How to Eat Healthy While Traveling Abroad

If your low-fat, high-fiber diet is beginning to seem . . . well . . . just a little bit dull, it’s probably time for a bit of adventure. International cuisine, at home or away, can lend zest to your diet without adding fat. You just need to know which dishes to choose.

Some foreign cuisines have gained well-deserved reputations for being healthier than our own. Chinese, Japanese, and Greek menus, for example, are all studded with delicious dishes that meet the most stringent of requirements for healthy dining. Other cuisines—particularly Mexican and French—are noted for the opposite.

Still, it’s quite possible to cook a healthy French meal, and equally easy to order a fat-soaked, salt-laden disaster at your local Chinese restaurant. This discussion sorts out which items to order and which to reject from nearly a dozen ethnic cuisines. You’ll find a surprising range of healthy options in even the worst of these diets. But first, a few general guidelines.

Strategies for Healthy International Dining

It’s a good rule of thumb to keep your international adventure to less than 800 calories, with no more than 30% coming from fat. Code words for high-fat (high-calorie) menu selections are listed in the nearby box, together with warning signs of sodium. These signals are not foolproof—not every dish prepared in broth, for example, is high in salt. Nor should you forego every breaded entree. The words are merely a reminder to think twice about what may go into the dish.

Ask questions; make requests. Never be afraid to ask your server how a meal is prepared, or to request changes in cooking methods. Most restaurants will use less butter or oil, for example, if you ask. For a list of restaurants that serve low-fat meals, try calling your local chapter of the American Heart Association.
Have an extra side dish of grains or vegetables —or both—unless these foods are already the basis of your entree. Then mix your entrée with the extra food. This reduces the fat and sodium quotient of the meal—provided you . . .
Don’t clean your plate. There’s nothing wrong with left-overs—or doggy bags.
Don’t start with fat-laden munchies. At restaurants, ask that complimentary chips and hors d’oeuvres be removed. If you know you’ll keep nibbling, why tempt yourself?
Trim fat from meat—or ask the server to have it done. This is an easy saving that costs nothing in diminished enjoyment.
Go in for variety. No single ethnic cuisine holds the key to longer life. The Japanese have a low rate of heart disease—but a high rate of stomach cancer. The secret lies in choosing the best of each nationality’s diet, and rejecting the heart-stoppers.

 

Warning Signs of Fat and Sodium

High fat High sodium
Battered Smoked
Fried Pickled
Breaded Barbecued
Creamed Marinated
Au gratin Parmesan
Scalloped In broth
Hollandaise Teriyaki
Escalloped Creole

 

French

In the 1960s and 70s, French food was filled with cream and butter. Now, the trend is toward lighter cooking, with a focus on fresh garden ingredients and fewer flavors to confuse the palate. Light-minded chefs choose top-quality foods at the peak of their flavor, in season, and cook them as simply as possible.

The French currently eat about as much saturated fat as the Americans and British, and have similar levels of total cholesterol, according to the World Health Organization. However, their fatality rate from coronary heart disease isn’t much higher than that of the Japanese and Chinese, who eat much less saturated fat and have lower cholesterol levels. In fact, France’s rate of heart disease is the world’s second lowest—after Japan’s. The French also match the U.S. and the United Kingdom in terms of high blood pressure and—at least in men—cigarette smoking. Why, then, are French hearts apparently healthier?

One proposed explanation is wine. The people in the nations with the longest life expectancies in the world—Crete and Japan—both drink moderate amounts of alcohol. It’s thought that this may help the heart by impeding the development of blood clots which, by blocking the supply of blood to the heart muscle, can cause a heart attack. Despite this theory, however, health officials hesitate to recommend alcohol, lest people become carried away with it. Officials also note that drinking can increase your risk of certain cancers and other diseases.

Whether you take wine or not, avoid haute cuisine or cuisine bourgeois. Both terms indicate that butter, cream, pork lard, goose fat, and eggs are used liberally. Nouvelle cuisine tends to be healthier. Choose simple meals, with few if any sauces, which tend to be high in sodium. When you do opt for an entree with sauce, try to select one that’s wine-based rather than one filled with cream or butter. When dining out, remember that sauces are not always mentioned on the menu. Ask your server if your meal has a sauce and, if so, how it’s prepared.

