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September 20, 2012

The Fit Factor:
The Uphill Battle of Eating Out


The Uphill Battle of Eating Out
It is unavoidable. In today's fast paced world, we are all so busy with work, travel, social events, friends, and relationships that it is easy to take the path that is more convenient. Especially here in Chicago, it seems as though there is a restaurant on every street corner. Whatever your particular taste happens to be, we've got it. Recent research has shown that just under half (47.9%) of all 2010 food dollars in the U.S. were spent on eating out, both at restaurants and carry- out joints. This percentage represents an almost twofold increase since 1970. Sound scary? Recent research has also shown that eating just one meal at a restaurant adds an average of 134 calories to your daily energy intake. This means that if you eat out once a week, you can expect to gain 2 pounds by the end of the year. The sad reality is that most Americans eat out approximately 5.8 times per week which is equal to a fifth of their meals and a third of their total caloric intake. To add fuel to the fire, nutritional quality is also usually compromised. Restaurant foods have been shown to contain more calories, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol than store bought food. It also tends to have less fiber, calcium, and iron than foods prepared at home. For these reasons, making healthy selections when dining out becomes very important. In this article, I will point out some proven tactics that will help you to make smart food choices while eating out as well as spark some ideas on how to change your mental outlook when you sit down at your next favorite restaurant.

Be prepared. is a wonderful resource for people looking to makes smart food choices while eating out. It sorts name brand restaurants by zip code and identifies the more healthful menu choices. Nutrition information is included for all recommended dishes. In general, restaurants with easy-to-find nutrition information tend to have much lower caloric fat and sodium content than those who will only provide nutrition information upon request. It is also extremely helpful to review the menu of your restaurant of choice before dining there. Health conscious decisions such as choosing dishes that are flavored with herbs and spices instead of rich sauces and gravies, ordering sauces on the side and using them sparingly, ordering broth based soups, and ordering meals where vegetables or fruits are a major component, can also lead to a much more healthful experience. When it comes to dessert, fresh fruit, sherbet, or sorbet are always great low calorie choices.

Be specific. I know none of us want to be seen as that "pain in the ass" customer who is always asking questions and making special requests, but in order to create a truly healthy experience, I do not believe it can be avoided. I strongly recommend that my clients ask how dishes are prepared and opt for healthier alternatives if necessary. For example, steamed vegetables are a far more health conscious choice than vegetables that have been soaked in butter. I also recommend that they make substitution requests often. For example, ordering brown rice in place of French fires or garlic mashed potatoes is a much healthier choice. Olive oil is often used in place of butter to prepare certain meals and is a much lower calorie, more heart- healthy choice.

Be conscious. More important than anything, is to enter a dining experience with a healthy outlook and attitude. Making a conscious effort to order the healthiest dish on the menu can make an enormous difference in your caloric intake. Ordering a side of steamed veggies without butter, cream, or sauce is another example of having a healthy mindset. Another huge factor to be conscious of is portion size. Many restaurants serve very large portions, which of course will lead to a much higher caloric intake. A growing trend is for people to actually share entrees. My own mother has done this with my stepfather and they have seen incredible results from it. And of course, there is no rule that says you have to eat the entire entrée in one setting. Many people make the common mistake of eating even after they are full. This is a sure fire way to gain weight. If you are full, then for goodness sake, take the rest of it to go!

I realize that some of these ideas may sound unrealistic to some people. After all, people want to enjoy their experience of dining out. And for many (myself included), eating those fatty foods that we enjoy so much only adds to the pleasure. However, this can be dangerous for those who are dining out all of the time. If you are one of those people, I implore you to think about some of these ideas. If you want to splurge, that is fine; just do it on a less frequent basis. I have talked before about the concept of the "cheat day". I recommend that my clients eat as healthy as they possibly can for six days in a row. If they have done that, then they are allowed to cheat on the seventh day. The cheat day serves as a reward for all of the hard work and healthy eating that they have done throughout the week. It helps keep them on track and gives them something to look forward to. I have my cheat day once a week as well, and believe me; I thoroughly look forward to it!

I also want to let you all know about a special that I am offering for my partner training. From September 20 through October 20, any couple who buys a package of ten or 15 sessions with me will receive a free consultation and evaluation. By "couple" I do mean any two people (friends, boyfriends, whatever). I know times are tough, so this is a great way to train at a reduced rate. If you are interested, please contact me.

Thanks for reading and be healthy!

Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last thirteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website,

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