The Healthy Dish

We love the tastes and smells of restaurant cuisine, but with huge portions loaded with saturated fat and sodium, the menu can be a minefield of unhealthy options. How do you choose between General Tso’s chicken or moo goo gai pan? Pasta with Alfredo sauce or lasagna? While some restaurants identify better-for-you foods on their menus, most do not. We are here to help. Use this guide to become a health-savvy diner.By Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.
Article courtesy of Her Sports + Fitness magazine

The trick to healthy Italian is to watch the cheese and know your sauces. Red sauces tend to give you more nutritional bang for the fat and calories. Also, tomato-based dishes are loaded with lycopene, associated with a reduced risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. Choose shrimp or mussels for protein, which don’t have heavy doses of fat and calories. And to get health benefits by the forkful, order pasta tossed with extra veggies like broccoli, yellow squash and mushrooms.

Order This:
Pasta e fagioli, a pasta and bean soup.
Minestrone, an Italian vegetable soup.
Red clam sauce.
Tomato sauces including marinara, pomodoro and puttanesca (made of anchovies, capers and black olives).

Not That:
Parmigiana, such as chicken and eggplant. These dishes are floured, fried and topped with marinara sauce and cheese, making them high in saturated fat.
Lasagna and other baked casseroles, full of high-fat ground meat and cheese.

Dishes made with pancetta, Italian bacon.
Alfredo sauce. Prepared with globs of butter, heavy cream and Parmesan cheese.  Two cups of fettuccini Alfredo can contain 1,200 calories and 77 grams of fat.
Bolognese sauce, made with a variety of fatty meats, cream and wine.

The biggest pitfall here is thinking that Chinese food is prepared as healthfully in this country as it is in China, says Joanne Lichten, Ph.D., ( a registered dietitian and author of Dining Lean: How to Eat Healthy When You Are Not at Home. Meals (in the U.S.) contain more meat than vegetables and way more oil, she says. Lichten recommends asking to have extra veggies in stir-fried dishes and cooked in as little oil as possible.

The sodium content of any restaurant meal is a concern, but especially problematic in Chinese restaurants thanks to MSG (monosodium glutamate), a flavor enhancer. Sauces made of soy and most soups are also high in sodium. One tablespoon of soy sauce contains more than 1,000 milligrams sodium just under half the daily recommended amount of 2,400 mg.  Use as little as possible or skip it. Instead, flavor your food with a tablespoon of plum sauce for only about 100 mg sodium per tablespoon. Leave more of the salty, oily stuff on your plate by eating with chopsticks. Resist the urge to mop it up with your rice or noodles.

Order This:
Steamed appetizers like vegetable dumplings.
Steamed rice and boiled noodles.
Soups such as won ton and hot and sour (but realize that your cup is likely brimming with sodium).
Chow mein (without the fried noodles), chop suey, moo goo gai pan, steamed fish with vegetables and stir-fried meat and vegetables.
Fortune cookie.  A wish for health and prosperity with only 30 calories and no fat.

Not That:
Buffets and fast food or mall fare. Unless your meal is cooked to order, you are stuck with whatever high-fat, high-sodium, low-vegetable dish they have already prepared.
Sweet and sour entrees. The sauce is sugar-laden and the meat is usually fried.
General Tso’s chicken. Made with fried chicken, this dish weighs in at 1,300 calories and 11 grams saturated fat.
Dishes with crispy in the name or description, which is just another word for fried. This includes lemon chicken and chow mein.
Fried rice and fried appetizers like egg rolls and shrimp toast.

A favorite after-work gathering place, Mexican restaurants offer rice, beans and dishes with small amounts of meat, a foundation for a healthy meal. But you have to watch out for enticing extras: deep fried tortilla chips, refried beans, fried taco shells, sour cream and cheese, cheese, cheese. There are all saturated or trans fat horrors. And pay attention to those margaritas as they can tip the scales at 400 calories in a mere 8 ounces. Plus,  alcohol makes it harder to keep your hands out of the chips!

Order This:
Black beans or black bean soup. High fiber and filling, one order can help reach the recommended three cups of legumes weekly. Ask your server what kind of fat is used in the dish. Avoid it if it’s lard or animal fat.
Tortilla soup, which usually contains  low-fat vegetables or chicken. Limit the strips of fried tortillas.
Fajitas. Load up on veggies and leave some of the cheese and meat on the platter.

Salsa and picante sauce. Use these tomato-based toppings to dress your salad, spice up your tacos, and add to soups.
Guacamole. Yes, it is high in fat, but it’s the good-for-you monounsaturated kind.

Not That:
Chalupas and tostadas, which are fried corn tortillas, served flat and topped with meats and cheese.
Chimichangas, a deep-fried nutrition nightmare.
Fried salad shells, which can contain 500 calories, half from fat. Ask for your salad to be served in a bowl instead.
Refried beans, often made with lard.
Mexican rice, frequently fried in oil before it is steamed.