To turn your kitchen into a haven of light French food, keep these staple ingredients handy:

Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Dijon mustard
Defatted chicken stock
Shallots, garlic, chervil, chives, parsley, and tarragon

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

French
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Salade nicoise, spinach salad (without bacon), endive and watercress salad
Consommé and other stock-based soups
Stews like bouillabaisse or ratatouille
Poached or steamed seafood
Seared or oven-roasted scallops or salmon
Sauces labeled coulis, vegetable puree, or reduction
Roast chicken or chicken in wine sauce
French bread
Fresh or poached fruit
Cassoulet, gratins, quiches (they’re made with a lot of egg and cheese)
Soufflés (heavy with eggs)
Sweetbreads (fatty meat)
Duck or goose (tend to be fatty)
Paté (also fatty)
Béarnaise, beurre blanc, and other dairy-based sauces
Fondue or crepes
Brioches, croissants, eclairs, and other pastries

 

Italian

It’s important to distinguish between northern and southern Italian cuisine. Southern Italy traditionally follows a Mediterranean diet, with lots of grains, fruits and vegetables, olive oil instead of butter, and little meat. This is thought to be one of the healthiest ethnic cuisines in the world, and some authorities even recommend it over the U.S. Food Guide Pyramid. Northern Italian meals, in contrast, are full of beef, veal, butter, and cream—and have a totally different effect on your fat and calorie count. Not surprisingly, northern Italians have much higher rates of heart disease than their southern countrymen.

Unfortunately, Italian restaurants in this country tend to mirror the fat content of northern cuisine. An analysis of 15 popular dishes as served in 21 mid-priced restaurants in three major cities revealed that one order of fettuccini Alfredo includes nearly 435 calories from saturated fat—as much as 3 pints of Breyer’s Butter Almond ice cream. The analysis, commissioned by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a research group in Washington, DC, also found that eggplant parmigiana with spaghetti has the fat and calories of five egg rolls (1,208 calories, 62 grams of fat, 46 percent of calories from fat), and that an appetizer of fried calamari delivers 924 milligrams of cholesterol—more than a four-egg omelet.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to have a delicious Italian meal without wallowing in fat. Virtually all pasta dishes except those with cream or cheese sauces derive less than 30 percent of their calories from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. The sauce can be tomato, clam, even meat or meatballs—just avoid Alfredo, carbonara, and other cream or cheese variations. If you prefer not to have pasta as your main meal, add some on the side. This can stretch your food to make a second meal—spreading the main-dish fat and calories over a couple of sittings. When eating with friends in a restaurant, try ordering a pasta dish for every meat- or cheese-based entree, sharing the food, and taking home the leftovers. You’ll get to sample a variety of dishes without breaking your calorie and fat budget.

Also make a side dish of vegetables or a salad with endive, radicchio, or other greens a part of your meal. When dining out, this can help make up for the restaurants’ frequent failure to serve vegetables with pasta entrées. Be choosy with the vegetables, though: They are often soaked with butter or oil. And order the salad dressing on the side. Remember too, that a tablespoon of grated parmesan cheese adds 2 grams of fat to your meal, one of which is saturated. If you’re watching sodium, you should be aware that most Italian restaurant entrées supply 1,500 milligrams, making it hard to stay within the Recommended Daily Allowance of 2,400 milligrams.

Preparing healthy Italian food is almost as easy as “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.” Pasta with a jar of sauce (check the label for fat and sodium) enlivened by chopped onion, pepper, tomato, garlic, and herbs makes a quick, tasty, healthy meal. If you must add meat to the sauce, use ground turkey or lean beef. Squeeze garlic into soups, vegetables, sauces, and salads for extra flavor and its heart-healthy dividends. Use herbs such as basil, parsley, rosemary, and oregano to add flavor and variety in place of salt.

Freshness is a key to Italian foods’ tastiness. But you also need to keep these staples on hand:

Balsamic and red wine vinegars
Cannelini beans and chick-peas, dried
Extra virgin olive oil
Dried pasta in a variety of shapes
Coarse cornmeal (for polenta)
Porcini mushrooms, dried
Italian plum tomatoes, canned
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, in chunks for grating
Part-skim ricotta cheese (low in fat, tastes like real Italian ricotta cheese)
Garlic, basil, oregano, rosemary, sage

