Either intentionally or when you accidentally leave home without a better option…
Eating out, or even with friends is tricky if you want to eat well, feel good and maintain your weight.
This guide is not a way to eat healthily, it’s simply how to make the best choices when faced with mostly bad options. Overall, aim to reduce your reliance on café/restaurant and takeaway food as much as possible. Learn where your local healthier options are and visit them more often. When going out with friends – offer to choose the venue so you can choose somewhere with ‘approved’ food.
The cheapest and easiest way to make food taste great, last for ages (and be addictive) is to add sugar, salt and fat. It’s also best if your food doesn’t go stale or mouldy, so using very refined flours prevents this by removing the fibre. If you need to add preservatives, stabilisers or emulsifiers to your food, then these can taste bitter and extra sugar and salt can hide this taste. This is why so much bought/processed food is unhealthy. All the nutrition has been removed to make it cheaper and last longer. This is more of a problem in supermarket, pre-prepared food than café food.
Unfortunately, although this refined taste gives your mouth and reward centre (in your brain) an initial high, you quickly feel tired and sluggish from the refined carbs. Your insulin and other metabolic and satiety hormones are hard to manage and long term this contributes to the metabolic syndrome of fatty liver, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease etc.
So….you’ll be pleased to know all is not lost. There are a number of options for making tasty choices from your takeaways or café and restaurant.
The general principles are to look for food high in green vegetables, fibre (beans, lentils, seeds), wholegrains and other healthier fats and proteins (avocado, oily fish, low fat cheese, egg).
Avoid white carbs, processed meats/cheese/fish and sugars. Reduce dairy and fat/oil.
When choosing wholgrains and protein, think about what else you’ve had to eat that week and aim for variety – if you’ve already had wheat 4 times – choose brown rice, quinoa, oats etc instead. Don’t have fish every day, mix in beans, seeds, lentils, peas or chickpeas whenever you can find them.
While deep fried food should generally be avoided, sometimes a ‘good’ food deep fried will be more healthy than something more familiar. Eg falafel (made with chickpeas) over white bread. If eating deep fried food aim for food with a small surface area exposed to the oil – eg a vegetable kachori over chips or onion rings.
Avoid meals that are all carbohydrate even if they look healthier on the surface – eg a roasted veg salad is usually just root vegetables – lots of sugars and little fibre. Better to have a bean or pea salad or one with wholegrains. Lunches that are all carbs will not fill you up and they’ll make you sleepy. Animal protein will fill you up initially, but not keep you full all afternoon due to lack of fibre and salad veges that are mostly water will often leave you wanting more and tempted to snack.
- Café food
- Look for food with vegetable protein – nuts, seeds, hummus, beans, lentils, peas, sprouts or wholegrains. These will keep you awake better in the afternoon as they regulate your metabolism.
- Look for something high in fibre – all the beans, pulses, seeds and cooked greens are high in fibre. This also regulates where your food is metabolised and changes the way your gut handles your meal. You’ll feel a lot better for it in the short and long term.
- Home made vegetable burgers and patties – ask for no bread bun (and then smile and ask for extra hummus, or spinach). If you do get the bun, only eat half. Aim for sides of cooked veges, then salad. If fries are your only option, aim for ones with skins on.
- Wholegrain or beany salads. These will fill you up and keep you going longer. Look for salads which are 80-90% beans/lentils/chickpeas/green beans etc. Quinoa, barley, brown rice, wholewheat (including wheat berries, freekeh, etc) are all fine, but avoid couscous, pasta, noodles, white rice.
- Look for soups – ideally mostly vegetable/wholegrain/bean/lentil or clear broths. If meat is added, just for taste or broth, not as the main component. Avoid soups with a starchy base such as potato, noodles, pasta, rice (unless brown) or a cream base such as milk, cream, coconut cream. Ask for a large bowl (to fill you up) and aim to not order the bread. If you’d like a little bread, have the wholegrain option, and/or only eat half of it.
- The ‘big veggie breakfast’ without the bread, often isn’t a bad choice. Again, ask for extra spinach or other veggies (smile nicely). The hash brown isn’t great, but neither is the bread. If you get home-made potatoes then they will be better than the bread. You can eat the eggs on the potatoes or the spinach.
- Look for a higher ratio of filling to white carbohydrate – eg a wrap usually has less bread and more veggies than a sandwich, so is slightly better.
- If everything is meaty then look for oily fish first – salmon, mackerel, sardines, then fresh seafood, then eggs, then fresh, free range meat (white or red) or cheese, then bacon and lastly avoid really processed meat such as sausages, chorizo, salamis etc. Don’t eat at this café again
- Avoid pastry based food such as pies. If this is your only option, look for one with beans and other veggies in it. (Not root vegetables as this is more carbs). Look at the food and weigh up the ratio of unhealthy (pastry, white flour, bread, noodles, pasta, cous cous, meat, fat, sugar) to healthy (wholegrains, vegetables, pulses, oily fish) and aim for the largest amount of healthy food.
