Pork fried rice, taco supreme, cheeseburger all the way …. no matter what kind of restaurant you like, chances are that its menu is loaded with diet-busting options.
And since Americans eat almost 24% of our meals at restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association, making poor choices when we eat out can really wreak havoc on our waistlines.
The good news is that, armed with a little knowledge, you can put together a healthier meal at almost any restaurant.
"Good choices consist of meals that have lots of fruits and veggies, lean fish or chicken, lean cuts of meat, veggie-based sauces instead of cream sauces -- there are always healthy options on every restaurant menu," says Sheila Cohn, RD, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association.
Experts took us through a range of menus, from deli fare to Italian, for a step-by-step guide to dining out light.
"The benefit of a deli-type restaurant is that you have more control over what you eat," says Rick Hall, RD, of Phoenix. "Often, a deli gives you the option to build your own sandwich, so you can choose whole-wheat bread, rye, or pumpernickel -- something that's not just pure white bread."
Beyond the bread, be careful of the meats and cheeses.
"As far as the meat goes, a lot of the deli meats can be high in salt, so sodium can be a concern," says Hall, who is a lecturer at Arizona State University on nutrition issues. "Pepperoni, salami, genoa ... these tend to be high in fat and salt, and cheeses tend to be high in fat, so go easy on these, and opt for the low-fat turkey or even low-fat ham."
Then, start adding veggies.
"When you are building a sandwich, choose high amounts of veggies, like tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, and red peppers, which add a lot of nutrients," says Hall. "And for condiments, skip the mayo and go for mustard or a small amount of olive oil and vinegar, maybe with a little pepper for spice."
"I've been to China," says Hall. "I've eaten a typical Chinese diet, and it's nothing like we have here in America. It's high in rice, and it's high in vegetables, but not high in sugary sauces."
When it comes to a typical Chinese restaurant menu in the U.S., it's easier to list what to stay away from than what's healthy.
"You want to stay away from the deep fried options," says Hall.
Unfortunately, that includes a good chunk of the menu, including favorites like the pu pu platter, typically made up of egg rolls, fried shrimp, chicken wings, chicken fingers, and crab rangoon.
"And watch out for foods on the Chinese menu that tend to be dripping in sauces, like the sweet-and-sour chicken or pork," says Hall.
The key is to choose foods that are more like those actually eaten in China -- with less meat and less sauce.
"Go for the non-fried chicken at a Chinese restaurant," says Hall. "Look for options that are heavy on the veggies, and light on the sauce, like brown rice with vegetables."
Susan Moores, RD, of St. Paul, Minn., suggests these dishes as not-so-unhealthy options: "moo goo gai pan, moo shi (with vegetables, pork, chicken or shrimp, also called moo shu), shrimp, pork, or chicken with Chinese vegetables, Szechwan green beans, or lo mein (with vegetables, pork, chicken, or shrimp)."
And, she says, "boiled, steamed, or lightly stir-fried seafood, chicken, vegetable or bean curd dishes are generally low in fat."
In fact, many Chinese restaurants offer low-cal specials: dishes that are steamed without oil, sugar, or salt. In this category, you can usually find chicken with vegetables, shrimp with vegetables, or an all-veggie platter.
Even those who don't list low-cal dishes on the menu are often willing to steam a dish instead of frying and make other modifications.
Italian restaurants offer up some tasty options for people watching their diets.
"Order pasta with marinara sauce instead of creamy white or butter sauces such as Alfredo," says Moores, who is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Not on the mood for marinara? Opt for "chicken cacciatore or piccata, grilled meat or fish, grilled eggplant pomodoro, or polenta and mushrooms," Moores tells WebMD.
As for Italian items to stay away from, "avoid pastas stuffed with cheese or meat, as well as topped with cheese," says Moores. And keep in mind that "parmigiana-style usually translates into higher fat," she says.
But what about that cheesy favorite, pizza?
Portion control is key for this easy-to-eat food, so have one or two slices and round out your meal with a salad, suggests the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Recipe Doctor" Elaine Magee, MS, RD. Choose thin-crust pizza, and top it with vegetables instead of meats. Ask for extra sauce -- and half the cheese.
There are lots of options on a Tex-Mex menu that are muy delicioso, but which ones won't weigh you down?
"Gazpacho, black bean soup, or jicama with salsa," suggests Moores. "Chile verde, or pork simmered in vegetables and green chiles, and ... dishes cooked in herbed tomato sauces are lower in fat, as is arroz con pollo, or boneless chicken with rice."
In general, when dining south of the border, Moores recommends: "Use salsa instead of sour cream or cheese dips. Choose dishes made with plain, soft tortillas that aren't fried, like burritos or enchiladas. Pick baked entrees; and corn tortillas and Mexican rice are good."
Pub fare is usually all-American food: hamburgers, nachos, onion rings ... none of which bode well for your diet.
But don't cry in your light beer. You can find some healthier items on a pub menu, such as "barbecue chicken or grilled chicken, pot roast, meat loaf with tomato sauce, filet mignon or sirloin steak, or a turkey pita sandwich," says Susan Mitchell, RD, of Winter Park, Fla.
She also recommends "soups if they are loaded with beans or you can see through them (as in broth-based), and salad with the dressings on the side" -- but watch out for fatty toppings like bacon, cheese, and croutons.
Pub fare tends to be served in generous portions. So even if you order lean, go easy.
"Portions are typically huge, so split when you can," says Mitchell, author of Fat is Not Your Fate. "And most appetizers are super-high fat (battered and fried) so it's best to skip unless there is peel-'n'-eat shrimp or oysters on the half shell."
Enjoy the Experience
Whatever type of restaurant you choose, remember that dining out is supposed to be a pleasant experience. More important, you're the customer -- and the wait staff and chefs are there to please.
"It's important to keep in mind that the restaurant industry is a hospitality industry," says Sheila Cohn, RD, senior manager of nutrition policy at the National Restaurant Association. "Ask for your salad dressing on the side, ask for grilled or steamed veggies instead of fried food, ask for red sauce instead of cream sauce with pasta.
"Almost every restaurant is happy to make accommodations for you and help you receive the meal you want."
Another important point to keep in mind: Whether you go for a healthy menu choice or decide to splurge on a high-calorie favorite, too much of a good thing is just too much.
"A lot of people are concerned over portion size," says Cohn. "But over 90% of restaurants have take-out boxes, which means you can turn tonight's dinner into tomorrow's lunch."