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

Italian
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Vegetable antipasto (roasted peppers and zucchini, grilled mushrooms, caponata)
Salads such as panzanella (with tomatoes and bread)
Pasta with tomato- or wine-based sauce without meat. Marinara is a good tomato-based sauce. Red or white clam sauce is okay, too.
Pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup)
Minestrone soup (if no meat)
Ribollito (a thick vegetarian stew)
Cioppino (seafood stew)
Grilled game, veal, and fish
Chicken cacciatore
Snapper in cartoccio (baked in parchment)
Marinated calamari
Pasta primavera (pasta with vegetables).
Make sure there is no cream or butter sauce.
Eggplant pomodoro style
Italian ice
Meat or cheese antipasti
Cannelloni, ravioli, lasagna, and other cheese-filled pastas
Pasta with pesto or cream sauces, such as carbonara and Alfredo
Risotto (a rice dish cooked with butter and cheese)
Eggplant with cheese or veal parmigiana
Veal or chicken piccata, marsala, and saltimbocca
Garlic bread made with butter
Cannoli or other cream pastries
Pancetta, prosciutto, pecorino cheese

 

Greek

Greek cuisine is another example of the Mediterranean diet. In fact, it was the observation that people on the Greek island of Crete had only one-twentieth the American death rate from heart disease that helped spur interest in the Mediterranean diet.

Breads are the center of Greek meals; other foods are considered accompaniments. Milk is seldom used as a beverage. Meat traditionally is reserved for special occasions, vegetables are often main courses, and pasta is almost as popular as in Italy. Rice is also featured in many dishes. Sauces are built on wine, stocks, tomato, and yogurt rather than cream. As in southern Italy, olive oil is popular. Lentils and beans are commonly used in appetizers and main courses. Greek feta cheese (white cheese made from sheep’s milk and preserved in brine), is lighter than average—but to keep salt content as low as possible, be sure to rinse before serving. Lamb is a favorite meat. Trim it carefully and cook on the grill to keep fat to a minimum. Seafood dishes also are common. Fruit is an every day dessert. Baklava, a rich pastry, is reserved for special occasions.

If you’re interested in trying some light Greek cooking, stock up on the following:

Olive oil (“pure” is fine)
Red and white wine vinegars
Lemon juice
Orzo (rice-shaped pasta), short macaroni, and rice
Dried cannelini beans, lentils, yellow split peas
Plain low-fat or non-fat yogurt for sauces
Tomatoes, canned
Garlic, oregano, rosemary, parsley

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

Greek
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Torato (cold soup with eggplant, peppers, and yogurt)
Grilled fish or octopus
Skewered and grilled vegetable and meat dishes, such as souvlaki and shish kebab
Grilled lamb chops, roast leg of lamb, braised lamb shanks
Fish baked with plaki sauce
Grilled fish with parsley or lemon sauces
Garlic dips from giant white beans
Taramasalata (creamy fish-roe dip)
Meats in avgolemono (egg-based lemon sauce)
Moussaka and pastitsio (casseroles made with eggs and cheese)
Skordalia (almond-garlic sauce)
Gyros

 

Chinese

With its reliance on rice and vegetables, and sparing use of meat, Chinese food is a model of healthy dining. At least, that’s true in China. A study of eating habits in rural China found that the average diet includes 77 percent carbohydrates and 15 percent fat, compared to the 35 to 40 percent fat in the American diet. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Chinese develop heart disease at a far lower rate than Americans.

Chinese restaurants in the U.S. tend to use more meat and sauce than found in China, but still serve a relatively high-vegetable cuisine. Stir-frying, a method of cooking quickly in a lightly oiled hot wok, retains more vitamins than the traditional American methods of cooking. According to a University of Nebraska study, beef prepared this way retains more vitamin B6 and thiamin than it does when broiled or microwaved.

 

Tofu Tips

Although tofu, a major source of soy and protein in Chinese food, derives a little more than half its calories from fat, most of the fat is unsaturated. To use tofu, slice it into chunks and use it in place of meat in recipes. It has little flavor of its own, but picks up the taste of whatever surrounds it. Cover unused tofu with water and refrigerate it. Change the water at least every other day.
Make eggless egg salad or mock chicken salad using firm tofu as a base.
Marinate and grill tofu just as you would chicken or beef. Serve in fajitas or on top of salads.
Stir-fry chunks of tofu with vegetables and serve over rice.
Prepare chili, substituting crumbled tofu for ground meat.
Simmer soup made with soy milk, then add tofu to create a robust low-fat meal.
Source: Environmental Nutrition, May 1994, p 4.

 

One of the organizations that developed the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is now working on an Asian diet formula. Its work is based on studies by T. Colin Campbell, PhD, a researcher at Cornell University, who has been examining the nutritional benefits of the Asian diet since 1984. He and his colleagues are investigating the theory that eating more plant foods (grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans) can help prevent chronic degenerative diseases. Evidence so far indicates that even small amounts of animal food (both meat and dairy products) significantly increase cholesterol levels.

