Posts Tagged ‘food’
My wife Amanda and I love to travel and walk around new places, eat new foods, and experience a bit of different culture (even if that culture is just a another region of the U.S.). This Fall we spent a week in San Francisco and its surrounds. One of our favorite regional dishes is a seafood stew called “cioppino.” It’s a spicy, tomato-based sauce that’s loaded with seafood (mostly shellfish), sometimes a few vegetables, but mostly fish. It’s delicious, there are a lot of variations, and it’s fairly low-calorie, especially if you split an entree portion of it with someone, as my wife and I tend to do.
Did I mention variations? All of the cioppinos we’ve had have had mussels and some kind of white fish (although one replaced the white fish with salmon which was also excellent). Most have clams and shrimp. A couple of them had calamari rings and crab. Most are served with garlic bread.
We had cioppino twice during our first time in the Bay Area together back in the Summer of 2009, at Tadich Grill (which claims to be the oldest restaurant in California), which was our first cioppino, and at the Fisherman’s Wharf Boudin restaurant, which was better. While it’s hard to compare our recently sampled dishes with those we tried three years ago, our second time around in San Francisco we wanted to plan better. This time we did some research to find out some of the best places in SFO to try cioppino, and we were not disappointed (although some were clearly better than others).
All in all, we tried five different cioppinos during our seven day stay. We ate the shit out of cioppino.
1199 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Cioppino price: $19
This unassuming bistro in the heart of The Mission featured the best cioppino of our trip. Beretta features great craft cocktails, Italian small plates, salads, bruschetta, and pizza. They only offer one entree per day. On Tuesday (at least when we went) their offering is cioppino. Because of that, and based on reviews that claimed it the best cioppino in San Francisco (which thus means best anywhere), we made a special trip.
Where Beretta excelled was in their broth, which was spicier (not spicy hot, just nicely spiced) and more delicious than any of the others we had. They added some fresh basil at the end which was unique to Beretta’s cioppino. Sure, they had mussels like every other cioppino, but they also added calamari which was a great addition. The portion size was average (i.e. a large two quart bowl) and Amanda and I split it, along with a panzanella salad.
552 Green Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Cioppino price: $38 (enough for two)
Sotto Mare is a charming little neighborhood Italian restaurant in the North Beach section of San Francisco. We went on a Thursday night and it was packed with locals and tourists alike. While we waited for a table the hostess offered us a glass of house white or red wine, which we accepted and enjoyed while waiting for our table, which turned out to be at the counter.
We ate our last cioppino this trip at Sotto Mare and it was either first or second best, depending on what you mean by “best.” While Beretta had the tastiest broth, Sotto Mare wins by just the sheer volume of seafood. Their “enough for two” crab cioppino arrived in a massive silver soup cauldron and must’ve contained a couple pounds of shellfish.
They call theirs “The ‘Best Damn Crab Cioppino’ with seafood” and they’re not just boasting. Our cioppino did indeed contain an entire crab, chopped up, and pre-cracked so we shouldn’t have to use a cracker to pop the shell.
We sat at the counter by the kitchen where we enjoyed dinner and a show, although it was very very hot there. Still, the festive atmosphere, watching the waitstaff abuse the happy-go-lucky cooks who laughed as they were being yelled at, and the happy slurps of our fellow diners, most of whom were also eating cioppino, was worth the trip.
Follow up cioppino with a cappuccino and a cannoli at one of the classic cafes in North Beach afterwards (if you can eat another bite after stuffing two pounds of shellfish down your gullet) and browse through the stacks at the City Lights bookstore. It’s all very romantic.
1 Al Scoma Way
San Francisco, CA 94133
Cioppino price: $39
Scoma’s at Fisherman’s Wharf offers what they call the “Lazy Man’s Cioppino” because most of the fish has already been shelled for you. They offer the recipe on their web site (although you may want to make my cioppino recipe, coming soon, instead, as it was better). Scoma’s was the most touristy of places we tried, but what do you expect, they’re located at Fisherman’s Wharf, the most touristy of San Francisco locations.
Scoma’s cioppino is very good (as it should be, they’ve been serving it for years) but at $20 more expensive than Beretta for a similar portion, it feels like you’re paying for the location (and we didn’t even get to sit at a table overlooking the bay).
Sam’s Anchor Cafe
27 Main Street
Belvedere Tiburon, CA 94920
Cioppino price: $26
Sam’s was the worst cioppino of our trip, and it was still really good, so we did pretty well. It wasn’t on our list of the best cioppinos in San Francisco – we just happened to be visiting Tiburon via the ferry and it looked like a nice place to stop and have lunch (although our waitress said that their cioppino has been featured on the Food Network – twice). The price for the lunch portion of cioppino was the same as their dinner menu, so maybe it’s the same exact dish. It was an ample amount for one person.
Their menu claims it includes “dungeness crab, clams, prawns, mussels, fresh fish, in a spicy tomato broth” but there wasn’t much crab (although it does tend to disintegrate in the broth).
Of all of the restaurants we visited to try cioppino, Sam’s had the best view.
It’s nice to take a ferry somewhere – Tiburon, Sausalito, Larkspur, Angel Island – and just get out on the bay. Tiburon was a cute, relaxed place to visit and walk around. It’s not as crassly commercial as Sausalito, but then there’s not as much to see either, unless you’re into natural beauty.
2362 Market Street (between 16th St & 17th St)
San Francisco, CA 94114
Cioppino price: $22
Catch in the Castro is a lively upscale seafood place that technically doesn’t offer cioppino, but instead has a “seafood stew” that just so happens to resemble cioppino in most ways.
We ate our first cioppino this trip at Catch (after seeing Vertigo in the historic Castro Theater, which was awesome). Catch’s version is very good, although by the end of the trip I think this one ranked second to last.
Their cioppino includes – aside from the usual tomato broth – mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, crab, and some sort of white fish. It was very tasty, and the broth was a little more interesting than all but Beretta’s (although the chorizo broth that accompanied the mussels appetizer was so good we couldn’t stop drinking it).
Cioppino is such a simple dish, inspired by the Italian fisherman that settled in San Francisco, lived in North Beach, and shaped the local cuisine.
It’s easy enough to make at home, and I foresee cioppino being a regular staple of our weekend dinners.
