognized the need to cater to those with special dining needs and recently added a weight watchers meal to their menu comprising of a daily lightly sauteed green vegetable Khatta Mug ni Dal (whole green moong cooked in yoghurt offered with a choice of jowar, bajra, nachni, or whole wheat flour rotis and salad. The Taj group, always pioneereing in culinary circles, has taken healthy eating beyond just the on request stage. Their refurbished menu follows dietician recommended tips like, cooking in olive oil, offering light soups and doing away with heavy gravies. They also went ahead to open PURE at the Taj Land’s end, which offers indulgene of a different kind – fine dining using organic ingredients and healthy cooking methods.

The Oberoi is another Chain offering healthy choices. They offer Sushi at the Tiffin restaurant. While India Jones at the Hilton Towers offers has introduced Korean Set that offer balanced meals comprising of by Korean Namuls-a variety of vegetarian side dishes, rice, salads and a variety of oils & sauces followed by fruits and sujonka a digestive cinnamon drink. Frangipani has added fresh healthy flavours of the Mediterranean to their menu.

And thanks to the opening of China house at the rand Hyatt, I was most gratified to find that one can eat a very healthy and balanced Chinese meal in Mumbai now. We began with Ginseng chicken soup slow simmered with Chinese dates, forest mushrooms and wolfberries, Steamed spinach with mustard-sesame sauce, Cantonese prawn 'siu mai' and Sichuan poached chicken with crushed peanuts for starters, main course was Beggar's Chicken with fragrant spices, filled with Sichuan mustard greens, wrapped in lotus leaf and baked in clay and the Lamb shank 'hot pot' served with fragrant coriander buns. Nothing was deep fried, everything was full of flavour and I tallied things to find I had a perfectly balanced meal.

If you want more low-calorie, low-cholesterol choices, say so. Restaurants, like any business, offer what their customers want and will only know what you want if you tell them. The establishments above have made changes because they saw the need and other will too. Eating out can be one of life's great pleasures. Make the right choices, ask for what you need, and balance your meals out with healthy meals at home and you can enjoy yourself and take care of yourself at the same time without depriving yourself of foods you love.

Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal

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