Among Dr. Campbell’s findings:

People in rural China get 20 to 30 percent more calories than Americans but are 25 percent thinner.
The Chinese eat a third less protein than we do, and only a tenth as much animal protein.
Men in China have much lower cholesterol levels than American men.
The Chinese are only half to one-third as likely to develop colon cancers as are Americans.
The Chinese diet is high in antioxidant nutrients that, according to some researchers, may help inhibit the growth of cancer.

Other research also demonstrates the health value of Asian food. Green tea, the type usually served without charge in Chinese and Japanese restaurants, has been linked to a lower risk of esophageal cancer. Other studies have suggested that this kind of tea may also block the growth of other kinds of tumors. Researchers attribute the tea’s effects to its antioxidant chemicals.

Asians tend to rely on soy rather than meat for much of their protein; and this may give a double boost to their health. The soy not only replaces animal fat, but may also confer benefits of its own. An ingredient in soy is thought to reduce or prevent formation of artery-clogging fat deposits on blood vessels’ walls. According to some reports, individuals whose cholesterol levels exceed 250 can reduce them by as much as 25 percent simply by substituting soy for animal protein.

Soy also appears to have some cancer-fighting properties. More than 30 studies confirm the ability of one ingredient of soy, a substance called an isoflavone, to prevent growth of cancer cells—at least in a test tube. Isoflavones in soy may mimic estrogen, a female sex hormone. This could trick the body into producing less of the real thing. Since growth of some cancers in women is promoted by estrogen, the benefits of reduced levels seem obvious. Asian women, who eat lots of soy, have lower estrogen levels than American women, as well as half the breast-cancer rate and fewer symptoms at menopause. Japanese women do not have a term for hot flashes and do not experience premenstrual syndrome.

Some evidence suggests that soy may help prevent cancer in men, too. Japanese men who eat lots of rice and the soy-based product called tofu have lower rates of prostate cancer. Those raised on the American diet (high saturated fat) are more likely to develop prostate cancer. There is no definite proof that it’s the Japanese diet that lowers cancer rates, however.

Chinese culinary style varies by region. The names you usually see on menus, such as Cantonese and Szechuan, refer to areas known for a particular style of cooking. Cantonese food, from southern China, emphasizes pork, chicken, and dumplings. Szechuan cuisine, from inland China, is noted for its hot, spicy seasonings, with many high-fat meat dishes fried in oil. Northern menus characteristic of Beijing feature sweet-and-sour dishes, duck, noodles, and steamed breads. Coastal dishes from Shanghai naturally include more seafood.

The base of all Chinese meals is rice; the Chinese eat three to four mouthfuls of unseasoned rice for each mouthful of highly seasoned toppings. The yin-yang rule for a big Chinese meal is one salty, one sweet; one stir-fried, one steamed; one bland, one hot; one stewed, one pickled.

Although traditional Chinese food is healthy, you need to be choosy when dining out. Americanized Chinese restaurant food often is fried or otherwise prepared in oil. A fried egg roll, for instance, usually derives more than half of its 200 calories from fat. And a highly publicized analysis commissioned by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), found that a typical serving of Kung Pao chicken, with more than 40 percent of its calories from fat, is loaded with a total 76 grams—more fat than the 66 grams the government says we should eat all day.

Nevertheless, the analysis gave Chinese cooking in general a clean bill of health. Based on an examination of 15 popular dishes from 20 mid-priced Chinese restaurants in Washington, DC, Chicago, and San Francisco, it found that saturated fat overall was lower than in most American food. Almost all entrées derived much less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat—the target recommended by the Food and Drug Administration. Another study of main courses in Chinese restaurants, this time in Dallas-Fort Worth, found that fat, at 8 to 32 grams, was well within accepted guidelines.

On the other hand, Chinese food is often high in sodium—something to be aware of if you have high blood pressure. Oyster- and black-bean sauces are major culprits, but the CSPI analysis found that most dishes included at least 2,000 milligrams—nearly the entire recommended daily intake of 2,400 milligrams.

Chinese cooking is notorious for its use of monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can be unpleasant for anyone sensitive to it. However, MSG is a completely optional ingredient, and many Chinese restaurants will omit it on request. Even so, be wary when dining out: Pre-made sauces and stocks used in restaurants usually contain it, so keeping it out of the rest of the entrée may not make the food MSG-free.