There’s no magic formula to losing weight (other than
calories in < calories out), but there are some shortcuts, tricks, and tips that I’ve discovered through my four years of Clean Livin’ that could help you navigate the broken glass that’s hidden in the grass. These tips may not work for everyone, but they work for me, and if you can try them and not mind the changes, you get the added weight loss benefit for free.
Think about it this way: if you can substitute one thing for another that’s just as good (or sometimes even better) it’s one small step toward cutting out a small number of calories, but those small numbers add up over the course of a day, week, or year.
Stupid Human Tricks
- Downsize Your Plate – Since you’ll likely be done eating before you end up feeling full, most people will know that they’re done eating by looking down at their empty plate. You can reduce your calorie intake simply by making your plate smaller. It sounds stupid, but it works. I usually eat most of my meals on a salad or small dessert plate.
- Pre-Portion Everything – Don’t eat from a container or bag unless you intend to eat the entire thing. Sure, you may stop when you’re full, or when you’ve had a serving, but you’re far more likely to over-eat when you can’t see the portion that’s going into your stomach. Place what you intend to eat on a plate or bowl prior to eating it. If you decide you want more, at least you’re deciding to eat more and not just mindlessly shoving food down your craw.
- Measure Your Food – Unless you’re eating something that’s prepared and individually portioned, the only way you’re going to know just how much meat, beans, or soup you’re having is to measure it out with a measuring cup or weigh it on a food scale. Studies have shown that people underestimate the portion size of even something as simple as a chicken breast by 30–40%. It only takes a moment to put your plate on the scale, tare it (i.e. zero it out), and weigh a portion. You can even keep taring the scale between adding additional food to it. Weighing your food is the most accurate way to measure the calories in that food, because the volume of solid food items can vary between measuring depending on how the food is oriented or packed.
- Slow Down – I’m as guilty of eating too fast as anyone. Studies have shown, however, that people who eat more slowly also eat fewer calories than people who scarf down their food. Not only does it take about twenty minutes for you to start feeling full after you start eating, but by chewing your food more you taste it more, and will find that smaller portions won’t leave you feeling hungry afterwards if you eat your food more slowly.
- Pay Attention – My wife and I still eat while watching television sometimes. We almost always eat official “meals” at the dining room table, but will often eat an evening snack while watching a movie or TV show. We try to combat overeating by portioning our snacks (usually fruit or air-popped popcorn) in the kitchen and then taking our bowls to the sofa, but it’s probably still a bad habit that promotes mindless eating. Have you ever finished eating only to discover that you didn’t even notice you were eating by the time you were done? This is especially frustrating when you’ve been eating something unhealthy, because now you’ve not only eaten a large number of calories, but you didn’t even get to enjoy them. That doesn’t sound like fun. If you’re going to eat potato chips, at least eat them mindfully so you can enjoy the experience.
- Mustard Instead of Mayo – Mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil and egg, but it’s mostly oil. Mustard is usually comprised of ground mustard seeds (mustard is a plant), vinegar, and salt. Unless you get honey mustard or mustard mixed with some other sugary concoction, it’s usually zero calories, whereas mayo is 100 calories per tablespoon, which is about as much as you’d put on a sandwich if you don’t use a lot of mayo. You get the added benefit that mustard is tastier (although I do admit a love of mayo on certain types of sandwich).
- Fat Free Singles Cheese – If you’re going to eat processed American cheese anyway, switching to the 25–30 calorie variety versus the 60 calorie per slice regular is a no-brainer. They’re also usually individually wrapped and melt really well, so they’re great in omelettes, on sandwiches, and as a cheesy additive to beans. I actually prefer the taste of the fat-free vs. the regular slices of my local supermarket’s brand. The Kraft fat free singles are generally available everywhere, though, and are also very good.
- Reduced- or Non-Fat – I’ve been drinking 1% or 2% milk instead of whole milk for so long that the whole milk (typically 4% fat) tastes too creamy to me now. However, skim milk just tastes watery and thin. It’s amazing what 1% of dairy fat can do to the taste of milk. Switching from whole milk to 1% will save you 60 calories per cup. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but adding up a few 25–75 calorie substitutions in a day can mean an extra pound lost per month. Cheese is another area where you can get reduced or non-fat varieties of some cheeses. As with the fat free singles cheese, skim-milk (which is sometimes harder to find than “part-skim” varieties) mozzarella is another example where if you’re mixing it into a recipe or using it to top a baked dish you won’t even miss the added fat and the calories that it brings. Easy substitution.
- Leaner Cuts – You probably already consider boneless, skinless chicken breast a diet food, but did you know that the more succulent pork loin is ounce-for-ounce less caloric than chicken breast? Believe it, bucko. When eating red meat, like steak, you can probably switch out a fattier ribeye or sirloin for a leaner filet mignon or New York strip steak. Ground beef is usually labeled with the percent of lean meat that’s in the container, but with steaks it’s harder to tell, especially when you’ve been trained to look for good marbling (the white marble strains in the otherwise red meat is the fat). Barring buying a leaner cut of beef, grilling it so that the fat drips between the grates is a healthier option than pan-searing it so that it reabsorbs its fat while cooking. Pro tip: while letting the steak rest for a few minutes, take some marinade and pour it over the steak to make it juicier. Yes, after cooking. While the meat fibers cool and the protein strands relax they’ll wick up that flavorful juice and make even leaner cuts of beef taste fantastic. Just be sure to use a low-calorie marinade or you’re just substituting beef fat calories for calories in the marinade.
Easy Foods To Cut
This one is harder to provide examples for, because the high-calorie foods that you eat often but don’t really enjoy that much will be different for you than they are for me, but I can at least share a list of foods that I’ve cut out or those of which I’ve drastically reduced my consumption.
If you’re eating something out of habit or just because it’s there (for example, snacks that are available in the office) and you wouldn’t miss them, just cut them out. Not eating something you don’t even like isn’t a sacrifice at all. If you examine what you’re eating every day and really think about it, there are probably at least a few foods that you can give the pink slip.
While I haven’t completely barred any food from my diet (because I’m not on a diet, I’m just eating better), there are a bunch of things that I hardly ever eat anymore.
