Posts Tagged ‘Eating Out’

Eating out is generally considered a pleasurable experience, not least because of its convenience. Busy lifestyles as well as lack of cooking skills and amenities make it an easy choice for many working-age adults to let others take care of their nutritional needs. Unfortunately, not being in charge of your own food preparation can prove hazardous for your health in the long run.

For example, a new study from Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore showed for the first time a direct link between eating meals away from home and hypertension, a.k.a. high blood pressure.

Hypertension is considered a risk factor for heart disease, heart attack and stroke, all of which are among today’s leading causes of death.

Even young adults were found to suffer from pre-hypertension or full-fledged hypertension if they ate out on several days a week. In fact, just one weekly restaurant visit was associated with a six percent increase in risk of pre-hypertension. The researchers involved in the study advised especially younger males to have their blood pressure checked regularly and, if necessary, modify their eating behavior.

Although this particular study focused mainly on young Asian adults, the warnings should be heeded worldwide. It is estimated that hypertension affects about one in three Americans to various degrees, based on statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Only half of all patients diagnosed with the disease have their condition under control through medication as well as diet and lifestyle changes, the agency says.

Almost 30 percent of what causes hypertension is attributed to excessive dietary sodium (salt). Processed foods, which are widely used in restaurants like fast food places and other low-cost eateries, are notorious for high sodium contents.

Although consumers have shown greater interest in reducing their salt intake in recent years, and some restaurant chains have pledged to cut back on salt use, there is still not enough progress to make a noticeable difference. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, too many food outlets are making it hard for their patrons to identify how much sodium they are getting with their meals. Items that don’t even taste salty can nevertheless have sodium levels that exceed recommended limits.

Eating out on a regular basis makes it difficult for people to control their salt intake because they don’t know how the food was prepared. And many fast food and fast-casual restaurants don’t monitor the quality of their ingredients, since they often only assemble their meals instead of making them from scratch. So it’s hard to make special requests for less salt use in these places, explains Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian, professional chef, and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

Still, patrons should be able to ask questions and navigate around the worst pitfalls, she says.

Preferably patronize locally owned eateries where the food is mostly cooked to order. Avoid dressings, toppings, and sauces as much as possible, and stick to whole food items like fresh vegetable dishes and fruits, and go easy on cheese platters and desserts, she advises.

Of course, none of this will give you the kind of control you have in your own kitchen, but a little bit of awareness and caution when eating out can be a good first step.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Even the Health-Conscious Prefer the Fast Lane

February 11th, 2015 at 2:48 pm by timigustafson

Fast food seems to be losing its grip on America’s eating culture. The industry’s behemoth, McDonald’s, is struggling with reportedly significant drops in profits, leading to the recent resignation of its top executive. The reason? It’s called the “Chipotle effect.”

Chipotle, the Mexican restaurant chain, has come to define the category of what is now called “fast casual,” an industry section between fast food and full-service casual dining. Since the late 1990s, it has grown by over 500 percent, ten times as much as its fast food competitors during the same time period, according to Euromonitor International, a leading consumer research firm.

What makes fast casual so attractive? Price, for one thing. Average prices per meal range from $9 to $13, roughly twice what one would typically spend at a fast food joint. But there is also the perception of better value in terms of food quality, service, and ambiance. In addition, there are other elements now more predominantly on customers’ minds like transparency of food production and sustainability. Also, flexible offerings and the ability to customize nearly all items on the menu are welcomed.

Especially Millennials, those who came of age around the year 2000, have embraced the fast casual dining idea. They are less inclined to eat junk food because they view it as unhealthy, but they still expect quick service and affordable prices, according to surveys by the NPD Group, a market research company.

The economic downturn beginning in 2007 lead to an uptick in fast casual dining among people who tried to spend less on eating out but were also conscious about their dietary health needs, the researchers say. Companies like Chipotle, Panera, Boston Market, Noodles & Company, and Zoe’s Kitchen all benefited from these trends.

But fast food places like McDonald’s and Wendy’s did not just sit idly watching their customer base diminish, according to CIT, a commercial financing, lending, and insurance firm. Traditional fast food chains now increasingly mimic their new competitors by offering some similar features. For example, McDonald’s recently introduced a “build-your-own-burger” format, and Wendy’s tries to provide a more inviting atmosphere in its restaurants.

“[All this] points to a future in which the quick service food industry looks a lot more like Chipotle and a lot less like, well, McDonald’s,” says Roberto A. Ferdman, a reporter for Wonkblog who covers issues of food and economics.