To get the peak health benefits offered by Chinese cuisine, try these tactics whenever cooking at home, ordering take-out, or going out to eat:

Add rice to your entrée. “One cup rice, one cup entrée” is a good rule. Split an entree with a friend or save the leftovers. This distributes the sodium and fat in the main course between the two of you or over more than one meal.
Choose vegetables, dumplings, dim sum, and other dishes that are steamed rather than fried or sautéed.
Share a dish of steamed vegetables. If you are eating alone and want a non-vegetarian entree, have one vegetable dish and another with meat or fish. This dilutes the meal’s total fat content—provided you have leftovers.
Peel any batter-fried skin off of chicken or fish.
Get more vegetables and less meat in meat dishes.
Use fewer nuts—they raise fat content.
Avoid fried rice—many versions contain egg, which raises fat and cholesterol. Fried rice also has 1 to 2 tablespoons more oil than other rice. If you must have it, ask for vegetable fried rice and mix it with steamed rice.
Ask for brown rice at the restaurant or make your own at home—it has more fiber and nutrients than white rice.
If you must eat crispy beef or other oily, fried dishes, share a single portion with your group.
Avoid breaded meat or shrimp dishes. They’re almost always fried.
Use reduced-sodium soy sauce if sodium is a concern.
Don’t add soy sauce to stir-fry dishes.
To reduce sodium, season food at the table with Chinese hot mustard or rice vinegar rather than soy sauce.
Don’t add butter, margarine, or salt to rice while cooking. Don’t use packaged rice mixes—they’re high in sodium and fat.
Use no more than an ounce or so of meat per serving—or none at all.
When stir frying, blanch vegetables first. This can cut the oil needed by half, according to Barbara Tropp of China Moon Cafe in San Francisco.
In restaurants, look for “heart-healthy,” “low-fat,” or “Buddha’s delight” (vegetarian) sections on the menu.

For cooking Chinese at home, lay in a supply of these basics—readily available in most supermarkets—then branch out as your recipes dictate:

Short- or medium-grain rice
Egg noodles
Reduced-sodium soy sauce
Corn or peanut oil
Sesame oil
Fermented black beans
Fresh ginger, scallions, garlic, red pepper flakes

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

Chinese
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Hot-and-sour soup
Wonton soup
Steamed vegetable dumplings
Chinese greens
Steamed or braised whole fish or scallops with black-bean sauce (avoid black-bean sauce if you are watching sodium intake)
Chicken or eggplant steamed or braised
Steamed beef with pea pods
Stir-fry dishes (go easy on the oil or use broth instead)
Dishes made with sliced rather than diced meat (dicing can be used to hide a fatty cut of meat)
Rice—preferably brown, but steamed white is fine
Chicken and broccoli
Vegetable dishes with mushrooms, broccoli, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, bok choy, squash, snow peas, lotus root.
Fried egg rolls
Fried dumplings, pork or beef dumplings
Sweet-and-sour pork
Seafood with lobster sauce
Egg Fu Yung
Spare ribs
Pressed duck, Peking duck
Anything “crispy” or “batter coated”
(usually deep fried)
Fried rice
Kung Pao chicken (heavy on nuts, high in fat)

 

Japanese

The fat content of Japanese cuisine is among the lowest in the world—many dishes contain less than 20 percent. Like Chinese cooking, Japanese food traditionally uses plenty of grains and vegetables, accented with meat or fish as well as tofu and other soybean products. This may be one reason why Japan enjoys a relatively low rate of many cancers—and the world’s lowest rate of heart disease. The seaweed used in sushi and Japanese stews is high in calcium, magnesium, and iodine. But beware of smoked, salted, and pickled Japanese specialties. They are suspected culprits in the high rates of stroke and stomach cancer in Japan.

Here are some tips for making your Japanese meal as healthy as it can be, at home or in a restaurant:

Keep sauces on the side; they are usually served that way in restaurants.
Watch out for soups— they can be salty.
Look for the word yakimono on menus or in cookbooks—it means broiled, a healthier mode of cooking.
Buy or eat sushi (or sashimi) only at a clean restaurant with a good reputation. Unclean raw fish can make you sick. Do consider trying sushi, as it has no added fat and contains omega-3 fatty acids, which may be heart-healthy.
Minimize use of soy and teriyaki sauce.
Go easy on tempura (deep-fried food) and tonkatsu (deep-fried pork).
Consider trying nebemono —one-pot meals with names like yosenabe and shabu-shabu.
If you’re concerned about sodium, avoid dishes using miso (fermented soybean paste) and smoked or pickled fish.
Opt for fresh fruit over sweet bean-cake (yokan) as your dessert.