- The Offender: Soda/Pop – Of course, as I list soda as a beverage I rarely consume, I just finished drinking a tiny plastic cup of Coke Zero while I type this on an airplane. I used to drink a few cans of regular Coca-Cola Classic while at work (because it was there) every day, and switching to coffee and then water made it easy to remove hundreds of calories from my daily intake. I don’t miss it at all, although I did buy a SodaStream carbonator to make fizzy water for when I want some bubbles, which is hardly ever.
The Lower-Calorie Substitute – I usually drink plain old filtered or tap water (I know, I’m boring).
- Offender: High Carb Breakfasts – I used to eat a lot more bagels, pancakes, and waffles than I do now.
Substitute: Usually yogurt with a bunch of nutritionally-strategic additives – granola, berries, walnuts, flax seed, chia seed, or other foods that I’m getting into my diet by adding them to my morning mélange. I’ll have eggs for breakfast once or twice a week (and then maybe once again for lunch or dinner). I’ll have oatmeal once or twice a week (which I should increase but I like my yogurt more).
- Offender: Sugary Desserts and Snacks – I used to eat a lot of cake, pie, or ice cream for dessert.
Substitute: – I’ll have some fruit or popcorn. Sometimes in the summer we’ll splurge and have some frozen yogurt or kefir, which is about 100–120 calories per 5 oz, as opposed to the 200ish calories in the same volume of ice cream.
- Offender: Cheeseburgers – Man, I loves me a good burger. Add cheese, bacon, and katsup to really kick things up a notch, especially if you throw in a side of crispy french fries and a tasty cold beer.
Substitute: – There is no substitute for a burger. I just eat them less frequently. I enjoy them a whole lot more when I do eat them now, though, and will grill up the burgers myself rather than get them at a restaurant.
- Offender: Sausage – Most sausages are loaded with fat (and other things).
Substitute: Chicken Sausage – Before you close your browser in disgust, just hear me out. I used to be like you, scoffing at the idea of a chicken sausage or some other ridiculous hot dog substitute, but in the past few years chicken sausages have really kicked it up a notch. At one-half to two-thirds fewer calories than their pork or beef counterparts, chicken sausages can be well spiced and mixed with healthy alternatives to fat, like apples, peppers, or even low-fat cheese. Living in Chicago, I’m particular partial to the new chicken sausages from Vienna Beef. They’re so good I actually prefer them to their hot dogs (although I do miss the natural casing snap of the standard dogs).
- Offender: French Fries, Rice, Bread Stuffing, Pasta, and other Starches – Growing up most meals would consist of a well-rounded plate of some meat, fish, or other protein, some vegetable, and some starch like macaroni & cheese or rice. The problem with these starches is that they provide a ton of calories without providing that much in the way of nutrition.
Substitute: Beans – Beans also contain a lot of starch, of course, and with that, a lot of calories compared to vegetables or proteins. However, beans are also loaded with dietary fiber and vitamins, and are thus really good for you. I usually don’t eat more than a half-cup serving of beans at any given time, but they’re excellent (and if you spice them up, much tastier than boring ol’ white rice).
Small changes to your eating habits add up over time to big weight loss. A few calories here and there don’t seem like much, but you can easily lose a pound a week by reducing your calorie intake by just 350 calories a day; reduced because you’ve found ways around starving yourself by eating lower-calorie foods that taste just as good (or better) than their higher-calorie culinary equivalents.
Truth be told I don’t eat that much red meat these days, but sometimes a nice grilled flank steak or filet mignon is a nice side dish for a big salad. Yes, I’ve flipped the portions. The meat isn’t the main course, it’s a side dish to vegetables. You won’t miss the difference between 4oz and 8oz of meat, especially if you’re eating it slowly, don’t have it very often, and savor every bite. If anything, you’ll probably enjoy it more when you do eat red meat. ↩
It’s easy to be down on the restaurant industry for their massive amounts of fat & salt in most dishes, but there are healthier choices out there if you’re willing to look for them.
When eating out with others I find that it’s actually easier to eat healthily because most people that I dine with know I’ve lost weight, and know that I’m still working to lose more. So there’s a certain macho bravado with ordering the healthiest meal at the table. I’m sure some people are annoyed when I make When Harry Met Sally-style special requests to cut back on the salt & fat, put the sauce on the side, make the omelette with egg whites (sometimes – usually I’ll just eat whole eggs), or substitute a salad or side of fruit for hashbrowns or fries.
Strategies for Eating
Eating is such a pleasurable activity, and one downside of Clean Livin’ is that it makes it more of a chore. You’re no longer just eating whatever for the pure enjoyment of your food, but instead planning an eating strategy wherein you’re mentally calculating every calorie, nutrient, and figuring out what you should be eating instead of what you want to eat. That’s the opposite of fun. That’s work.
Once you’ve learned a few tricks, though, you can dine, if not with reckless abandon, then at least with the confidence that you’re doing the best that you can. Passing on the fries is a difficult moment in any eater’s life. Let’s take the sting out of feeling like you’re depriving yourself.
- Back Yourself into a Corner – Instead of eating the bread, getting a few drinks, an appetizer, unhealthy side dish, an entrée, and then dessert – get just one of those things in addition to your entrée. You can mix it up – one meal, get an appetizer. Another, go for your favorite dessert. It really sucks to spend your calorie budget on high-calorie foods that you don’t even really like that much, so if you’re going to splurge, ensure you make the most of it. As an American, I’m all about maximizing my enjoyment, making sure that everything is always the best it can possibly be.
- Gratis Schmatis – We sure do love things that are free. Skip the bread basket and butter (unless that’s your favorite thing), popcorn, or whatever other freebies they bring you to get you eating as soon as possible.
- You Booze, You Can’t Lose – Johnny Cochran rhyme aside, alcohol contains more calories per gram than any foodstuff other than fat, so be careful to not drink the equivalent of an entire meal.
Recommended Things to Eat
Since people are always asking me what I eat, as if there’s a magical diet that will make you lose weight, I’m going to be specific about things that I order in restaurants. Granted, you won’t lose weight as fast eating out a lot, since you have much less control over how a dish is prepared, and what ingredients go into it, but I like restaurants and I can eat out and still lose weight if I’m smart about it.
