Eating Smart When Dining Out
February 04, 2013
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By Dr. Mercola
Do you regard eating out as a bit of a respite from your daily life? A time to let someone else do the cooking, and perhaps treat yourself to something more indulgent that you don’t normally eat?
Restaurant chains are on to this sentiment, and they’ve responded by offering customers increasingly decadent dishes that are simply not good for your health. I’m talking about:
- A milk shake that has a slice of apple pie blended in (Johnny Rockets)
- Country fried steak served with pancakes, potatoes, gravy and syrup (nearly a days’ worth of calories in one meal, thanks to IHOP)
- A massive portion of macaroni and cheese that has two days’ worth of sodium (Uno Chicago Grill)
- A slice of chocolate cake that weighs nearly one pound and contains 26 teaspoons of added sugar (Maggiano’s Little Italy)1… and the list goes on and on
Media reports often focus on the calorie content of such massive meals, along with the saturated fat and sodium. Clearly, overeating to this extent can easily pack on the pounds, especially if your eating out is not just a “treat” but more of a daily routine … But there’s more to these meals than simply extra calories, fat and salt …
Do You Know Where Most Restaurant Food Comes From?
Eating the food at nearly every fast food chain (except maybe Chipotle and a few other restaurants committed to sustainable, organic suppliers) and even most sit-down restaurants means you are likely consuming feedlot animal meat – flesh that comes from animals raised in crowded unsanitary conditions, fed massive doses of antibiotics and unnatural "frankenfeed" full of genetically modified (GM) crops and some other truly disturbing ingredients.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the decidedly unhealthy practices that go on at a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation).
The problem begins at the massive CAFOs where the beef, chicken or pigs are fed genetically modified corn and soybeans and excessive grains in general (which are not the natural diet of these animals), along with the following almost unbelievable feed ingredients:
- Plastics -- for the many animals whose digestive systems need roughage to pass food through them, the CAFOs now use plastic pellets.
- Meat from members of the same species -- CAFOs turn farm animals into cannibals. Scientific research has linked this practice to the spread of both mad cow disease and avian bird flu.
- Manure and animal feces -- this can include cattle manure, swine waste, and poultry waste. It also includes wood, sand, rocks, dirt, sawdust and other non-food substances.
- Roxarsone -- more commonly known as arsenic, which until recently was put into chicken and pig feed to control intestinal parasites that might cause them to eat less and grow slower. Chicken litter (containing the arsenic that passes through the birds) is also collected from chicken CAFOs and fed to feedlot cattle, for some apparent reason that defies common sense.
- Animal byproducts -- categorized as "animal protein products," this includes rendered feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, internal organs, intestines, beaks and bones, dead horses, euthanized cats and dogs, and road kill.
Chemical-Laden Food is the Norm, Not the Exception
A burger or a chicken sandwich from a fast-food restaurant is not equal, nutritionally, to the equivalent you would make at home … nearly always the fast-food version will contain a staggering variety of additives, flavoring, coloring, and other chemicals that give it that “fast-food” flavor …For instance, only about half of a Chicken McNugget is actual chicken. The rest is a mix of corn-derived fillers and additives (most likely genetically modified), along with a slew of synthetic chemicals, including:
- Dimethyl polysiloxane, a type of silicone with anti-foaming properties used in cosmetics and a variety of other goods like Silly Putty
- Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), a petroleum-based product with antioxidant properties
You probably expect this from McDonald’s, but toxic unknowns like high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives and MSG can lurk in food from even the finest of restaurants. Many restaurants actually buy processed frozen foods that are simply heated or cooked in the microwave, and then passed off as "home cooked." This is something you'd expect from a cafeteria or fast-food joint, but it occurs even at five-star eateries.
Other tricks of the restaurant trade not specifically mentioned above include passing off inexpensive fish such as pollock as something more expensive, like cod. Or, Maryland-style crab cakes made from crab that came from Vietnam. Most fish in restaurants is also farm-raised, which you definitely want to avoid.
Due to all of the added sugars and other ingredients, studies have shown that eating fast food just twice a week can make you gain 10 pounds, but even more shocking it DOUBLES your risk of developing insulin resistance.2 Insulin resistance, as I've discussed on many occasions, is one of THE primary driving factors behind many chronic diseases, including diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Ask Questions BEFORE You Go …
Many restaurants have their menus online and it can be helpful to identify what you want to eat before you go to the restaurant. If possible, choose a restaurant known for their high-quality standards, such as buying produce locally and in season, or serving raw and/or organic foods.
Ideally, you'd want to opt for wholly organic or raw food restaurants, but they can be few and far in between. At the other end of the spectrum are fast-food chains, which should be avoided at all costs.
For restaurants that fall somewhere in the middle, call ahead and speak to a manager, chef or owner ahead of time. Most servers are typically clueless about where the food they are serving actually comes from, or what’s in it, which is why calling ahead is so important. If you wait until you’re already there, the server will likely head into the kitchen to get your questions answered, but you’ll have no way of truly verifying their responses. Some questions to ask ahead of time would include:
- Where does the bulk of their food come from (A CAFO? A food wholesaler? An organic farm?)
- Is the beef grass-fed?
- Do they use organically raised, free-range chicken?
- Is the fish wild-caught?
- Are organic ingredients available?
- Are full ingredients lists for menu items available?
- Do they use MSG?
- Does the sauce (or any other condiment) contain high fructose corn syrup?
- Do they use genetically modified (GM) ingredients? (Remember, typically anything containing corn, soy, canola, or any of their derivatives are GM varieties UNLESS certified organic)
More Tips for Eating Out at a Restaurant
I urge you to take your health to the next level and seek out the restaurants in your area that are making a commitment to using seasonal, sustainable ingredients and preparing meals in a healthy way. These restaurants are out there, and the more people who support them the more they will continue to grow. Calling ahead and asking questions is even an excellent way to open up a discussion about the need for a truly high-quality restaurant in your area. If your goal is simply to avoid overeating or taking in excess calories, you can use some of these common tips:
- Ask your server to put half of your meal in a to-go box before they bring it to the table
- Split an entrée with a friend
- Avoid entrees described as “crispy,” “breaded,” “fried,” or “smothered” and opt for those that are steamed instead
- Order first so you’re not influenced by your dining companions’ choices
- Tailor your meal how you want it, such as swapping a potato side for a veggie or asking for your fish to be steamed instead of fried
Many local businesses would be glad to hear about your concerns over food quality and your desires for a higher standard, and will work with you to come up with a solution – especially if they get calls like this often …
Ideally Prepare Most of Your Meals at Home
I have long stated that if you want to be optimally healthy, you, a family member or someone you hire needs to take the time to prepare your meals from scratch. This way, you can be sure you're getting unprocessed, high-quality food made with ingredients you trust.
I am also fond of saying that if you fail to plan you are planning to fail, so each night before bed, plan what you're going to eat the following day so you can avoid having to rely on purchasing unhealthy restaurant meals. Even better, make a weekly meal plan each weekend, and buy all the ingredients you need for that week's meals ahead of time so you’re prepared.