By Carolyn O’Neil, for the AJC
“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” — Author unknown
This proverb came to mind when I was answering a request to provide more specific nutritional comparisons of menu items in a restaurant review ranking system — kind of like “order this, not that.”
I agree it is helpful to share where to look for the most fish or eateries with the best selection of healthful items or best attitude toward special diet requests. But I think it’s more helpful to teach strategies to help diners identify the healthiest choices on the menu no matter where they’re eating.
When I discussed the “give a man a fish” concept with registered dietitian Marisa Moore, who is president of the Georgia Dietetic Association, she laughed knowingly. “Too often people don’t want to think for themselves. They want me to catch the fish, cook it up and serve it to them on a plate.”
Dietitians want to teach you how to put nutrition know-how to work so you can make menu choices that meet your needs. Some people want to avoid sodium, some are concerned about cholesterol or food allergens and a whole bunch of diners want to cut calories where they can.
A good foundation
March is National Nutrition Month and this year’s theme, chosen by members of the American Dietetic Association, is From the Ground Up. You can start learning how to eat better by building a basic foundation. Here are a few food and nutrition lessons to start.
Focus on fruits and veggies. Recent research suggests that just 27 percent of adults get the recommended daily three servings of vegetables. “Boost your veggie intake when you’re out: opt for the roasted beet appetizer, add broccoli and mushrooms to your pasta dish or request grilled asparagus as a side to your entree,” Moore advises. Remember that frying vegetables or adding a tablespoon of butter, margarine or olive oil adds 100 calories per serving.
Make calories count. “Too often, people think of foods as good or bad and that only those on the ‘good foods’ list are OK to eat,” says registered dietitian and ADA spokesperson Toby Smithson. “When you’re choosing between options, focus instead on the one with more of the vitamins and nutrients that you need. Sometimes foods with fewer calories aren’t always the healthiest options.” Use a smart phone to check out a restaurant’s Web site to see how much calcium is in that cafe latte. (It can be 40 percent of your daily needs.). To figure out how many calories you need to achieve a healthy weight, visit www.mypyramid.gov. Moore says small changes in calorie control can lead to big rewards. “Cutting back on just 100 calories (or burning an extra 100 calories) a day can result in a 10-pound weight loss in a year.”
Tantalize your taste buds. A healthy eating plan emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy and includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans and nuts. Those are the basics, but Moore encourages exploration. “Keep your quest for healthy eating exciting by trying a new [and healthy] cuisine.
Among others, Japanese, Indian, Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines all offer lots of healthy options.” Try a fish you’ve never eaten before or sample a new vegetable preparation when dining out. Smithson says go beyond your usual go-to list.
Trick yourself with treats. There’s no reason to go hungry or give up favorites just because you’re trying to eat more healthfully. Moore gives a dietitian’s stamp of approval to the occasional splurge. “Having dessert or a piece of bread won’t ruin you or your diet. It’s what you do on a regular basis that determines your overall health. Banish the guilt and balance the occasional indulgence with a healthy diet daily.”
For more tips on building your healthful diet from the ground up, during National Nutrition Month and all year long, visit Eat Right.
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@carolynoneil .com.