When I want to eat out but don’t want to blow through two days of calories in a single meal, I’ve made a mental (and now written) list of go-to foods that are reasonably healthy. With these choices you still have to watch things (sauces, side dishes, preparation method) but it’s easier to eat right when you eat the “more right” things. You know how I am about making the right choice the easy choice.
If you go easy on the soy sauce, skip the maki rolls loaded with fried breadcrumbs and mayonnaise, and eat only a small bit of white rice, sushi bars can be an excellent (albeit expensive) source of lean protein. I tend to stick with salmon, tuna, and other fish high in omega–3 fatty acids (since they’re known to help lower cholesterol). Miso soup, while high in sodium, is full of all sorts of beneficial compounds, and if I’m going to have anything unhealthy at a Japanese restaurant, miso is where I’ll blow it, which isn’t so bad.
Watch Out For: Soy sauce, which is essentially a flavored salt. Avoid “spicy” anything (since they make it spicy by adding chili oil to mayo – yes, fat & fat), vegetables prepared in the “tempura” style (i.e. breaded and deep-fried), and the fancier maki rolls that are stuffed with things like fried shrimp or cream cheese.
Broiled or Poached Seafood
Ask for it without butter, as most restaurants will glaze the fish with fat so it gets a nicer crust when they stick it under the salamander to cook.
Shrimp and scallops are excellent sources of lean protein. Don’t worry about the cholesterol in shrimp, especially in the small quantity you’ll be getting in a dish at a restaurant. Just be sure that it’s simply prepared without a rich, fatty sauce.
Avoid: Fish that’s battered, breaded, or otherwise fried, or served in “garlic butter” or some other heavy sauce.
Oh, restaurant salad, you’re such a tease. Salads offer the illusion of being healthy, but most salads on a restaurant’s menu get tarted-up with cheese, bacon, fatty dressing, croutons, and other unhealthy things that largely negate the nutritional benefit of the vegetables. Oh, I could write another whole post on how salads are often higher in calories than a burger and fries.
Get the salad with the most interesting greens or other vegetables, dip your fork in the dressing (that you’re getting on the side), and don’t be afraid to be annoying to your server and ask for it without the offending bits. Personally I’m a big fan of a beet salad with goat cheese, since beets are delicious and goat cheese is expensive enough that they tend to give you only a few crumbles. I love that beet salads also often come with walnuts, although a lot of places candy them first, which sullies their health benefits.
Since vegetables tend to be lower in calories, and greens are cheap, you can eat a lot of them. Fill up on the dark, leafy greens and go easy on non-vegetable toppings and dressing.
Favorite Healthy Salad Ingredients: arugula, field greens, avocado, grilled chicken breast, steak, shrimp, tuna fish, fruit, beets, goat cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, shredded parmesan, olives, feta cheese, capers, bell peppers, jalapeños, hot peppers.
Skip: Creamy or sweet dressings which are full of sugar & fat. Croutons, tortilla strips, or other deep-fried crunchy things. Fatty cheeses like bleu cheese, cheddar, or swiss.
Depending on the place, of course – having tortillas made with lard in the traditional method will add hundreds of calories to a meal that can otherwise be fairly low-cal, and even if you get steak, chicken, or shrimp on your taco, they tend to be lean and you don’t get much on each.
Squeeze some fresh lime juice on your taco for a huge kick of flavor for almost zero calories. Most hot sauces contain little more than vinegar, hot peppers, and salt, and are usually calorie-free as well while packing in a lot of flavor (and heat!).
Beware “fish tacos” as the traditional fish taco is battered, deep fried, and covered with mayonnaise and cheese. Some places will let you substitute a grilled fish, and you can always ask them to hold the mayo.
Skip: Crunchy fried hard-shell tacos. Anything covered in a sauce, like enchiladas. Mexican Coke (just because it has sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t suddenly make it a health food).
Steak & Potatoes
A leaner cut of beef (think filet mignon, flank steak, or sirloin) and a baked potato (bonus points if you can get a baked sweet potato) and a side of some steamed or grilled vegetable like asparagus can be a pretty healthy meal (you don’t have to eat the entire potato, as the russets that most restaurants employ are gigantic).
Avoid: High-calorie sides of french fries, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and the hollandaise sauce often served with the vegetable.
Okay, so falafel balls are deep-fried, but usually in vegetable oil, and the falafel itself is porous and tends not to hold much oil after frying. Falafel (ground up, fried chickpea balls) are usually served or garnished with hummus, mediterranean salad, tabbouleh, and pickled vegetables, all of which have numerous health benefits. I enjoy a falafel sandwich in a pita from time to time, but if you get it as a platter instead you can save yourself 100 or so calories by skipping the pita.
No need to avoid the hummus or tahini sauce – the garbanzo bean mash and sesame seed tahini come together to form a complete protein. Generally, the combination of beans + seeds = good for you.
Also recommended: lentil soup, especially if it’s vegetarian.
I’m not going to lie – very little of what I eat would be described as a “dessert” by most people. Having said that, I’ll have a post-dinner evening snack most nights, and while most of the time we’ll skip dessert when eating out, there are still some desserts that I’ll eat when out.
- Frozen Yogurt – I especially enjoy the extra tart pro-biotic froyo from Pinkberry. Most frozen yogurt these days just tastes like soft serve vanilla ice cream (and isn’t much healthier or lower in calories) but some of the healthy frozen yogurt places do it right. The original should taste like yogurt, not vanilla. Pass on the toppings (yes, even the fruit, which is usually macerated in sugar).
- Popcorn – I used to get a big tub of popcorn just about every time I went to the movies. Now I’ll get a small popcorn from time to time (without the artificial butter-flavored grease). If I’m going to eat popcorn I’d much rather make it at home where I can control the oil and especially the salt, but if you can get air-popped popcorn out that’s not heavily salted, go for it. Popcorn is high in fiber and very filling. Just be cautious of the movie theater since the average medium movie theater popcorn contains over 1,000 calories (without the “butter”).
- Fruit – You may say that fruit isn’t a dessert, and that’s where we differ. I eat fruit most nights at home (and often for breakfast) and if I can get a fruit cup or side of fruit at breakfast I often will.
The three most beautiful words in the English language are “Breakfast served anytime.” I could eat breakfast foods for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a late night snack. Thankfully, my favorite breakfast food is also one of the healthiest: eggs.