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

Japanese
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Miso soup (unless you’re on a low-sodium diet)
Sushi (except surimi and salmon caviar), sashimi
Sunomono (cucumber salad)
Yakitori (grilled or broiled chicken)
Chiri nabe (fish stew)
Yosenabe (a seafood-and-vegetable stew)
Shabu-shabu (a variety of vegetables and meats boiled in broth)
Teriyaki
Tofu and other soybean dishes
Rice and noodles
Rice crackers
Tempura or agemono (food is deep fried)
Egg dishes such as oyako-donburi
Salted, smoked, or pickled fish
Pan-fried pork
Tonkatsu (fried pork)
Breaded meat, fish, or chicken
Sukiyaki
Fried tofu

 

Mexican

Americans now spend more on salsa than they do on ketchup—a startling demonstration of Mexican foods’ soaring popularity. The new craze for Mexican dining is not, however, all that compatible with our new-found interest in light cuisine. If you order grilled fish or chicken in a tomatillo sauce, or a jicama salad with a light vinaigrette, your Mexican food is probably healthy. But, many of the most popular meals at large, mid-priced, non-fast-food chains are loaded with salt and fat.

A 1994 evaluation commissioned by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that rice at mid-priced Mexican chains and some independent restaurants in four major cities had more than 800 milligrams of sodium, about a third of what we should eat all day. Beans contained almost as much. Worse yet, an order of beef-and-cheese nachos packed 59 percent of its calories in fat (versus the recommended target of 30 percent), a chicken burrito dinner included a day-and-a-half’s worth of sodium, and a chile relleno dinner derived 79 percent of its 487 calories from fat. According to CSPI, making a meal of just the side dishes of rice and beans, guacamole, and sour cream at mid-price chains gives you nearly two-thirds of the fat and three-fourths of the saturated fat and sodium that the government says you should eat all day.

It’s not hard to see why so many Mexican dishes are loaded with fat. Remember that enchiladas are tortillas softened in oil. Tacos are deep-fried tortillas. In chimichangas, both the filling and shell are prepared in boiling oil. Favorite Americanized dishes such as beef burritos with cheese and sour cream are also high in both fat and calories, often thanks to the toppings. A plain tostado (a corn tortilla with refried beans) has only 140 calories. Add on sour cream, guacamole, and cheese and, voila—300 calories. How can this happen? Consider the numbers:

Sour cream (1 tablespoon) = 26 calories and 2.5 grams fat

Guacamole (1 tablespoon) = 23 calories and 1.5 grams fat

At least guacamole (mashed avocado and tomato) contains mostly monounsaturated fat—which can increase “good” (HDL) cholesterol. Still, try substituting lettuce, tomato, and onion as your flavor enhancers. Feel free to use salsa, which has less than 5 calories and little fat per tablespoon.

Unlike Old El Paso and other supermarket refried beans, most restaurant-cooked refried beans are prepared in lard with bacon or cheese. Don’t forget either, that salads, a safe option in most other types of restaurants, can consist of fried foods in an oily tortilla shell when you dine out Mexican-style.

Indeed, of all the main dishes tested by CSPI, only chicken fajitas registered fewer than 30% calories from fat—and just 5% from saturated fat. Fajitas consist of marinated chicken breast sautéed with onions and green peppers—a relatively healthy combination. Also in their favor: You assemble the final product at the table and therefore control what goes into the tortilla. (Skip the sour cream and guacamole.)

There are numerous health-saving tactics to be tried—both at the restaurant and at home:

Choose steamed or baked tortillas rather than fried; use whole wheat tortillas at home.
Ask for nonrefried beans when dining out; use no-fat black beans for home cooking.
Avoid combination plates, they’re likely to be fattier.
Don’t get side dishes, or choose marinated vegetables.
Use salsa on your main course instead of sour cream and cheese. Do the same with the tomatoes and onions and hot peppers (pico de gallo) that come with many restaurant dishes —ask for some if it’s not offered.
At home or away, use low-fat or nonfat sour cream.

In many ways, Southwest cooking is Mexican food with these principles at work. It uses little or no sour cream and less cheese and butter. Rice and beans are still the core of the meal, but supporting roles are played by grilled or raw fresh vegetables. There’s lots of fresh salsa and pure chile puree. Watch out, though, for Tex-Mex. It’s heavy in barbecued or fried meats. Cal-Mex is a lighter choice, with more fresh vegetables.

