Eating out in your favourite restaurant or fast-food place is usually seen as a ‘treat’, and often for good reason. When we don’t cook our own food, we’re likely unaware of the ingredients and cooking methods that have gone into our dish. So, does that mean we should avoid eating out altogether? Accredited Practising Dietitian Maria Packard tells us that being mindful of what we order and making a few simple swaps is all it takes to turn your fast food into something more balanced.
In recent years, fast-food restaurants have been offering more so-called ‘healthy options’. There are now gluten-free buns, sweet potato fries, and an abundance of salads to tantalise our taste buds. But are they really as healthy as we think they are? Perhaps unsurprisingly, sometimes companies will use words that make our minds see ‘healthy’ when the truth is a little different.
What's on the menu?
So, what can you do to enjoy your favourite menu items if you’re conscious of being misled? The answer could be as simple as asking some simple questions, and swapping certain ingredients for healthier ones. Dietitian Maria Packard is well-versed in the terms our foods are treated to, and says, “the biggest one I usually see is the term ‘natural’. It’s not a regulated term. It doesn’t automatically mean the food is healthy.”
She also lists the term “organic” as one to be careful of. “It’s just a sign to ask more questions, really. Ask more about what types of fats [are in the dish], and how they cook them. Do they make them in house or is it commercially made?” If you’re unsure of just how healthy (or unhealthy) a dish might be, try asking for the specific nutritional components, or ask for an ingredient to be replaced. For example, why not ask for your toasted buns to be replaced with leafy greens, turning your burger into a salad?
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Knowing the right questions (and swap options)
Maria advises that we might assume some foods contain fewer kilojoules simply because of one or two ingredients. She says sweet potato fries are a good example of this, as they are still deep-fried, and therefore very high in energy. “It’s probably not the best way to have them [sweet potatoes]. You see what you think is the healthier option, like a vegetable, but the way it’s cooked… you might have other considerations.” Desserts and snacks can also pose a similar problem. She warns to be careful of items that have seemingly healthy ingredients like coconut, but have very high saturated fat levels. “A person may not be aware of how much they are consuming.” Instead of making these common nutrition mistakes, it’s always best to go for fresh foods that have been prepared in a healthy way - think veggies, fruit and lean protein that have been boiled, steamed or grilled as opposed to fried.
Making a healthy swap can be especially easy and delicious when it comes to dessert items. Who needs chocolate on your plate when you can ask for a serving of blueberries to get your sweet fix? It’s also always worth spending some time exploring the menu so that you understand what the kitchen has available. Although not every restaurant will be able to cater to every whim, you might be surprised by the availability of certain ingredients that you can ask to be included in your meal. Zucchini strips instead of pasta, anyone?