I may have mentioned my love of eggs before. I especially love omelettes because the combinations of fillings can make what’s essentially the same dish taste completely different.
However: Sure, you need to avoid the side of hash browns, butter on toast, and fatty breakfast meats (although I’ll splurge to spend some calories on bacon or sausage sometimes), but if you want a nutritious meal that’s filling and satisfying, eggcept no substitute.
So I Just Shouldn’t Eat Out, Right?
If you’re careful you can eat out without torpedoing your fitness goals. Just remember to skip everything that’s delicious. I kid, but pick your battles. If you want a BLT get a BLT. Try eating just half of it. If you want a little extra kick in your salad, get the bleu cheese dressing every once in a while, count it in your food log, and eat more healthily the rest of the day.
Your daily caloric budget is yours to do with as you please. Enjoy yourself when eating out but a little moderation goes a long way, and restaurants are definitely working against your best health efforts.
Thanks to the low-carb Atkins Diet that was popular a decade ago, a lot of restaurants have Atkins-friendly substitutions right on the menu. Sometimes there’s an extra charge for fruit instead of potatoes, but I’ll pay an extra buck to not eat a meal’s worth of calories in my side-dish. Then again, sometimes I’ll just get the potatoes, because they’re delicious. ↩
I love you, too. ↩
Restaurants can be a minefield of mostly bad choices for someone trying to lose weight. Everything is loaded with salt & fat, and even if you’re counting calories, without knowing how much salt, butter, or other oil goes into the preparation of your dish (hint: it’s a lot more than you would imagine) you’re at a disadvantage.
My wife and I sat at the “chef’s table” at a popular local restaurant once. It was a lot of fun, like having dinner and a show. We got to see many dishes being prepared, and were a bit startled to see an entire stick of butter go into a single serving side-dish that otherwise contained mostly vegetables. Yikes.
I enjoy eating in restaurants. I tend to order dishes with ingredients that are difficult to come by for the home chef, dishes that are difficult to prepare, or that have a long list of ingredients that it wouldn’t make sense to make at home. Eating out often also helped me to gain a tremendous amount of weight. I especially enjoy “fine dining” restaurants where the preparation of food is akin to an art form. These forays into haute cuisine are an annual tradition, though (at most) – not part of my regular diet.
Most of the time you’re not going to be eating at the best restaurants, but eating fast food on the go or grabbing a bite on the way to your next appointment. Getting delivery, fast food, or take out is “eating out” too. Just because you eat the fried chicken at home doesn’t make it any healthier. These days I tend to avoid any food served in a bucket.
I’ve noticed on days that I eat out, not only do I tend to go over my calorie budget, but I also tend to gain weight the next day. Even if I stay within my budget, if I eat out for dinner I tend to go up the next day, sometimes more than a pound or two. Since I know that you need to eat about 3,500 more calories than you burn to gain a single pound, even if I underestimated what I ate I’d still not be off by enough to warrant gaining a single pound, let alone more than one in a single day. So what happened?
Salt. Excess salt in your system makes you retain fluid because it messes with the water/salt balance that’s regulated by your kidneys. Since most restaurant food is salty, I’m more concerned with the salt than I am the fat, as it has more lasting effects (at least in the short term for the next day’s weigh-in).
When I talk about salt I mean standard table salt, sodium chloride, NaCl. The kind the girl with the yellow raincoat is standing under. Whether it’s finely ground, coarse, kosher, or comes from the sea, it’s all just good ol’ salt.
Salt of the Earth
One teaspoon of table salt contains 2,325 milligrams (mg) of sodium. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 2,300 mg per day for most adults, and no more than 1,500 mg for those over 51 or who have high blood pressure or kidney problems. How much do typical American’s consume instead? The CDC report on sodium claims that the U.S. average is 3,300 mg per day, and many restaurant dishes contain much more than that in a single meal.
You need some salt for your body to function correctly, but chances are you’re getting way more salt than you need. Most foods naturally contain small amounts of salt – even vegetables. Prepared foods are usually loaded with salt, though, as it’s a preservative, makes the food taste better (personally, I love salty things), and is a cheap ingredient to add to prepared foods.
The only way you can truly know how much salt is in your food is to cook it yourself. Well, that would be true if so many foods you buy at the store aren’t already heavily salted. Most supermarket chicken and pork are essentially brined with salt so that they stay juicier, longer. You know how if you eat a lot of salt you retain fluid? So does the meat you buy. Brining is a great way to protect meat during a long roasting or grilling process, but it does add extra salt to your diet, making your meat retain moisture too.
A Salient Point
Restaurants salt their food because salt is a natural flavor enhancer. It not only makes food taste salty – it makes other flavors taste better.
You may see a notice on a Chinese food menu that says “No MSG.” That’s an abbreviation for monosodium glutamate, another type of salt (table salt is sodium chloride, NaCl). They’re bragging about not adding MSG to their food because back in the day Chinese food in the United States was often prepared with insane amounts of MSG which causes all sorts of health issues associated with a high salt intake, like high blood pressure and heart disease.
The benefit of using MSG is that it’s a flavor enhancer like table salt, but it doesn’t taste salty. So you can eat a large amount of MSG without even realizing you’re consuming way more salt than your body can process.
When you eat more salt than your kidneys can deal with, it stays in your bloodstream causing your blood volume to increase, which means that your heart has to work harder to push more blood through your system. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of salt than others. I know when I’ve had too much salt because I can feel added pressure in my ears due to the temporary increase in blood pressure.
Chains of Fools
Chain restaurants, where the foods are assembled rather than cooked, are some of the biggest culprits in the crime of over-salting food.
For instance, the Denny’s chain’s “Moon Over My Hammy” breakfast sandwich with a side of hash browns comes out to 3,230 mg of sodium before you add any condiments like ketchup. So that’s about twice what you should be eating, or a thousand mg over your maximum recommended intake for the entire day, just at breakfast.
Eat a larger meal at Denny’s, say, a bowl of clam chowder, their Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt sandwich, and a side of seasoned fries, and you’re eating over four and a half days worth of sodium in a single meal (which contains about 1,700 calories too).