The question is whether the desire for healthier eating is met by these newly favored outlets, or whether the greater value they claim to offer is merely perceived as such.

When you visit a Chipotle restaurant or go on the company’s website, you can find a vast variety of food choices, many of which can indeed be categorized as healthy. I also applaud their efforts to make nutritional information easily accessible with their nutrition calculator that includes data not only on calorie amounts but also on fat, sodium, and sugar content, all of which are of concern when it comes to fast food.

But still, it is important to remember that all restaurant food is ultimately beyond your control. Even being able to make multiple modifications doesn’t give you the same kind of control over ingredients and cooking techniques you have when preparing meals from scratch at home. For optimal health, this is and remains your best option.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Food Poisoning Most Often from Restaurant Visits, Study Finds

April 12th, 2014 at 8:17 am by timigustafson

Americans love to eat out, preferably several times a week, according to the Nation’s Restaurant News, a publication for the restaurant industry. At the same time, there is growing concern that restaurant food may not be as healthy as it should be. On top of worries over portion sizes and excessive fat, salt and sugar content – all believed to contribute to weight problems – a new study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) warns consumers about the heightened risk of food poisoning from restaurant fare.

Each year, nearly 50 million Americans fall ill from contaminated food, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Harmful bacteria are the most common cause of foodborne illness. Symptoms can range from mild irritation to severe reactions, including stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and dehydration.

Between 2002 and 2011, more than 1600 outbreaks of food poisoning, affecting over 28,000 people, were connected to restaurant visits, based on the CSPI study. By contrast, only about 13,000 people became victims of such ills originating in their homes.

Unfortunately, the numbers are vague because not all outbreaks are reported, nor are their causes always clearly identified. Reporting has decreased by 42 percent, the researchers say, not necessarily because there are fewer cases but rather because of budget cuts for public health investigations.

Besides restaurants and private homes, food poisoning can take place just about anywhere, including in the workplace, at catered events, in schools, and at picnics. Most vulnerable among the afflicted are children and the elderly.

To prevent foodborne illness, experts recommend a number of precautions. Especially animal food products are susceptible to spoilage if not stored properly. You want to make sure items like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy foods are fully cooked or pasteurized before they are eaten. Raw meat or fish (e.g. steak tartar, sushi) may be fashionable, but the potential health threats are significant. If you love uncooked animal foods, be sure to patronize only reputable establishments.

Raw vegetables can also spoil and wreak havoc on your digestive system. Uncooked plant foods should always be thoroughly washed and stored in the refrigerator until consumption.

Dairy products like cheese and yogurt should always be kept refrigerated. Some types of cheese have bacteria and molds that add to their flavor and character. Hard varieties typically last longer than soft ones, but all require appropriate storage and should not be left exposed to warm temperatures for extended periods of time.

Preventive measures must also include proper cooking techniques and personal hygiene. Washing hands before and after touching food is imperative, especially when it involves uncooked animal foods like meat, poultry, and seafood.

Of course, when you eat out, you are at the mercy of those manning the kitchen. The only advice one can give is that if you have encountered problems in the past, you may not want to go back for seconds. On the other hand, if you are a regular at a particular eatery and you trust the place, you may want to stick with it. Of course, that is still not a foolproof strategy. All you can really do is minimize the risk by using your best judgment.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Is Eating Alone Becoming the Norm?

November 7th, 2012 at 7:11 am by timigustafson

It’s a familiar picture: People eating while talking on the phone, reading e-mails, staring at computer screens, hurrying from appointment to appointment. Our hectic lifestyles rarely allow for lunch breaks exclusively dedicated to nourishment or sit-down dinners to reconnect with loved ones.

Nearly half of all adults in America now eat most of their meals alone, according to a new survey by the Hartman Group, a marketing research firm that specializes in consumer culture. “In fact, 46 percent of all adults eating occasions happen alone, with nobody else present; 40 percent of all adult meals (not just snacks) are eaten alone; and 51 percent of all adult snacking is done alone,” it says in the report.

The changes in eating habits are most obvious in the workplace where long, uninterrupted working hours have become the norm rather than the exception. But also hard-to-coordinate family schedules are impacting the way we used to have our meals at home, says Laurie Demeritt, the Hartman Group’s president.

Although it’s now more common than ever, the trend toward eating solo began a long time ago. As women joined the workforce in great numbers after World War II, preparing elaborate meals at home became less attractive, even as modern kitchen appliances eased the task. The ability to eat out or pick up frozen dinners offered much-welcomed relief.

