So, I eat out a lot. And it’s frustrating because every place in America tries their damnedest to feed you a bunch of SAD garbage — even the wear-your-good-shoes establishments (sometimes, especially those places).

Over the years I’ve developed some effective strategies for making sure that I mitigate most of the damage and maintain my ability to eat healthy foods. Because, let’s face it, if you want to be optimal you need to be cooking all your own meals. With that said, there’s no reason to fear the occasional restaurant trip; treat it like a game and crush your opponent.

If possible, recon the menu ahead of time.

It’s 2013. Any restaurant worth its weight in Kerrygold is going to have their menu posted online. Pull it up and scan your choices. Make mental notes. Or, if you’re a rookie, jot some things down.

There’s a strong possibility that none of the meals will be totally on point, so you’re gonna have to get crafty. More on that later. But checking ahead of time gives you an idea of what your opposition is bringing to the table.

Ask if they have a gluten free menu.

“Gluten Free” is the new “Cholesterol Free.” Shit that never had gluten to begin with has a gluten free label now. I’m waiting for the bottled water companies to catch on. In short, “gluten free” does not mean that something is healthy. But, it’s a good starting point.

Anyhow, the awareness around the perils of gluten is beginning to change the food industry and restaurants are no exception. They’re starting to put together menus with all gluten-free choices and this is probably your best bet.

It has its downfalls though. For one, anything with gluten free bread is out. That stuff is usually filled with a bunch of chemicals. And while the gluten may not be present, gluten isn’t the only bad thing in wheat/grain products. So, use the gluten free menu as a guide, but take it with a grain of sea salt.

Train the people you’re with.

All of my friends and family know how I eat. I’ve made it clear to them that I don’t like a bunch of crap shoved in my face.

If you’re out with close family and they’re on your page, this makes eating out a lot easier. Automatically decline bread, chips, etc. that they try to bring you when you sit down. The more you can keep that stuff out of sight, the better.

If you’re with family, but they’re not on your page, simply push the stuff out of your reach and closer to the SAD eaters, they deserve it.

Business partners, acquaintances, etc. are a different issue and I tend to always use the below tip to train them (and start a valuable conversation about health and nutrition)…

Be the annoying allergic guy*.

When you start asking a lot of questions such as, “do you have a gluten free menu?” and “do you know what oil they cook this in?”, the server is bound to ask, “is there an allergy I need to be aware of?”

Why yes, there is.

I don’t actually have any allergies, but when eat out I have four: I’m allergic to soy, gluten, corn, and dairy. And I tell the waiter to double check with the cook and make sure what I order doesn’t have any of those four things. If they do, come back and I’ll make a substitution; otherwise, I might come close enough to death to sue the restaurant for all they’re worth. (I don’t tell them that last part unless the server looks really annoyed at my requests).

Something you need to know about the restaurant industry: they cook almost everything in soybean oil. For this reason, request that they cook your food in butter (and double check that it’s not margarine). Telling them you have an allergy usually alleviates this need (as the cook will speak up), but I always double check.

A really cool side effect of announcing that you have these allergies is that your meal partners are bound to inquire, “you’re allergic to all that stuff?”

It’s a great conversation starter if you like to talk about food and health. My usual reply, “yeah, a lot of people are, they just don’t know it.” That sparks their interest so I start talking about systemic inflammation, joint pain, skin issues, sinus problems, headaches, and so on (the usual culprits everyone experiences but never attributes to food). Then challenge them to not eat any of that stuff for 21 days and see how they feel.

If they actually take you up on your challenge, you’ll be forever known as the guy/girl that cured their lifelong ailments. Hell, you might even land the sale too. You’re making money and changing lives — win-win baby!

* Keep in mind this is a strategy for living optimally. A little soybean oil isn’t going to kill you. If you eat out a lot, you might want to be more vigilant than most people, but in the end if you’re paying attention to these details 80% of the time you’re going to be better off than 95% of the population. What you HAVE to be 100% on is the gluten. Gluten has side effects at any level of exposure. The reboot mantra = never cheat with wheat.

Eat lean and add fats via butter and olive oils.

There’s almost zero chance that beef at a restaurant is grass fed (there’s a few exceptions like Ted’s Montana Grill, Moes, and Chipotle — but I think they’re still grain finished). And the chicken isn’t free range and organic. The fish is likely farm raised.

The good news is that most of the toxins and bad stuff in conventional meat is contained in the fat. If you have to eat conventional meat, just buy the leanest cut possible and add dietary fat via butter (again, make sure it’s not margarine). Always ask for olive oil and vinegar for your salad dressings.

Grass fed butter would be your best option, but you’ll survive without it.

Substitute!

As I said before, you’re unlikely to be able to just sit down and order a meal combination off the menu. 99% of meals seem to have a grain/starchy carbohydrate requirement.

My usual plan is to choose my lean protein, ask for butter, and then substitute all the other bad stuff they planned to give me with side items like asparagus, broccoli, or a side salad (which will contain 100% iceberg lettuce because nutrition is not allowed in these establishments).

And remember, they’re sneaky bastards! The other day I ordered chicken tortilla soup minus the tortilla strips. I looked over the ingredients on the menu and everything seemed legit. When it arrived it was full of corn (which was not listed on the menu). I had to send it back.

Another example: those sleazy chumps at IHOP put pancake batter in their omelettes. Stay vigilant my friends.

If all else fails, IF.

There’s been times — mostly when I’m going out with friends — where there just wasn’t anything acceptable. When this happens, I’m fully prepared to switch modes and begin an intermittent fast (IF). Intermittent fasting is skipping one or two meals and then eating your normal amount of calories in the other meals (usually during a 6-8 hour window).

If you’re a fat burning furnace, this is effortless. The body has the capacity to easily skip a meal or two and not go into physical and mental meltdown (actually mental clarity can increase during intermittent fasting). For sugar burners or people in their first 30-60 days, this probably isn’t a good course of action.

IFing actually has a host of benefits. And a quick review of our evolutionary history shows that it’s highly probable that our ancestors didn’t always have three square meals per day. If you missed a kill, you went back to cave empty handed or wandered around longer distances looking for something to scavenge.

I can guarantee — and I think you’ll agree — that skipping a meal is a lot healthier than breaking down and eating a pile of SAD food.

Just as with being the annoying allergic guy, IFing can be a great conversation starter (sugar burners are always amazed at how you can just skip a meal and not die of hypoglycemia). Use this as a conversation starter for talking about health and nutrition.

If you find out some bad news too late…

Look, you knew you were going into the belly of the beast, okay? So I don’t want to hear it. If you get to the end of your meal and discover that they cooked your salmon in soybean oil, don’t go nuts. Step one: keep calm and carry on. Make sure nobody else finds out — we still have a clean record.

When you get home, take a few capsules of fish oil with a glass of Artesian spring water. I doubt it does anything physically to help, but it’ll make you feel better if you keep telling yourself that it’s detoxing you — or something.

Then, pretend as if it never happened.

All joking aside, what are your favorite strategies for eating in the world’s dungeons of doom?

*photo courtesy Stuck in Customs

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