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) performed a study in 2009 in which they looked at some national chains and attempted to put together reasonable meals at those restaurants. The amount of sodium in each is astounding:
- Red Lobster Admirals’ Feast with Caesar Salad, Creamy Lobster Topped Mashed Potato, Cheddar Bay Biscuit, and a Lemonade: 7,106 mg
- Chili’s Buffalo Chicken Fajitas (with tortillas and condiments) and a Dr Pepper: 6,916 mg
- Chili’s Honey-Chipotle Ribs with Mashed Potatoes with Gravy, Seasonal Vegetables, and a Dr Pepper: 6,440 mg
- Olive Garden Tour of Italy (lasagna) with a Breadstick, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing, and a Coca-Cola: 6,176 mg
- Olive Garden Chicken Parmigiana with a Breadstick, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing, and Raspberry Le[m]onade: 5,735 mg
Cooking your own food is the only way you’ll know for sure what’s in what you’re eating. Sometimes you just have to eat out, whether it be due to convenience, a work or social function, party, or vacation. In those cases, there are some things you can do to at least alleviate the problem of too much salt and fat in standard restaurant portions:
- Eat Local – If you can’t prepare your own food, try to at least eat somewhere that prepares its own foods. Most chain restaurants do little but reheat and combine ingredients that are processed and packaged elsewhere, and have no control over what goes into your dish. Local restaurants may be able to prepare your food with less salt if you ask when you order.
- On the Side – Ask for potentially salty ingredients on the side. Instead of pouring salad dressing on your salad, just dip the tines of your fork into the dressing before eating a bite. Sauces are another culprit and are usually the saltiest ingredient in a dish, especially when eating Asian cuisines. If you can get the sauce on the side at least you can limit your intake.
- Simply Prepared – Skip the gloopy dishes where everything is mixed together with a ton of sugary, salty sauce that’s thickened with starch. Look for keywords like “roasted,” “grilled,” “steamed,” or “baked.” Avoid things that are “glazed,” “crusted,” or “fried.”
- Break the Shaker Habit – Don’t add extra salt to your food with the salt shaker on the table. Or if you do, at least taste the portion you’re about to eat before you add salt to it. When you do add salt (say to vegetables that have been as yet unseasoned) limit the amount you shake on, or better yet, shake the salt into your palm and then sprinkle it onto your food when you can see how much you’re using (salt shakers in restaurants usually use fine-grained salt which pours very easily).
When shopping at the supermarket, beware health claims on labels. “Sodium-free” means that a serving contains less than 5mg of sodium per serving, which even though it’s a minor amount toward your 2,300 mg of sodium per day, still adds up. “Reduced sodium” means that it contains 25% less sodium than the standard item. So if something’s loaded with 2,000 mg of sodium, a 25% reduction to only 1,500 mg may not be doing you much good. “Lite,” “light,” or “low” sodium means that it contains 50% less than the standard, whatever that standard is.
The USDA recommends avoiding foods containing more than 200 mg per serving. Of course, that means being conscious of how many servings you eat. The nutritional facts label on a 20 oz bottle of Coca-Cola, which I’d consider single-serving, actually claims it contains 2.5 servings. Ditto most bags of microwave popcorn.
Your taste for salty things is acquired through years of eating too much salt, so if you cut back gradually you can help retrain your body to get by with much less salt. It’ll take time to reduce your sodium intake without craving salty snacks all the time.
I’ve Eaten Too Much Salt. What Now?
Drink plenty of water to try to wash out as much as possible. As your kidneys process the salt and water the extra water you take in will help to dilute the salt.
Exercising and sweating will also help remove salt from your system (have you ever tasted how salty sweat is?).
Otherwise, wait it out and in a few days of drinking copious amounts of water your body will re-align your salt/water balance (unless you have kidney disease or another medical condition that affects your kidney’s ability to regulate sugar and water balance).
There Was Talk of Salt and Fat
Yes, restaurants tend to add a lot of fat to your foods too, but except for adding a huge amount of extra calories (since fats are the most caloric food you can eat) they have little lasting ill-effects. By eating out less, reducing your sodium intake, and being smart about what you order when you do eat out, you’ll be able to live a normal life while losing weight.
It’s possible, but it’s not easy. Restaurants really work against you because salt & fat make things taste really good. I’ve found that substituting protein for fat helps keep me just as satisfied, although most proteins contain some fat too. Once you’ve weaned-off salt you’ll find a little goes a long way.
Don’t be afraid to ask for less salt & fat when eating out. You’re going to have to eat it, and you’re paying for it, so don’t be shy about protecting your own health. Of course, your mileage may vary, so take my advice with a grain of salt.
For the past few years I’ve been getting an annual physical that includes a blood test for various vitamin concentrations, a blood glucose test to screen for diabetes, and a lipid panel to test for cholesterol levels. The lipid panel has to be taken after you’ve been fasting for at least twelve hours because fat in food you’ve recently eaten can artificially raise your triglycerides and throw off the results.
I had a “holy shit” moment this year when I got my results back and found my total cholesterol and LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) were both high for the first time. When I dug up my results from the last two years it’s clear I should’ve been concerned about this sooner. Last year I was right on the cusp of having high cholesterol and didn’t think anything of it. My doctor even warned me about it in her letter accompanying the results, but I paid it no mind, probably because it was just under the normal range.
Here’s how my cholesterol has crept-up since 2010:
This year, though, my doctor’s letter contained an implied threat: if I couldn’t get my cholesterol down through diet and exercise alone in three months, I’d have to start taking statin drugs. Challenge accepted! Statins are a prescribed medication that have various side-effects and other nasty business of which I want absolutely no part. Could I really reduce my cholesterol naturally? I was determined to try.
What The Hell Is Cholesterol, Anyway?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like steroid found in every cell of your body. About 75% of your cholesterol is produced by the liver, and you get the other 25% from the food you eat. Your cells need cholesterol to function, and they get cholesterol delivered to them via the bloodstream. If a cell has enough cholesterol, then the cholesterol globules continue through your body until they’re reabsorbed by your lower intestines where they’ll go back to your liver to be recycled.
When you have an abundance of cholesterol in your blood, though, that won’t be accepted by cells and is more than the liver can re-process, your body will start to store it throughout the areas where your blood travels, usually throughout your arteries, gunking up the walls of the little tubes your blood flows through. Yes, even your blood can get fat. Then it will start to build up in the heart, which can impair its function and eventually cause a heart attack.
