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Low carb tips for dining out

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Low carb dining tips

Dining out at a restaurant with no low carb menu? We can help you decide just what to order so you can stay on you low carb track!

Low carb menu options

Joe Kuhle, a computer systems consultant from San Diego, California, dines out often when traveling on business. He typically orders a meat entree and rejects the accompanying starches. "Many restaurants are getting better, but I always carry protein bars so I don't get so hungry that I eat pasta or bread," says Kuhle. The strategy has worked well for him so far. "I have not eaten either one in 18 months," he says.

Fortunately for people like Kuhle, enjoying a healthful, lower-carb restaurant meal is becoming a more likely prospect. The number of Americans following low carbohydrate eating plans is on the rise, and so is the percentage of consumers who dine out on a regular basis. The National Restaurant Association reports that Americans spend 45 percent of their food dollar on meals prepared away from home; this is expected to grow another 5 to 10 percent by 2010.

Noting this trend, restaurants are catering to the low carb crowd. In a whirlwind of culinary creativity, test kitchens all over the US are whipping up new and innovative items and introducing signature low carb menus.

Set your compass

Frequent restaurant patrons like Kuhle don't have to limit themselves to a steady diet of protein bars. With a little ingenuity and a few clever navigational tactics, dining out the low carb way can be a culinary pleasure cruise.

Banish the bread basket

"Tell the waiter to take the bread away," advises Wahida Karmally, professor of nutrition at The Irvine Center for Clinical Research at Columbia University and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Barbara Beradi-Wolfe, a mother of two from Fairport, New York, agrees. She heard the same advice on the Oprah show -- and says that the tactic helps keep her on track. Remembering that bread is neither exotic nor a novelty helps. "We all know what bread tastes like!" she laughs, quoting fitness guru Bob Greene.

Navigating the menus

We asked Betty Nowlin, a nutrition educator from Sacramento, California, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, to steer us through some typical restaurant menus. Following are her suggestions and tips for navigating restaurants. Happy cruising!

Low carb diner choices

Loaded with choices and easy on the wallet, diners are a great venue for low carb dieters. But, says Nowlin, still watch your portion size. "You can have eggs fried in butter," she says. Add bacon and decaffeinated coffee with cream and an artificial sweetener, and you've got a cheap and satisfying meal.

Low carb deli fare

Since you began your low carb plan, have you abandoned hope of enjoying your favorite hoagie? Go ahead and order those fabulous sandwich fillings, but request that they be served atop a bed of lettuce. Garnish with a splash of oil and vinegar, and you have a delicious meal. "Watch the carbohydrate counts on luncheon meats, though," warns Nowlin. And liver, for better or for worse, is a no-no, she says.

Low carb Soul food

"Pork chops are a real favorite, and they can be fried in olive oil or butter," says Nowlin. "Mustard greens are fine, and they can be cooked with fat. Green beans are another good choice. You can get a green salad or a chef's salad with Ranch or blue cheese dressing, or try balsamic vinegar and olive oil."

Low carb homestyle dishes

Putting together a low carb homestyle meal is easy, says Nowlin. "You can have a green salad, string beans and poultry, seafood or even pot roast." For beverages, she recommends water, diet soda or decaffeinated iced tea with artificial sweetener.

Low carb seafood

All types of seafood are "highly recommended," says Nowlin. "You can eat a more healthful version of a high-protein diet by selecting fish like wild salmon, tuna and trout as well as shellfish," adds the Cleveland Clinic's Cindy Moore. "Those sources are higher in omega-3 fatty acids, the types of oils that are more heart-healthy," she explains.

Low carb Sports bar or pub nibbles

Nowlin says even this type of establishment is a suitable destination. "You can have pork rinds, nuts or avocado dip. Then, order tuna salad or a cheeseburger without a bun." Sorry, sports fans, no ketchup with that burger.

Low carb Chinese food

Rice and noodles -- mainstays of the Chinese diet -- are off limits, but regional specialties lend themselves well to low carb eating. "Steamed whole fish, tofu with vegetables and chicken with chilies are tasty options. Chopped chicken wrapped in lettuce is really good, too," says Nowlin. Protein stir-fries with heart-healthy walnuts and almonds are another great choice.

Low carb Japanese fare

Consider starting your meal off with oshinko: Savory cabbage pickled in a mixture of chile peppers, salt and fish sauce. Sushi with its rice wrapping is too starchy for a low carb diet; instead, choose sashimi: sliced and chilled raw fish served without rice. For an entr�e, try shabu-shabu, a one-pot meal served family style. At the table, diners cook paper-thin slices of raw meat (usually beef) and vegetables in a hot pot of low carb broth.

Low carb Mexican menu

Begin the meal with ceviche -- raw fish cured in lime juice -- or guacamole (and be sure to request low carb veggies in lieu of tortilla chips). Chiles and tomatillos -- both low in carbs and rich in taste -- add authentic flavor to any dish. Avoid starch-laden platters of beans and rice in favor of delicious, freshly grilled fish and meats.

Send away the simple starches

"There are healthful ways to cut back on carbohydrates but still eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients the body needs," says Moore. "For example, when dining out, someone who wants a calcium source could say, 'Do you have artificially-sweetened ice cream? Do you make sugar-free puddings? Can I get plain yogurt that I could add fruit or nuts to?' Then you can mix your own using artificial sweetener," she suggests.

At Tastings, a fresh market restaurant concept in Pittsford, New York, Executive Chef Russell Ferguson says his customers eagerly depart from the norm. "People aren't asking for mashed potatoes anymore. So we fill the plates with fresh vegetables. We are more original with some of the accoutrements. We serve scallops with grapefruit and arugula, and swordfish with Belgian endive and snow peas."

Customers don't miss the starches, Ferguson says. "Our customers have been great. They've decided to try everything first, and they're saying, 'I feel satisfied, and I feel full.'"

Make appetizers a meal

"Order your meal off the appetizer menu; then you can choose something like chicken wings or boiled shrimp that doesn't arrive with carb-loaded side dishes," says low carber Linda Lavelle, an attorney from Rockledge, Florida.

Jane Andrews, corporate nutritionist for Wegmans Food Markets, based in Rochester, New York, concurs. She favors using small dinner plates, which are ideal for anyone watching intake of carbohydrates. "I suspect that many people use low carb eating to jumpstart weight loss. Then they start adding healthy foods and focus on keeping the weight off. That's where a restaurant [offering] smaller portions can help. An appetizer and soup can be very satisfying," she says.

Ask for your menu choice low carb style

Chris Conneen of the Pizza Gallery & Grill learned a valuable lesson -- one that other restaurateurs would be smart to heed. Customer demand drives trends; businesses receptive to these demands will likely succeed. Restaurants depend upon this feedback, so ask for what you want.

Such input inspired Conneen to offer crustless pizzas -- flavorful choices that are becoming increasingly popular with an enthusiastic clientele. Conneen, who estimates that 5 to 10 percent of his customers are fans of the crustless pies, recently introduced low carbohydrate pasta dishes and sauces. "We're trying to follow the demand. Every day, I get an enthusiastic comment or compliment," he says.

Likewise, Tastings' Chef Ferguson was receiving lots of requests for lowcarbohydrate substitutions for current menu items. When guests asked for more vegetables instead of starch, or a sugar-free version of a special dessert, Ferguson, himself a low carb dieter, gladly complied. "Patrons, whether they are supermarket or restaurant customers, should ask for what they want," says Ferguson. "Be an assertive consumer! Tell the kitchen what you want."

Options abound, so why stay home? With a few smart choices, you can relax and enjoy the atmosphere and convenience of dining out -- without carbing out.

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