Control Your Weight: Healthy Food Choices That Make A Big Difference

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - 2:20pm

By Katie Clark, MPH, RD

“Eat less, exercise more” is the mantra of weight management. But eating meals that are prepared outside the home can seriously undermine the “eat less” part of the equation. To increase your calorie control and the nutrition value of your meals, improve your at-home food preparation using these tips.

Obesity and take-out meals are related

The average American spends 49% of their food budget on takeout and other foods prepared outside of home1 . And almost 2/3 of Americans are overweight or obese2. Do you think there is a correlation? Absolutely!

As a dietitian in private practice, I continually encourage my clients to eat as few meals at restaurants as possible. Why? Because YOU know exactly what goes into a lunch you prepare, but you have NO idea what a chef or a deli has done to sabotage a seemingly healthy meal. Increasing the amount of control you have over the food that goes into your mouth will set you up for success.

Guilt-free restaurant foods?

Aren’t there healthful food choices at every restaurant? Almost certainly. Moreover, many people can successfully lose weight while maintaining a high frequency of weekly restaurant visits . Remember, though, that seemingly healthful choices are often laden with excess calories. Here are a few examples:

  • Salads. The age-old dieter’s conundrum: vegetables are healthy…until you pour gobs of fatty dressing all over them.

  • Sandwiches. White bread, mayonnaise, butter, aioli, copious amounts of cheese…no wonder they taste so good!
  • Fish. “Lightly sautéed”? Yeah right! Even the most healthy sounding fish dish likely has your day’s worth of fat in butter drizzled over itask for it dry, but you’ll likely sacrifice a good amount of taste.
  • Mexican food. Keep portions small by choosing a taco instead of a burrito…that’s a good start. But the meat in Mexican food is often the lowest, fattiest quality. Refried beans are that indeed: re-‘fried’. And mayo and guacamole, even in small amounts, add copious calories you probably don’t need.

Gain control by eating at home

Most people tend to underestimate their food intake and overestimate their exercise . If you are not seeing the results you’d like, consider logging everything you eat for a week in a food diary. Preparing foods at home allows you to get the most accurate daily calorie recordings. Why?

1.   Ingredients you use at home have labels telling your their content

With the exception of meat and produce, almost every ingredient in your home-prepared meal came in a package with some sort of label. You can’t lie to yourself if the label says exactly what you are eating. The restaurant industry is fighting hard to continue their exemption from USDA labeling laws. And why is that? Because if you knew what was in that restaurant’s lasagna, you probably wouldn’t eat it!

2.   At home your can control your portion sizes

Inevitably, you will eat larger portion sizes at a restaurant meal than you would at home. Americans like value. Look at the explosion of portion sizes at restaurants in the past few decades and you can easily understand why our waistlines are on the rise.

3.   Managing your home prepared food: both frequency and content

Preparing food at home and taking prepared snacks and meals to work are great ways to limit overeating. You prepare what you are going to wear today, when you’ll pick your kids up, what time you’ll workout…but you also need to prepare what you will eat today. Eating well thought out and self-prepared meals and snacks every three to four hours will help curb the desire to hit that fast food drive through at the end of your busy, famished day.

Eating at home is great for weight control

Eating food that you prepare is the greatest way to gain control of exactly what you are eating . Even if you can’t cook, there are a multitude of easy-to-prepare meal ideas at your grocery store, online and in beginner cookbooks. And if your cooking skills relegate you to eating cereal for dinner, that’s a meal that is much more healthful and controllable than what they’ll make you down at the local steakhouse.

1 United States Department of Agriculture . Food Marketing Costs: a 1990’s Retrospective. 2001.

2 Centers for Disease Control . NHANES data on the Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity Among Adults-United States, 2003-2004.