Today, we have what Demeritt calls the “snackification of meals,” where frequent eating of snack items and smaller dishes has taken the place of the traditional three-meals-a-day pattern. Consumers are looking for flexible meal schedules that fit their demanding lifestyles. Oftentimes, this is only feasible when they eat by themselves.

While eating without company is not necessarily a bad thing and can from time to time be quite enjoyable, there are certain downsides. When you’re all by yourself, nobody will judge you, your table manners, your food choices or your portion sizes. You can focus on your meal or do a thousand other things at the same time. But that’s where it can get tricky, according to Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam, 2006). If you are not paying attention or there is no one else to give you any cues about your eating behavior, you may end up overdoing it – and gain weight in the process, he says.

To be sure, not all snacking, even if it occurs frequently, is automatically unhealthy. The trick is to stay away from the salty, sugary and highly processed items that unfortunately dominate the snack food sections from supermarkets to gas stations. And as with all foods, moderation is key.

And what about the social interactions solitary eaters miss out on? “Some of us love eating alone,” says Diane Shipley who writes for the British paper, The Guardian. Eating alone should not make you feel awkward, not even as a women going on her own to a bar or a restaurant or when travelling, she says. “Spending time with someone whom you have little in common with can feel far more alienating than being alone.”

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “Despite of the Obesity Crisis, the Eating Habits of Most Americans Remain Unchanged.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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The average American family eats at home on most days but is too rushed to make meals from scratch, according to a survey by Gallup-Healthways. In terms of nutritional quality, overall eating habits in America are not improving and have in some ways become even worse.

Fewer Americans reported eating healthily by including fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis last year than the year before. Produce consumption is down especially among young adults, seniors, women and Hispanics, according to the Gallup poll.

“The trend has been toward eating more meals at home. It’s just that we’ve been getting more and more of those meals we’ve been eating at restaurants to eat at home,” said Harry Balzer, a vice president at The NPD Group, a consumer market research firm. “Frozen and pre-prepared foods have gotten more popular. [People] want to spend as little time as possible preparing meals and that’s the driving force in the way we’re eating right now,” he added.

The results of the Gallup survey have been largely confirmed by another recent study, this one conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS), titled “How Much Time Do Americans Spend on Food?” While many of the ERS’s findings came as no surprise – Americans like to eat quickly, tend to skip breakfast, take shorter lunch breaks, don’t spend much time on preparing and enjoying elaborate meals, make spontaneous food shopping choices, etc. – what stands out is the growing dominance of what the study calls “secondary eating patterns,” that is eating and drinking while simultaneously doing other things. Just focusing on your meals and enjoying them is becoming a thing of the past, especially among the younger generations, according to the report.

“On an average day [in 2006 to 2008 – the time period the survey took place], Americans age 15 and older spent about 2.5 hours daily eating or drinking. Slightly less than half of that time was spent eating and drinking as a primary or main activity, while the remaining time was spent eating and drinking while doing something else such as watching television, driving or working and waiting to eat or traveling to meal destinations,” said the report.

The ERS study also found that Americans who adhered predominantly to “secondary eating patterns” had on average a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) than those who kept mostly to “primary eating patterns” by setting time aside for their meals.

In his landmark book, “Mindless Eating,” Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor for marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University, pointed out that the average American makes well over 200 decisions about food every day, although when asked, most people initially believe they make only about 15 food-related decisions daily. Many of these decisions are made more or less unconsciously and even inexplicably. The reason is that we are often too distracted to pay attention to our eating. “If we knew why we ate the way we do, we could eat a little less, eat a little healthier, and enjoy it a lot more,” said Dr. Wansink.

Needless to say that this would not be an easy exercise. In a world where we all are constantly surrounded by a thousand things competing for our attention, it is hard to shut everything down and focus only on what we eat, when we eat, where we eat, how much we eat and how fast we eat. Yet, these are the quintessential elements of healthful eating habits.

As a dietitian and health counselor I’m often asked by my clients what changes they should make in their way of eating. There are many possibilities, of course, but much comes down to paying closer attention to your actions.

For instance, you can start by making grocery shopping lists and sticking to them once you’re at the store. Don’t buy food items spontaneously. For this reason, you should not go food shopping when you’re hungry.

