Certain cuisines are notorious for their dietary downfalls. Mexican food is known for its cheesy goodness and bounty of sour cream, French is know for butter, and a little more butter, and Italian food boasts of refined carbs galore, and even more cheese. How are you supposed to eat healthy with all of the decadent options at hand?
Though there isn’t one exact answer and tactics vary by food type, there are a few ways to stay heart healthy in every eating situation.
Start with soup or salad
When I go out to eat, I often find myself starving and ready to order the most indulgent item on the menu. The same happens after a long day at work. To avoid an unhealthy snack attack or menu mistake, start each meal with soup or a salad.
“Healthy soups can be filling and a good start for the meal,” says Kac Young, a heart attack survivor who took her health into her own hands by getting a Ph.D. in Natural Health post attack. Just be sure to make smart choices. “Avoid chowders such as clam, corn, split pea or potato and cheese,” says Young. “These are heavy on the butter and cream.”
You should also exercise caution when preparing or ordering salad. “The salad isn’t the problem, the dressing is,” says Young. “Skip the creamy, fat-laden dressings and opt for oil and vinegar, balsamic or fat free if they offer it.”
Stick to lean protein and veggies
Carbohydrates are delicious, I know. And yes, dairy and salty foods are as well. But eating them in abundance can lead to a damaged heart. To keep your health in check, it’s best to eat meals that consist of lean protein and veggies.
Craving Mexican? “Order chicken, fish or shrimp fajitas, and ask for light oil and order only corn tortillas,” says Young. Making Chinese? Go easy on the sauce. “If you want to taste the sauces, dip your fork or chopstick into it and collect a mouthful of rice,” suggest Young. “This will help you to avoid ingesting too much sodium.”
As for what to avoid, steer clear of anything described as creamy, fried, loaded, breaded, smothered or served with a butter-based sauce.
Keep sauces on the side
Ordering a salad may seem like the healthiest option, but if it’s drenched in a creamy, caloric dressing, I assure you it’s far from it. “Stay away from the sugary Asian dressings unless you check the ingredients. And the common ones like French, Blue Cheese, Thousand Island, Green Goddess or Ranch,” says Young.
The same goes for sandwiches. Sure, you’re using lean turkey and vegetables, but if you drench bread slices with mayo and other fatty fixings, the nutritional value lessens. A good practice is keeping sauces on the side, and using them sparingly. Even if it’s a healthy choice, like avocado or hummus, too much can harm your health and increase your waistline. Exercise moderation, and refrain from restaurant traps by dressing food yourself.
Be cautious of cooking methods
I love to order things that are grilled. Why? Because I know it’s been prepared with heart-healthy olive oil and hasn’t been basting in a pan full of butter. When it comes to cooking, I’m a fan of a simple steam or sauté with minimal oil. These cooking methods ensure you’re getting the most nutritional value out of your meal, and they taste great too.
Young also suggests using water to your advantage. “I like to wet sauté my chicken or shrimp. This is a technique using a non-stick pan with your fish or poultry and a small amount of water. On medium heat, cook the meat, and at the last minute, when cooking is complete, add a drizzle of a flavored or plain virgin olive oil, lemon or lime juice, or 1-2 teaspoons of fat free, low sodium marinade,” she says. “All you need is a taste for flavor.”
Just keep an eye out for red flags on recipes and menus (the creamy, fried options) and don’t be afraid to ask how an entrée is prepared. There are easy substitutions you, or the chef, can make in the kitchen.
Tara Fuller is an NYC-based health and fitness writer. When not running for charity, training for races or blogging about the latest nutrition news, she is writing for Greatist, Go Red and other online publications.