- If you have a salad on the side, choose one with beans, chickpeas, lentils, seeds over just leaves or one with root veggies, cheese or meat. Avoid fatty, sugary dressings.
- Aim to eat a big portion of savoury food (using the choices outlined above), so that you are not hungry for dessert afterwards. If you really want something in the early stages of your new diet, then choose the smallest, made with the most fruit, nuts and whole grains. Or just have some chocolate!
- Drinks – water, water, water, black tea or coffee, herbal tea are all first. Then white tea or coffee. Nothing else. No fruit juice, smoothies, fizzy drinks. Even alcohol in some circumstances is better than fruit juice!
- Look for the highest ration of protein and fibre to carbohydrate and fat. (ie more protein and fibre). Remember animal protein doesn’t have any fibre.
- Sometimes the vegetarian option is best, but read it carefully. If it is full of eggs and cheese, or white carbs (eg risotto, couscous etc) then it probably isn’t any better than the meat or fish.
- So – protein + fibre is best – ie pulses (beans, chickpeas, lentils, dhal, tofu, seeds). Then protein with fibre on the side – oily fish, then white fish, then fresh meat accompanied by leafy green veggies, root veggies with skins on, beany salad. Avoid added white carbohydrate, or dishes that are mostly pasta, noodles, risotto, paella, couscous, bread. If they use wholegrain, then this is OK. (most don’t, but sometimes you find quinoa, brown rice, freekeh, buckwheat etc these days).
- Chips aren’t necessarily a bad choice – as long as you aren’t eating them every day. They are often better than white bread or other white wheat products, especially if they are homemade and have the skins on. Avoid chips that have been through a factory (eg curly fries, waffle chips, McDonalds (or similar) fries). Don’t eat the aoili or ketchup (or only a tiny bit)!
- In Asian restaurants – you can often get leafy greens, stirfried with soy sauce, or a large tom yum soup – ask for it without the noodles, they often put extra veggies or tofu in. You can do this with lots of the asian soups. Generally the clear broth soups are better than the coconut cream ones. If you can’t get veggies, ask for seafood or oily fish as next best. (Don’t worry if the soup has been made with a beef or fish broth – unless you are vegetarian for other reasons).
- In Indian restaurants – look for dhals and chickpeas, then mixed vegetable curries. (Not potato based ones – ask for no potato if possible). Spinach, peas and cauliflower are common and good. Look for curries using a tomato sauce rather than a cream sauce, and ask them to not add extra oil. If you must have meat – order the fish. You will always get rice and often naan – rice is slightly better, but both are not great. If you eat them, make sure it’s your only bread for the week!
- Cheese and biscuits (without the fruit paste), or a small port is better than dessert.
- Take aways
- There are many take aways available now and the principles are the same as above. Very rarely is McDonalds the only option
- Look for protein + fibre + vegetables!
- Good options first….:
- Beany/lentil/chickpea/seed salads – as long as they aren’t coated in dressing.
- Wholegrain salads – ideally with nuts and seeds.
- Falafel kebab (even though they are deep fried, they are made with chickpeas). If you have time, then sit in to eat them with lots of salad. If not then a stuffed wrap or pita bread is better than sandwiches or burger buns. Ask for wholemeal bread if they have it. Don’t have the sweet or oily dressings. (Garlic yogurt and normal chilli are good choices).
- Vegetarian burger – if it’s made with beans or lentils or nuts. No good if it’s factory processed, or made with rice. Some are very oily. Avoid the cheese. Only eat half the bun unless you are walking down the street and need to hold it in your hands.
- Asian soups, lots of veggies or seafood/tofu and no noodles.
- Sushi – not as good as it looks. Mostly white rice, bound together with sugar and filled with meat or white/brown fish (eg tuna). Lots of mayo (bad). So….better than other options, but still an occasional food. Aim for brown rice (sometimes available) and vegetables or salmon.
- Pies – avoid. Too much pastry and fat. If you can’t, then go for a bean and non-root vegetable option or a fish pie.
- Of the other takeaways – to be avoided. Indian and chinese food has a lot of oil added to make it retain heat. Also lots of white rice. (Better than white wheat, but not great). McDonalds, Burger King etc use heavily processed products – nothing good about any of them, and then put addictive flavourings in to make you like them! Try avoiding them for a while and re-train your tastebuds to like normal food. KFC – terrible, don’t eat there. (and yes, they also use addictive flavourings to make you believe you like it)! Pizza is really bad – way too much fat and white carbs. Even the vegetable ones have almost no nutrition. Meat kebabs are not great as the meat is highly processed, but at least you get some veggies. However, if you are in a kebab shop – order the falafel.
- Drinks – water, water, water, tea, coffee, herbal tea. Don’t order the fizzy drinks, fruit juice, smoothies etc. (regardless of how healthy they say they are…it’s a lie)!
Photo courtesy of Sean Watts