When stocking up on Mexican ingredients, read labels and avoid products containing coconut oil, palm oil, and lard, all high in saturated fat. Look for brands saying “no salt added.” Supermarket salsa generally has 40 to 180 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon, so look for brands with a “no salt added” label if you’re watching your sodium. Here are some of the staples to keep on hand:

Dried pinto and black beans
Corn and whole-wheat tortillas
Rice (preferably brown)
White cornmeal
Chilies, dried (cascabels, guajillos) and fresh (Anaheims, jalapenos, poblanos, serranos)

When shopping for groceries, focus on:

Tomatoes
Avocados
Corn on the cob
Squashes, especially zucchini and pumpkin
Jicama
Limes, apples, mangoes, papayas, pineapples
Cilantro (Chinese parsley, coriander greens)

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

Mexican or Southwest
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Gazpacho soup (cold soup)
Albondigo soup (vegetables and meatballs)
Black bean and vegetable soup
Fajitas or tacos al carbon, especially with seafood (hold the sour cream)
Burrito with vegetables, whole beans (not refried), or chicken
Soft taco with chicken
Tostado, bean or chicken
Steamed tortilla
Enchilada, bean
Mesquite-grilled chicken, seafood, or lean cuts of beef or pork, especially with fresh salsa
Fish or chicken marinated in lime juice
(called seviche when made with fish)
Rice and whole beans
Shredded lettuce and tomato
Salsa
Tortilla chips and nachos
Guacamole
Chimichangas (fried)
Burritos with beef or cheese
Hard-shell tacos (fried)
Flautas (deep-fried tacos and burritos), taquitos (fried)
Fried tortillas
Enchiladas, cheese and/or beef
Quesadillas
Dishes with poblano aioli (chile mayonnaise) or cilantro pesto (nuts and oil)
Refried beans, also called frijoles
Chilies rellenos
Chile con queso
Anything with sour cream
Tamales
Chorizo (sausages)
Frozen margaritas and pina coladas

 

Indian

Indian cuisine is rich in healthy ingredients: plenty of grains, vegetables, beans, and yogurt accented with meat or fish. Typical dishes contain lentils, chickpeas, rice, beans, and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. Popular meat recipes include lamb and chicken marinated in a healthy, yogurt-and-spice sauce.

However, there can be plenty of fat hidden in preparation. Many dishes are soaked in clarified butter (ghee), which can raise the proportion of calories from fat to 50 percent. Others are swimming in coconut oil, one of the few vegetable oils that is almost entirely saturated fat. Check on the curry sauce, for instance. Most curries are made with coconut milk, though healthier yogurt-based sauces are sometimes available. Saffron rice may sound healthy, but some versions are cooked with ghee. Always ask restaurants how the food is prepared; some will use lighter oils on request.

Among your healthier choices: tandoori chicken and fish dishes, made in a clay oven and marinated in Indian spices, entrées with yogurt marinades; vegetarian dishes made with lentils, spices, and grains. You might want to try some of the chutneys, too; but these thick condiments made from spices, sugar, vinegar, and fruits are sometimes too sweet or spicy for many people.

Make liberal use of Indian breads (baked, not fried) such as chapati. Wrap a bit of the entrée in a tortilla-like piece of chapati and garnish with chutney. A couple of entrées with a variety of breads can easily make a filling meal for 4.

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

Indian
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Karhi (chick-pea soup)
Mulligatawny or dal rasam (lentil soups)
Dry pulkas (unleavened wheat bread)
Nann (a bread, without butter, baked)
Chapati (tortilla-like bread, baked)
Kulcha (baked bread)
Salad or vegetables with yogurt dressing
Dal (lentils)
Tandoori, masala, tikka, or vindaloo-style dishes
Dishes marinated in yogurt
Yogurt-based curries
Khur (a milk-and-rice dessert)
Samosa (fried meat or vegetables wrapped in dough—very high in fat)
Bhatura, paratha, poori (fried breads)
Pakori (deep-fried breads and vegetables)
Ghee, or clarified butter (ask if this is used in preparing your meal; it may not appear on the menu, and it raises fat content dramatically)
Coconut milk (again, ask if this is used in preparing your meal—it raises fat content dramatically)
Dishes with the words kandhari, malai, or korma (indicate lots of cream or coconut)
Most rice or cheese puddings, honeyed pastries

 

Middle Eastern

Prepared Middle Eastern dishes sold at supermarkets or restaurants may be high in fat, as they contain a fair amount of oil, tahini (sesame seed paste, somewhat like peanut butter), and whole-milk yogurt. When making them at home, substitute low-fat or non-fat yogurt, and use it to stretch dishes made with oil or tahini. (On the brighter side, tahini and olive oil are mostly healthier unsaturated fat.)

