How to Eat Takeout and Stay Healthy

Anna Amelianchik

Popeyes Chicken Sandwich triumphantly returned to the fast-food chain on November 3, causing nearly as much frenzy as it did when it was first released in August. What is it about the coveted sandwich that makes customers turn to violence in the face of sandwich shortage? The answer may be found in the nutrition facts. Popeyes confirmed to that at 690 kcal, each sandwich contains a whopping fourteen grams of saturated fat and 1,443 milligrams of sodium—more than half of the recommended daily sodium intake limit. Although the taste is highly rewarding, the overabundance of salt and grease is what contributes to poor health outcomes such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. In addition to salt and fat, the typical American diet goes above the recommended limit for the intake of added sugars while lacking in fruit and vegetables and, as a result, dietary fiber. Interestingly, foods perceived as neutral or even healthy (such as sauces and condiments, frozen foods, and some cooking oils) may contain an excess of sodium, saturated fat, or added sugars, and tip the scale in the direction of unhealthy eating patterns. Although the best way to avoid such foods is to cook all of your meals at home, in a city like New York where takeout options are numerous and the pace of life does not leave much time for food preparation, it may not always be feasible.

To help our community make healthier choices when ordering restaurant meals, the Department of Human Resources at The Rockefeller University invited Arielle Leben, a Registered Dietician from New York University Langone Center for Cardiovascular Disease, to give a talk as part of the Wellness Lecture Series. According to Leben, building a balanced plate is key to ensuring your takeout choices promote your overall health. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recommends the following breakdown for a healthy balanced plate: 25% lean protein, 50% vegetables and fruits, and 25% quality carbohydrates. The focus on lean proteins (skinless chicken or turkey, fish, or eggs), fiber-rich vegetables and fruits, and whole grains will ensure your meal will keep you full without causing your blood sugar to spike. Leben also adds that the addition of healthy fats, such as olive oil or avocado, will promote good health when consumed in moderation.

The Healthy Eating Plate can be used for creating healthy, balanced takeout meals. Copyright © 2011, Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Plate, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, http://www.thenutritionsource.org, and Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu.

The method of preparation of your meats and vegetables can also make a difference for your health. Ms. Leben recommends avoiding anything that is fried, crispy, crunchy, battered, buttered, or creamy and choosing steamed, boiled, poached, grilled, or roasted foods.

If you opt for vegan meat alternatives, be aware that your choices might be significantly higher in saturated fat and sodium when compared to animal sources of protein. For instance, a four-ounce Impossible Burger contains two grams more saturated fat and nearly five times more sodium than 85% lean ground beef. When choosing your vegetables, remember to pick the non-starchy kind to avoid overloading on carbohydrates. However, when it comes to carbohydrates, quality is just as important as quantity. Although carbohydrate needs may vary depending on your activity level and weight goals, choosing whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa, is key to achieving a nutritional balance. In addition to balance, portion size is key whether your goal is to shed some pounds or maintain your healthy weight. Leben recommends using an appetizer plate to determine the correct portion sizes for your meals and asking for takeout containers for the food that exceeds what your body actually needs. Another tip for making your takeout meal healthier is to ask for dressing and sauces on the side. This way, although you may not have control over the sodium or the sugar content of these foods, you will be able to control how much of them you add to your diet.

Finally, the pro tip for making every restaurant dish a healthy option is to ask questions about your food and to not be afraid to make substitutions. “You will be surprised once you start asking [questions]. I was at a Mediterranean restaurant a few months ago,” says Leben, “and you would think Mediterranean food [would have] olive oil, of course. Everything was made in butter! I could not find a vegetable that was not made in butter.” When it comes to substitutions, skipping French fries and ordering half of a baked sweet potato or asking to replace buttered vegetables with steamed/lightly sautéed ones are good ways to make sure your side dish does not throw off the balance on your plate. Regardless of whether your go-to is Chipotle or sweetgreen, these simple instructions will ensure your diet works to promote your overall health:

  1. Increase your fiber intake by loading up on non-starchy vegetables (greens, fajita vegetables, and black beans have the Registered Dietitian’s stamp of approval).
  2. Pick lean proteins and skip processed meats (e.g. chorizo) and meats high in saturated fat (e.g. steak).
  3. Do not skip carbohydrates. Quality choices like whole grains (e.g. brown rice) or starchy vegetables (e.g. sweet potato/butternut squash) will keep your full for longer.
  4. Choose 1-2 servings of healthy fat (avocado, nuts, or cheese).
  5. Don’t be afraid to add flavor with hot sauce, salsa, or “light dressing” like a squeeze of lemon or red chili flakes.
  6. Say no to packaged sides (e.g. chips), cookies and soda, all of which will add calories without adding much nutrition

When it comes to foods that are commonly perceived as unhealthy, Leben recommends exercising portion control and carefully thinking about how the ingredients add to the nutritional composition of these foods. For example, pizza lovers will be happy to find out that you can maintain your weight and promote your health if you choose thinner crusts or opt for whole wheat or cauliflower crust substitutions, go light on cheese, and try to not overindulge. Pizza toppings are also key to ensuring your love for pizza does not compromise your health: add vegetables (e.g. spinach, mushrooms, green peppers) and avoid processed meats (e.g. pepperoni, sausage, bacon).

The last piece of advice from Leben may be obvious, but it is too often overlooked: cut out sugary beverages (containing either real sugar or artificial sweeteners) and drink a lot of water. Dehydration can have negative consequences on various aspects of your well-being, but increasing your fiber intake without also increasing water consumption will lead to gastrointestinal distress.

If at this point you still find yourself thinking about the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich, we have the good news for you. “I totally think there are times to enjoy those foods!” says Leben. “This is the everyday stuff that is going to contribute to our cholesterol panel, our hemoglobin A1C and all of that!”

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