You can find many healthy vegetarian dishes with rice, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and chickpeas at Indian restaurants. The seasonings range from sweet (cardamom, cinnamon, clove, mint) to spicy (red and green chilies).

Watch out for the coconut milk used in curries, says registered dietitian Malena Perdomo, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. The coconut is one of the few vegetables high in saturated fat. Ghee (clarified butter) is another high-fat ingredient to avoid. Request that your food is prepared without ghee or coconut oil.

Order This:
Chapati, a round, unleavened bread.
Chicken or fish tandoori, which is cooked in a clay oven.
Aloo chole, chickpeas cooked with tomatoes and potatoes.
Aloo gobhi, a spicy mixture of potato and cauliflower.
Vindaloo, a spicy meat dish prepared with potatoes.
Kebabs, skewered pieces of meat and vegetable. Request no butter in the basting sauce.
Shrimp or lamb bhuna, seasoned with tomatoes and onions.
Basmati rice.
Mango chutney.
‚Raita, yogurt with cucumbers, onions and spices; often used to temper spicy dishes.

Not That:
Fried breads like paratha and poori.
Samosa, a fried meat or vegetable turnover.
Meat or vegetable korma, curry cooked with cream.
Curries, unless prepared without cream or coconut milk.
Mango lassi, a milkshake-like drink, very high in sugar and calories.

Middle Eastern
Foods from Armenia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and surrounding areas feature lots of vegetable dishes and sweet spices. Cucumbers, eggplant, olives, chickpeas, lentils, yogurt, dates, figs and sesame figure prominently on the menu. If you are watching your fat and calories, ask for your food to be prepared without the oil on top, suggests Lichten. Even the healthy olive oil has 120 calories and 14 grams of fat in a mere tablespoon. Focus on fresh vegetables and skip the cheesy casseroles, she advises.

Order This:
Hummus, a puree of chickpeas and tahini (sesame seed paste).
Baba ghanoush, a puree of eggplant and tahini.
Tzatziki, a sauce or dip made of yogurt and cucumbers.
Pita bread, perfect with any of the three sauces/spreads above.
Dolma, stuffed grape leaves.
Tabouli, a salad of cracked whole wheat, parsley, mint and vegetables, dressed with lemon and olive oil.
Lentil soup, a warm and delicious way to tackle the recommended three cups of legumes weekly.
Cucumber-yogurt soup if made with low-fat yogurt.
Greek salad topped with grilled meat or fish. Ask for the dressing on the side and only half the feta cheese.
Souvlaki, a marinated, grilled meat.
Meats and vegetable kebabs grilled on a skewer. Chicken and fish are your best choices.

Not That:
Falafel, a fried patty of mashed chickpeas served in a pita.
Fried calamari, fried squid.

Spanakopita, spinach and feta cheese wrapped in phyllo dough.
Pastitsio, a creamy casserole of ground beef and macaroni.
Moussaka, a dish of lamb, cheese, eggplant and a creamy sauce. All that adds up to 25 or more grams of fat in a rather modest portion.
Baklava, a buttery phyllo dough pastry layered with honey and nuts.

Be mindful of portion sizes‚that plate of comfort food can be much larger than your body needs. Meats, in particular, are dangerous fat traps. Six ounces of chicken-fried steak, for example, has about 16 grams saturated fat, so a restaurant-size nine-ounce portion contains 24 grams saturated fat. Choose lean cuts of meat in small portions (three or four ounces), avoid fried foods, and remove the skin from your poultry.

And if you order a salad, don’t assume it’s healthful, says Lichten. Bacon bits, dressings, cheese and other extras can tip the scale into the high-fat, high-calorie zone. When you think salad, think vegetables, vegetables and vegetables and small amounts of oil-based dressing.

Order This:
Broth-based, vegetable-rich soups, such as lentil and minestrone.
Salads with lots of veggies and little else.
Sandwiches on whole-grain bread or a pita (hold the mayonnaise).
Lean meats such as steamed shrimp, grilled tuna, trimmed red meat (for example: Delmonico, sirloin steak or New York strip) and skinless chicken.
Steamed veggies.

Not That:
Broccoli with cheese, lobster bisque and other cheesy or creamy soups.
Croissant or biscuit sandwiches.
Prime rib, pork ribs, beef ribs, corned beef, pastrami, sausage, bacon and other high-fat or processed meats.
French fries, au gratin potatoes, stuffed potato skins.
High-fat sauces such as béarnaise, hollandaise and clarified butter.
Fried or super-sized anything.

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for the Hampton Roads Center for Clinical Research in Norfolk, Va.

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