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Eating Out and Chinese Food

















Eating Out

Nearly half of all food dollars is spent on eating out. That represents one-third of all calories in the average American's diet. Restaurants have begun offering an expanding array of "light" or "low fat" foods. Many menus contain "healthy" sections with names like "Heart Smart." Do these foods live up to their claims?

The Food and Drug Administration did not regulate claims on menus until recently. The law requires the following:

Restaurant's nutrition claims must meet FDA standards. Nutrition information need not appear on the menu, but must be provided upon request. It may be provided in writing or orally. Full nutrition information is not required. Only information that pertains to the particular claim must be provided.

Claim Meaning
Low Sodium Less than 140mg of sodium in a standard serving.
Low Fat Less than 3 grams of fat in a standard serving.
Light Light has many meanings. It can describe taste, color, texture, calorie count, fat content, or sodium content. The menu must explain what light means.
Cholesterol Free Low in saturated fat as well as cholesterol free.
Sugar Free Does not contain added sugar.
Healthy Low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

These claims do not overlap. A low sodium food may be high in sugar or fat. A low fat may be high in sugar or sodium. A sugar free food may be high in fat. These claims are also based on standard servings. Restaurant portions are often much larger than a standard serving.

Laboratory analysis is not required. Instead, the levels may be calculated. Restaurants are required to explain how nutrient levels are determined upon request.

The degree to which restaurants comply with these legal requirements is quite variable. If a "heart-healthy" entrée looks like it has a lot of fat then it probably isn't "low-fat" or "low-calorie" or even "heart-healthy".

Here are some strategies to use when eating out.

  1. Ask for nutrition information. It must be provided upon request. The law does not require that the food be tested in a laboratory, so the numbers may not be precise.
  2. Beware of large servings. Serving sizes on food labels are required to reflect the amount of food that is normally consumed, but restaurants are free to determine their own portions. A survey found that restaurants often serve from two to three times more food than a serving. The official serving size of a tuna salad sandwich is 4 ounces and it contains 340 calories. The typical restaurant serving is 11 ounces and it contains 720 calories.
  3. The nutrient content of restaurant meals is extremely difficult to assess. A survey found that dietitians underestimated the calorie content of five restaurant meals by an average of 37%. They underestimated fat content by 49%. They estimated, on average, that a tuna fish sandwich provided 374 calories and 18 grams of fat. The sandwich actually contained 720 calories and 43 grams of fat! If nutrition professionals underestimated the calorie and fat content of restaurant meals ordinary consumers will certainly have trouble guessing what's in their food.
  4. Request that your food be specially prepared. Most restaurants are willing to satisfy specific requests. Order sauces and salad dressings on the side. Ask for a low-calorie dressing or salsa, mustard, or flavored vinegar instead of dressing. Request half-portions at a reduced price or take home half the meal in a doggie bag. If you are dining with a friend you can even share a single entrée. Requests that food be broiled or grilled instead of fried and request that it be grilled using little or no butter or oil.
  5. Make substitutions. Substitute skim milk for whole milk, or cream. Choose baked, broiled, or grilled white meat chicken, turkey, or seafood instead of red meat. If you eat red meat, select leaner cuts and trim the visible fat. Substitute a salad, vegetables, or a plain baked potato for fries or a "loaded" baked potato. Ask for the butter or sour cream on the side and use it very sparingly if at all. Request whole-grain breads and rolls. Substitute fresh fruit for sugary, high-fat desserts.

If you follow these guidelines you can eat out and eat healthy!

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Chinese Food

It seems that almost everybody loves Chinese food. Chinese restaurants are usually inexpensive, fast, and they offer a large variety. Is there a way to incorporate Chinese food into a weight management program? Here are some guidelines for healthy eating at the Chinese restaurant.

Egg Rolls   X Deep fried and high in fat.
Crispy Noodles.   X Fried and high in fat.
Wonton Soup X   Usually 30% calories from fat.
Egg Drop Soup Toss Up Toss Up Usually 35% calories from fat.
Hot and
Sour Soup
Toss Up Toss Up Close to 40% calories from fat but can be eaten if the rest of the meal is low fat.
Steamed Dumplings X   Usually close to 30% calories from fat.
Fried Dumplings   X Fried and high in fat.
Fried Rice Toss Up Toss Up Usually close to 30% calories from fat but white or brown rice is a better choice.
Sweet and Sour Pork   X Over 50% calories from fat. Deep-fried.
Lo Mein X   Usually close to 30% calories from fat.
Chow Mein
  X 50% calories from fat.
Lemon Chicken Toss Up Toss Up Close to 40% calories from fat but can be eaten if the rest of the meal is low fat.
Moo Shu Pork Toss Up Toss Up Close to 40% calories from fat but can be eaten if the rest of the meal is low fat.
Beef with Broccoli   X Over 50% calories from fat.
Mixed Vegetables Toss Up Toss Up Close to 40% calories from fat but can be eaten if the rest of the meal is low fat.
Steamed Dishes X  

Usually lower in fat and calories.

There are several things to keep in mind when eating Chinese food.
  • A sensible serving is usually about, of what's on the serving plate or in the take-out container.
  • Most Chinese food is very high in sodium. A sensible serving of the foods listed above can have as much as 1000mg of sodium.
  • None of the foods listed above have less than 500mg of sodium per serving.

Fill up on the plain rice and the tea. Have soup. Even though the soups can be high in fat and sodium they are better than most of the entrees and the hot liquid will help you feel fuller. Use the rice as the primary ingredient of the meal with the entrees added sparingly. If the restaurant has a menu of steamed entrees with no sauces or sauces on the side then these foods are likely to be much healthier.

You can eat a healthy diet and still have Chinese food but you do have to be careful.

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Last Updated: 21-Dec-2009
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