The problem with having high cholesterol is that there are no symptoms until you have your first heart attack. Getting a cholesterol screening can help diagnose potential issues while you still have a chance to remedy the situation.
Cholesterol is a kind of fat and can be screened by what’s known as a lipid panel or lipid profile (“lipid” being the fancy scientific term for “fat”).
A lipid profile typically includes measurements for:
- Total cholesterol
- High-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL)
- Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL)
An extended profile (which is much more expensive, and not typical) may also include:
- Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL)
However, most cholesterol testing doesn’t include a full lipid panel, and instead only measures LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol, and then the results of the others are calculated from those. If your initial cholesterol screen looks like you may have high cholesterol, your doctor may order a more complete profile.
Cholesterol levels are measured in mg/dL, or how many milligrams of each cholesterol lipoprotein are contained in a deciliter of blood. When I refer to “points” or “levels” I’m talking about a measurable quantity of mg/dL. For reference, Americans, a deciliter is a little less than half a cup. The average human body contains about five and a half quarts of blood (depending on size different people will hold more or less blood in their body). So the cholesterol test takes a sample and then projects how much total cholesterol you have.
LDL vs. HDL
Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL (“bad” cholesterol) is a fatty protein that transports cholesterol through the bloodstream when your cells reject its delivery (because they have enough). It’s “bad” because it deposits excess cholesterol in the walls of arteries, or wherever else it can. It just stuffs it wherever it’ll fit.
When that happens white blood cells attack the LDL and try to digest it, but are unable to, so the LDL is converted into a toxic, even waxier substance called plaque, which builds up in arterial walls and makes it harder for red blood cells to carry oxygen through those parts of your cardiovascular system. Plaque tends to build up over time, and eventually can cause a rupture, on which a blood clot can form and if that clot breaks free and travels to the heart, can cause a heart attack.
High-density lipoprotein, or HDL (“good” cholesterol), scavenges LDL cholesterol and returns it back to the liver where it can be broken down and essentially recycled for when it’s needed again. HDL also scrubs the walls of your blood vessels so that plaque doesn’t form.
It’s long been thought that higher levels of HDL in your blood prevented heart attacks, but new research conducted in May 2012 suggests that raising the HDL levels of people with low HDL doesn’t lower their chances of getting a heart attack, probably because of other factors that lead to heart attacks, such as a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet.
While HDL alone may not be the panacea for your heart’s health, higher levels of HDL are beneficial mostly because they control the levels of your LDL cholesterol, and that’s good.
Triglycerides are the main form of fat in the body. When you consume excess calories, food is broken down into triglycerides and stored in your fat cells (adipose tissue) where it may be used again when you burn more calories than you take in. Triglycerides are packed together in the liver and wrapped up inside the strands of very low-density lipoprotein, or VLDL, and then go on their way through your bloodstream until they’re tucked neatly away in one of your body’s fat stores.
It’s not currently known how high triglyceride levels in the blood affect the heart. Part of the reason is that high triglycerides tend to occur when you have other risk factors for heart disease, like high LDLs or high blood pressure.
There is also a direct correlation between alcohol consumption and high triglyceride levels. Drinking more than one drink per day for women, or two drinks a day for men may raise triglyceride levels considerably. Of course, if you’re trying to lose weight you’ve already cut back on drinking alcohol for the calories alone.
How Can You Lower Your Cholesterol?
Besides medication, there are some all-natural ways you can lower your cholesterol:
- Aerobic Exercise
I wrote them in that order so they wouldn’t have the acronym “SAD.” By fighting cholesterol on all three fronts you may have a better chance of lowering it, and thus lowering your risk of heart disease.
Exercise Lowers Cholesterol
So how does exercise lower your cholesterol? Exercise raises the level of your lipoprotein lipase (LPL) enzymes which in turn attach to triglycerides to essentially remove them from the bloodstream, thus lowering your triglyceride levels too.
Exercise also increases the size of both LDL and HDL cholesterol, which means that the LDL can’t nestle into the tiny nooks & crannies of your heart and blood vessels.
While there’s a direct correlation between exercise (especially aerobic exercise like walking, running, or otherwise moving your body without resistance) and lowering cholesterol, researchers aren’t quite sure why exercise works, but they know it does.
A 2002 study at Duke University Medical Center found that more intense exercise lowers LDL cholesterol far more than moderate or light exercise. People who exercised more vigorously also raised their HDL cholesterol. Win-win. So you have to push yourself harder to have a greater effect in lowering cholesterol.
Foods That Lower Cholesterol
In addition to exercise, certain foods are known to help lower cholesterol.
- Oatmeal – Oats contain a substance called beta-glucan which absorbs LDL cholesterol and removes it from your body. If there’s any one magic bullet for lowering cholesterol, oats are it. If anything, since the 1980s when the FDA allowed oat-based foods to carry a health claim, additional research has proven that above all other foods, oats can lower cholesterol by as much as 20%.
- Fish – Especially those high in omega–3 fatty acids, like salmon, herring, sardines, and tuna, can lower your cholesterol. Sure, you can take a fish oil supplement, but you gotta eat, and adding more fish to your diet can help lower your cholesterol and provide healthier proteins than red meat or poultry.
- Flax Seed – Flax is like a wick that soaks up that bad cholesterol and removes it from your body. Add a tablespoon or two to your oatmeal, yogurt, or other healthy food, and you probably won’t even notice it’s there. Flax seeds are also high in omega–3. Do you see a trend? Fiber and omega–3 fatty acids work to reduce cholesterol.
- Chia Seeds – You know those novelty terra cotta Chia Pets that grow little greens? Eating the seeds rather than planting them may help reduce your LDL. Cha-cha-cha chia!
- Olive Oil – Not only does olive oil help to lower LDLs, but because it’s a monounsaturated fat it doesn’t lower your HDLs, so a little olive oil in your diet can help you in more ways than one.
- Avocado – Speaking of omega–3 acids, avocados are loaded with the stuff, and taste great when mashed up with a little lime juice, onion, cilantro and salt. I could probably eat guacamole every day.
- Walnuts – Also high in omega–3 fatty acids (unlike most other nuts), which can help slow down the growth of plaque in your arteries. Other nuts, like almonds, pecans, pistachios, and peanuts also help to lower cholesterol, mostly because they’re high in fiber, but none are as effective as walnuts.
