Yes, the time of the fatty foods is upon us. But eight days of latkes and jelly doughnuts can be the least of problems for those who celebrate their holidays by eating out.
"The bad news is, most restaurant meals are high in calories and fat," said nutritionist Anita Jones. "If you're like most people in Southern California, we tend to eat out a lot."
Even "heart healthy" or "light" menu options can be filled with hidden fat, sodium or other dangers for those on special diets or trying to eat healthy. While nutrition labels have been required by federal law on all packaged foods since 1994, the secrets of a meal prepared in a restaurant kitchen stay in the kitchen.
At a recent seminar for patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Jones laid out some ways to get healthy food at favorite restaurants. "It's really about consumer demand," she said. "You have to speak up and let them know you want healthier dishes." She also recommended common-sense alternatives like sharing or taking home portions of large entrees, or requesting that salt, oil and other undesired items be left out of the prepared foods.
The recent trend toward keeping down carbohydrate intake has left many diners still unaware of potentially dangerous levels of fat in their restaurant meals, Jones said. Even pasta or chicken dishes labeled with a heart or other "healthy" symbol can contain upwards of 70 grams of fat -- approximately equal to one stick of butter -- when they are cooked and drizzled in oil. She cited olive oil in particular as a common, healthy ingredient that diners should still watch out for if they are concerned about fat intake. "What looks healthy may not be," Jones said. "On many menus, salads can be the highest fat options."
Since 1991, Jones and her colleagues have been analyzing the nutritional content of restaurant meals throughout Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
The result is the "Healthy Dining in Los Angeles" restaurant guide (Healthy Dining Publications, $19.95), with weight and health-conscious options from more than 80 restaurant menus, from the Acapulco in Azusa to the Whole Foods Market in Woodland Hills, in addition to coupons and 40-plus recipes from restaurant chefs. Broken down according to fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein and carbohydrate content, the menus allow diners to plan ahead and eat healthy meals out. The menus also make clear which special requests are necessary to make the meals healthier, particularly items that patrons should ask that no added salt or less oil be used in preparation.
At the Cedars-Sinai seminar, representatives from a handful of local restaurants offered samples of recommended dishes. Real Food Daily restaurant offered some of its vegan fare, while Chaya Brasserie chef Shigefumi Tachibe showed off his Organic Tofu Caesar salad. Tachibe said that based on customer requests for healthy dining options, the lower-fat and lower-sodium dish has replaced a more traditional mix as the standard Caesar salad at his restaurants.
"Restaurants are the weakest part of the whole nutrition world," Jones said, who added that the trend is changing as savvy diners are asking for healthier food. "Chefs are artists, they're creators and they are really rising to this challenge."
With the right information and an accommodating kitchen, even your favorite restaurant experience this Chanukah can be a festival of lite.