Many of the healthiest Middle Eastern dishes are based on grains and legumes. Most are usually served with pita bread, which is nearly fat-free. Here are some examples:

Hummus—a dip made from mashed chickpeas seasoned with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and sometimes tahini.
Tabouli—a salad of bulgur (parboiled cracked wheat) combined with chopped vegetables and herbs.

A subset of Middle Eastern cooking is the Lebanese cuisine, considered by some to be among the world’s healthiest. It features fresh vegetables, legumes, rice, bulgur wheat, seafood, and lamb. Common herbs and seasonings are mint, parsley, onions, garlic, oregano, cumin, and olive oil. A typical meal consists of grape leaves stuffed with rice, chickpeas served as a dip, parsley and bulgur-wheat salad, eggplant, seafood, and lamb. Beware, however, if you’re on a reduced-sodium diet: Lebanese food can be extremely salty.

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

Middle Eastern
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Hummus (mashed chick peas) without the traditional drizzle of oil on top
Baba ghanoush (mashed eggplant)
Pita bread
Ful medames (fava beans and chick peas)
Any salad, including tabbouleh, tabouli, or fattoush
Lentil soup
Rice pilaf
Shish kebab
Kibbe (baked meat with wheat, onions, and pine nuts)
Kofta (ground beef with parsley and onions) grilled, not fried
Saganaki (contains fried cheese and butter)
Falafel (deep fried)
Fried lamb patties
Lamb stews
Kasseri (cheese and butter casserole)
Arat (a strong, alcoholic, chalk-white drink)

 

Cajun

When French colonists from Acadia, an area now known as Nova Scotia, moved to the Louisiana coast, they came to be known as Cajuns. They are noted for their red-hot spicy cooking, a blend of French and Creole cuisine. Cajun dishes tend to use lots of seafood, cooked as a stew and served over rice. They often start with a roux made from heated oil and flour mixed with liquid to form a sauce base. Vegetables and meat or seafood and seasonings are then added. Gumbo and jambalaya (rice, chicken, ham, pork, sausage, broth, vegetables, and seasonings) are familiar specialties. Watch out for lard in cooking, and remember that Cajun seasonings are typically high in sodium.

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

Cajun
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Seafood gumbo
Red beans, pinto beans, and rice
(without sausage)
Greens (kale, mustard greens, okra)
Corn bread (if not fried)
Shrimp creole (in a tomato sauce over rice)
Blackened fish or chicken (heavily seasoned and cooked quickly with very little oil)
Boiled seafood dishes, such as shrimp or crab boil
Jambalaya (omit fatty ingredients)
Bisques (cream-broth soups) or étouffé (soup or stew with lots of butter); corn or fish chowder
Dirty rice (fried rice with fatty meats)
Sausage dishes such as boudin or andouille
Hush puppies (fried corn bread)
Jambalaya
Crab cakes, if fried. (Grilled or broiled cakes are okay.)
Batter-fried seafood
Gravy, honeyed dressings
“Mud pies” and other rich desserts

 

Thai

With its unusual herbs and spices—lemon grass, lime leaves, and Thai basil—Thai cuisine offers a fascinating change of pace. But be selective. While Thai stir-fry has the same vitamin-packed benefits as Chinese and Japanese dishes prepared this way, many dishes are laced with fat-laden coconut milk. Curried dishes, in particular, often contain coconut milk, which can raise their fat content to more than 40 percent. Many other entrées are prepared with cream. When dining out ask how foods are prepared—the use of coconut milk or cream may not be obvious. If cream is involved, ask that milk be substituted. As always, avoid deep-fried foods, go easy on dishes with nuts, and load up on rice and vegetables. Remember, too, when first trying Thai food, that it can be very hot.

 

What’s Okay and What To Watch When Eating. . .

Thai
Go ahead and enjoy But hold back on
Lemon-grass soups like tom yum koong (shrimp and chili paste)
Po tak (seafood soup)
Pad Thai (stir-fried noodles and sprouts)
Forest salad
Larb (minty chicken salad)
Yum neua (broiled beef with onions)
Sauteed ginger beef or chicken
(request minimal oil)
Coconut-milk-based soups and curries
Royal tofu (fried)
Hot Thai catfish (fried)
Hae Kuen (deep-fried prawn cake—try requesting a stir-fried variation)
Pla sam rod (a deep-fried fish—try requesting a stir-fried variation)
Peanut sauce
Yum koon chaing (sausage with peppers)

Source: From the PDR® Family Guide to Nutrition and Health™

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