Lay out a meal plan for a few days or an entire week if you have enough storage space. Prepare your meals as much as possible from scratch using fresh ingredients and lean cooking techniques. If you don’t have enough time to cook every day, prepare what you can in advance over the weekend or whenever you have the time.

Eat only in your dining room or whichever part of your home is set up for eating. Before you sit down, make sure to switch off your television, cellphone, computer, everything that can interfere with the enjoyment of your meal.

If possible, try to keep conversations light. Sharing a meal with loved ones should be a pleasurable experience. If the atmosphere around the dinner table is tense and stressful, it will affect everyone’s nutritional benefits as well.

Use food to celebrate. Although Thanksgiving is only once a year, there are plenty more opportunities to be grateful throughout the year. Having good food available itself is a cause for gratitude, being able to share it with others even more so.

There is little chance that we Americans will ever become quite like the French, the Greeks or the Italians, sitting down for hours on end over multi-course meals and wine in midday. And there is no reason why we should adopt other people’s lifestyles. But we should make ours as healthful as we can. And there we have plenty of room for improvement.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Gourmet Dining on a Slowing Metabolism

January 11th, 2012 at 1:08 pm by timigustafson

Today’s retirees have many more options how to spend their golden years than any generation before them. Baby boomers, especially those who are well off, can satisfy their curiosity and adventurous spirit by exploring new business endeavors, continuing their education or traveling around the world. Some discover new passions and acquire new skills they never had time for while working.

One of those late pursuits that is rapidly gaining in popularity is gourmet dining, both at home and at restaurants. Interest in advanced cooking classes has never been greater, not to mention the high ratings for food shows and competitions between celebrity chefs on TV. The auditoria of culinary institutes around the world are filled with students in their sixties, seventies and beyond, eager to familiarize themselves with the latest trends and techniques in the world of haute cuisine.

Fine wining and dining has always been a prerogative of those who like (and can afford) to indulge in the better things life has to offer, but today it’s a whole different ballgame. In an article for the New York Times (12/28/2011), Charles Isherwood, a food writer, describes his parents (both retired) as “foodies” for whom eating well has become their lives’ mission. “My parents practically live to eat,” he writes. “At home [they] eat out three or so times a week. But when they come to New York, we sample the city’s restaurants in five-day, two-big-meals-a-day binges that have become something of a legend.”

Of course, besides being tremendously pleasurable, fine dining also conveys an aura of culture and sophistication (not to mention exclusiveness due to oftentimes ridiculous pricing). However, many food lovers also seem to think that eating at the best restaurants or cooking with the most expensive ingredients automatically means their diet is healthy. But this is not necessarily true.

Gourmet chefs typically focus on taste and presentation. Calorie counts and fat contents are not their primary concern. The individual portions may look small compared to lower-end eateries with their “all-you-can-eat” value offers, but if you order three, four or more courses, you end up with a similarly large amount of food in your stomach.

You may say, well, it’s only on rare occasions that you go all out like that. But what about eating out three times a day when you travel? What about a cruise where limitless access to great food is one of the perks?

The unfortunate truth is that as you get older and have more time and funds to indulge a little more than you used to, your metabolism begins to slow down. In fact, it slows down about 5% to 10% every decade or so, beginning in your mid-twenties. This means that the typical American loses between 20% and 40% of metabolic power over the course of his or her lifespan, according to Dr. John Berardi, best-selling author of “The Metabolism Advantage.”

The reasons are easy to understand: Your metabolism converts calories into energy. When your calorie intake is higher than your energy expenditure, weight gain occurs. As you grow older, it becomes harder to maintain a healthy calorie-energy balance because your lifestyle probably becomes more sedentary and your physical activities get less strenuous. Another result is age-related muscle loss. Diminishing muscle mass means that fewer calories are being burned off and your metabolism slows down. While this is an inevitable, natural process, there are things you can do to prevent it from happening too fast.

The best way to counteract muscle loss is weight training. Lifting weights does not only add muscle, it also burns off calories even while you rest afterwards. Doing aerobics, of course, also helps with calorie burn. People who are said to have a faster metabolism are probably just more physically active all day.

Not surprisingly, adherence to healthy eating habits also matters more with age. Your calorie requirements may go down, but your need for high-quality nutrients remains the same throughout your life. Simple but nutrient-dense foods are the best choices for a healthy, age-appropriate diet – such as fresh fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants, whole grains, fish, lean meats and low-fat dairy products.

So, before you try out your next culinary sensation downtown or at home, keep in mind that your health is too important to throw all caution to the wind, just because you can.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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