- Blueberries – The high level of antioxidants in blueberries have been found to reduce cholesterol… in hamsters. However, they taste great in oatmeal, so it’s worth trying (plus blueberries contain numerous compounds known to be beneficial).
- Red Wine – In vino veritas… and it has been found to lower cholesterol, too. Only the red wines, though, ladies. Your chardonnay, while delightfully crisp and oaky, won’t have much effect because white wines do not contain a chemical known as a flavonoid, which has a protective effect that makes your heart and arteries less able to accept LDL cholesterol for storage. The flavonoids are stronger in red wine because they come from the grape’s stem, seeds, and skins, which are skimmed out of white wine earlier in its fermentation process. The tannins in red wine also suppress the peptide responsible for hardening arteries. As beneficial as red wine can be for your health, it still contains a lot of alcohol and therefore should only be consumed in moderation (one glass per day for women, two glasses for men).
- Dark Chocolate – The darker (i.e. containing more cacao) the better. Dark chocolate also contains flavonoids (as well as 300 other chemical compounds known to cure a great many ills both physical and psychological).
If these foods have anything in common, it’s that they’re high in calories. So moderation is key. Try replacing some other food you were going to eat with these heart-healthy choices and you’ll be lowering your cholesterol in no time.
In addition to eating these special foods, though, improving your overall diet, eating the proper number of calories, and getting ample nutrition is going to be the most effective in preventing various diseases.
Foods High in Cholesterol
It’s not all sunshine and oatmeal. There are a number of (primarily animal-based) foods that contain a lot of cholesterol, such as:
- Egg Yolks – While egg yolks only contain 1.5 grams of saturated fat, eggs have become the poster child for high-cholesterol foods. Of course, eggs have many other health benefits (I’ll write more on how great eggs are later).
- Red Meat – Steak, hamburgers, pork, bacon, etc. are all high in fat and dietary cholesterol.
- Dairy Fat – Dairy fats like butter, cream, cheese, and even whole milk contain cholesterol.
- Shellfish – Shrimp, lobster, oysters, and mussels are all high in cholesterol.
While the dietary cholesterol you ingest doesn’t become “serum cholesterol” in your bloodstream, consumption of saturated fats may stimulate cholesterol production in the liver. It’s long been considered a given that the type of fats you consume influences the types of cholesterol you produce.
My dietician suggested that I reduce (or eliminate) my consumption of the above foods, but there is an abundance of research to suggest that a diet high in saturated fat has no correlation to increased blood cholesterol levels. I expect we’ll see more research in this area in the near future.
Since there are no obvious health detriments to reducing your consumption of saturated fat, however, why not reduce your intake to be on the safe side?
Do Any Vitamins or Supplements Lower Cholesterol?
I’ve been taking Benecol Smart Chews which are essentially a concentration of plant stanol esters. Sounds tasty, no? Plant stanol esters are naturally occurring in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other natural whole foods, but in such limited quantities as to have little effect on the body. The refined, esterified, and hydrogenated stanols bond with LDL proteins and remove them from the bloodstream. Sterol esters have a similar effect, but are partially absorbed by the body, and thus raise levels over time. Studies suggest that this may be a problem so I’ve stuck with the stanol instead of the sterol esters.
I’m not down on statin drugs, as they can help reduce cholesterol for a lot of people who can’t rely on exercise and diet alone to reduce it. I just try not to take any more medication than I absolutely have to, and am trying to hold back the march of time on my body. For people who need them, I’m sure that statin drugs are a godsend.
Statin drugs work by blocking production of an enzyme in the liver that is responsible for producing cholesterol (the enzyme is called HMG-CoA reductase, or as it’s known to its friends, “3-hydroxy–3-methyglutaryl COA”).
Statin drugs are the most common prescription drug in the world. Some statin brands prescribed include Lipitor, Crestor, Zocor, Mevacor, Altocor, and the comically named Lescol (for less cholesterol?), Livalo (live a little longer?), and Pravachol (which, uh… prevents cholesterol?). Whatever the brand name, these statin drugs actually provide different statins, so if one doesn’t work another may work better for you. Lipitor recently fell out of patent protection and therefore a generic may be prescribed in its place (although in Summer 2012 the generics aren’t much cheaper than the brand name drug).
Station drugs are known to have some fairly serious side effects, though, including nausea, dizziness, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, and bloating due to gas. Lovely. The worst side-effect seems to be myositis, or inflammation of the muscles, which can cause injuries when trying to exercise. None for me, thanks.
So How Did I Do?
After improving my diet, adding copious amounts of foods known to help lower cholesterol to my diet, chewing Benecol with each meal, and increasing the amount of exercise I get each day, I gave blood again for another lipid panel.
Here are my cholesterol levels after my most recent blood test:
My total cholesterol reduced by 56 points, and my LDL cholesterol went down by 40 points in three months. Oddly, my HDL, the “good” cholesterol, also decreased, which is typical for those taking statin drugs but unusual for people who achieve lowered cholesterol through diet and exercise alone, especially since exercise is known to lower LDL and raise HDL cholesterol. Puzzling.
I’m not stopping now. While my total cholesterol is now well within the “normal” range you can’t really ever get your LDL too low, and I’d like to lower my LDL as much as possible while raising my HDL even higher.
I’m going to re-check my cholesterol in four months to see how I’ve been progressing, and I’m going to pursue lowering my cholesterol as a good excuse to lose weight and get healthier, and continue to act like my cholesterol is high. After all, heart-healthy foods like oatmeal, avocados, salmon, sweet potatoes, blueberries, walnuts, and olive oil aren’t exactly hard to fit into your diet, because they’re delicious.
Being diagnosed with slightly high cholesterol was just the kick in the pants I needed to get back on track with my Clean Livin’. I’ve lowered my cholesterol by 56 points naturally, yes, but I’ve also lost over 30 pounds in the same interval.
Not to be confused with LDL, the “bad” kind of cholesterol. ↩
Yes, I know that February to June is actually four months, but I didn’t get the results of my blood test in the mail until March 19th, so my next blood test was actually exactly three months after I started making changes to my diet and increasing my exercise. ↩