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Guidelines for Keeping Your Heart Healthy When Eating Out

It’s one thing to eat healthy when you’re at home. You control the ingredients and the presentation. If you want an egg-white omelet or a smoothie, you can make one. If you just want a Greek salad for dinner, you can make it.

But when you go out to eat you want to splurge a bit after all of the self-denial you’ve been practicing at home. However, restaurants aren’t focused on your heart health – they are focused on making money. When it comes to profits, heart-healthy cooking generally isn’t high on their list of priorities. Salt and fat, and the flavors they create, bring in patrons – and salt drives up beverage consumption. Even in high-end restaurants, a focus on butter and cream in preparation of the food means that if you want to stay heart-healthy you have to pay attention when you’re ordering.

Here are some keys to reading menus in sit-down restaurants that will help you order heart-healthy meals.

  • Select main dishes that contain chicken, lean meat or seafood. Don’t order fatty meats. If you order chicken, request that it be prepared with the skin off before cooking. If meat comes to the table with fat on it, remove the parts that you can see.
  • These adjectives to describe the food you order mean that your entrées will have high levels of calories and fat: crispy, sautéed, creamed, stuffed, au gratin, pan-fried, and buttered. Au gratin means “with cheese” – and it’s not going to be the skim-based cheese you have at home. Pan-frying and sautéing food involve the use of butter and/or grease, and creamy sauces are high in fat.
  • These adjectives mean that you are about to order a heart-healthy meal: poached, baked, roasted, steamed, grilled, and broiled. These all typically refer to water-based or heat-based cooking methods, and do not involve the use of high-fat, high-calorie sauces.

But what if you’re headed to one of those restaurants where you have to unwrap your food? Where you smell the French fries on your way in the door? How can you avoid picking up an excess of fat and cholesterol when you can feel the grease on your clothes? Try these ideas:

  • Stick with diet soda, iced tea, water, or low-fat milk. Sugared sodas contain hundreds of calories with little nutritional value.
  • Pay attention to salads. You don’t have to have only a salad to stay heart-healthy. However, a side (typically smaller) salad is much better for you than a side dish of French fries or onion rings. If you don’t want anything green, a fruit cup is a great option as well. If you order a baked potato as your side dish, order it with veggies or a low-fat sour cream, instead of “loaded” with butter, bacon, sour cream, and/or cheese.
  • Avoid “Value” sizes – they are generally larger and so are the fat, sodium and calorie counts.
  • Consider chicken sandwiches – they are good choices if they’re grilled, not breaded or fried. The same applies to fish sandwiches. Stick with grilled, broiled or baked fish filets. Even the bread makes a difference, so ask for whole wheat, wheat, or even whole-grain buns.
  • Don’t order the double meat? Even the single burger patty is usually larger than a meat serving needs to be.
  • Think about your condiments. Mustard brings a unique flavor to a sandwich and it’s much lower in fat and calories than mayonnaise. Other condiments like the “special sauce” on the Big Mac also have large numbers of calories in them.

With these ideas in mind, you can eat out at restaurants without making a dent in your heart health. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a meal out – but when you do, if you’re undoing all of the good you did for your heart by having yogurt and fruit for breakfast or by exercising at the gym, is it worth it?


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