Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Eating Out and Losing Weight

A few weeks ago, my cousin and I talked about eating out and losing weight. She had originally assumed that I had stopped eating out when I started trying to lose weight last August. Quite on the contrary, I didn't stop eating out at all. I just had to change the way I approached and thought about things. From that conversation, I started thinking about some of the little lifehacks I learned, both from the dietician that I talked to, and from my own trial and error. I will share those with you here, but first...

What qualifies me to talk about this?

Last year, I weighed around 295lbs. I had been hovering around here for some time, and I was the first to admit that it wasn't the healthiest way to live. Earlier in the year, my youngest had to have ear tube surgery. That 5 mins with the surgeon cost us enough to meet our deductible for the rest of the year. Later, that summer, our pediatrician reminded us, "If you have medical stuff you want to get done, now is the time!"

With that advice, I did something I'd wanted to do for some time but kept putting off: I loaded up with the wife and visited our family practice doctor's on-staff dietician. After 3 hours of talking about food, she looked me in the eye and advised 4 things:

  1. "You don't eat enough vegetables. Eat more... half your standard dinner plate should be veggies."
  2. "You eat waaaaaay too much starch. Cut back. One quarter of your standard dinner plate should be starch, stick close to portion sizes."
  3. "You eat the right amount of protein... keep that up. Stick with lean proteins, but don't worry about eating a steak now and then."
  4. "Get an app, and track what you eat. If you track within a calorie budget, awesome... but just the awareness of what you're eating will help control what you eat."
With that, I set off. After the first month and a half, I'd lost 30lbs... 10% of my body weight. Walking and other physical activity became tons easier.

Here 6 months later, I've lost just over 80lbs and working my way down another 25 to 190. The journey hasn't been easy... I had to change a lot of thinking and bad habits, but I had a good support system, and stuck with it.

About eating out...

I promised to talk some about eating out. In modern American culture, it is somewhat of a given, if not a necessity. Between trying to work full time, a 40 minute commute on a good day, kids and their associated activities; there's not a ton of time to cook a balanced, wholesome meal. Where possible, I highly recommend you cook for yourself... it is the only way to 100% control what goes into your food, and ultimately what goes into your mouth. That said, there will be nights where you eat out. Here's how I survive.

Tip #0: Know your limits

If your goal is to lose weight, how are you measuring that? Counting calories is an easy way to go... although not 100% accurate (you can eat low calorie stuff that does little for you), it is a good guideline to work by and what most apps support out of the box for free. Do you want to go low carb? A low carbohydrate diet usually turns out to be low calorie, but cutting out beans, potatoes, starches (rice, corn, etc) and bread is tough stuff.

No matter how you go, know how much is too much and how much you want to shoot for. For my height, age, and weight loss goals, about 1800 calories per day is a reasonable budget. I try to shoot for 500-600 calories per meal. Knowing that measure is important, because it allows you to put parameters on what you eat. Want to eat a higher calorie lunch? Have a more conservative, lower calorie dinner.  Knowing the parameters makes it possible to make informed decisions.

Tip #1: Research ahead of time

My family eats at a lot of the same restaurants a lot of the time. There are places, like Chili's, Taco Bell, Applebee's, and Chipotle that I just know I will end up at often. Research them ahead of time. Look up their nutrition information online, and start looking at what fits in your calorie budget. Come up with a few different options for each place, and write them down if you have to. Cover a small range of calorie levels and tastes, so that you always have options. "Forewarned is forearmed."

Tip #2: Ask to see the nutrition menu

Sometimes you can't research in advance, or you just feel saucy and want to try something new. Most chain restaurants have a nutrition menu. This menu lists all items along with the amount of calories, carbs, protein, sugar, and other important nutrition information. For some really nice places (and all of them in the US soon, thanks FDA), this information is on the main menu itself. Either way, if you can't find it, don't be afraid to ask.

Tip #3: In the absence of information, look at equivalents and ingredients

If you're at a great local hole-in-the-wall family-owned slice of paradise that hasn't paid the lab fees to have nutrition information drawn up, you have to go with Plan B. Plan B is simple: either rough out the nutrition information based on the ingredients list (ask if you don't know) or find equivalents at similar restaurants. Can't find the amount of calories in your local Chinese place's Mongolian Beef? What is Panda Express's? You can bet that's posted online, and while it may not match your local place's way of making it, it will "get you in the ballpark" for your tracking purposes. Same for ingredients... fruits and veggies lose and gain calories when cooked and cooked in things... but don't let that deter you. Getting a close reading is better than no reading.

Tip #4: Learn to ask, "What can I substitute for ______"

My youngest loves to go to Wendy's. I don't dig their salads, and never quite feel like the chicken sandwiches. I love their nuggets but the fries kill me. By asking, you'll find that you can substitute apple slices for the fries, which contain far fewer calories and balance the meal just a bit better than the fried potato sticks will. Be forewarned, some places... I'm looking at you Buffalo Wild Wings, will charge you extra for the more for the healthy option (like a side salad).

Tip #5: (From my friend Lu Anne) When in doubt, split the portion

Sometimes, there's just not a good option. For those times, my friend Lu Anne reminded me that you don't HAVE to eat everything. She shared this simple lifehack:
"Order the meal. When it comes, immediately ask for a to-go container. Spoon half the meal off into the to-go container, seal it up, and eat the remainder. Bonus... you have food for lunch the next day!"
This can work pretty well if you have the willpower to resist eating the to-go box's contents.

If these tips work for you, party on! If you gave tips of your own to share, feel free to leave a comment and suggest away.