Eating out is hazardous to your health

The Thinker by Rodin

Since I started my diet in late January, I have lost 16 pounds. That’s good for me, of course. My blood pressure is now about normal. I hope that in three months when I am retested my cholesterol will be within normal ranges again too.

16 pounds amounts to about 7 percent of my weight. As you might expect, my diet has changed. Not only do I consume fewer calories than I used too, the portion of my calories from fat and processed foods has nosedived, and the amount of fiber in my diet has gone way up. Perhaps because of my own dieting adventure, I am also watching the eating habits of others. For most, their habits appear to be a lot like mine were at the beginning of the year. I too was largely mindless of the total calories and fat I was consuming.

A certain loved one of mine complains of lower back pains and of feeling tired all the time. Now it all makes sense. I would be tired too if someone gave me a heavy backpack to wear every day, which is in effect what happens if you are obese. Your body, designed to support a certain weight, is now hefting many more pounds everywhere it goes. Your spine carries most of your weight so it doesn’t surprise me it would manifest itself in lower back pain. If I were obese I would probably be complaining of back pain pretty much every day of the week.

My latest excursion in dieting has made me realize that we are all literally what we eat. Not only do we gain weight by what we eat, what we eat perturbs our body in many ways that are not obvious. If your body were a car, would you put high-test gasoline in the engine, run with a quart of oil in the engine and drive around with 10 psi of tire pressure in each tire? If you did your car, which is designed for 200,000 miles, would be lucky to make it to 100,000 miles. Yet many of us Americans are doing just this with our bodies. The result is predictable: we are throwing a wrench into our innards. The result: obesity, lots of aches and complaints, higher health costs and for many ultimately a shorter lifespan.

Now when I look at a slice of pizza, the shiny fat glistening on its surface is like a neon warning sign. I think to myself, “If I eat this, most of this fat will not be burned but will quickly get stored in my fat cells. The more fat I eat, the more I will weigh. Moreover, some of these fat cells will be converted into cholesterol, and some of it will stick to the walls of my arteries and veins. This could result in all sorts of problems, including heart attack and stroke.”

I am now also vigilant of just how calorie-dense modern American food is. Restaurants go out of their way to add (and hide) fat, calories and sugar. This is easy to understand: we will enjoy the food more if it is tasty, and if it is tasty and satisfying, we will want to revisit the restaurant. You would think a restaurant salad as an entrée would be a safe bet, right? Wrong. My daughter and I recently had dinner at Champps, a sports bar. The BBQ Chopped Salad with Chicken, which I had for dinner, is 742 calories. (Ostensibly, it consists of two servings but of course, it comes out as one salad.) It was a good salad but it amounted to about a third of my daily calories. Moreover, it was loaded with over 40 grams of fat.

The salad though was one of the healthiest dishes on the Champps menu. Have a craving for the Champps Cheese Burger? Supposedly, it serves two, but it does not come out sliced in half. If you eat the whole cheeseburger, it is 1162 calories with 78 grams of fat. Doubtless, the fries that come with the entrée were at least five hundred more calories. Hankering for their Cajun Shrimp Penne? It has 1322 calories and 73 grams of fat. Want a steak? The New York Strip is almost something of a health food, as it is only 1008 calories. However, if you are a woman that one steak is probably more than half your daily calories. Naturally, none of this information is actually printed on the menu. You have to dig it out from their website.

I suspect the human body does pretty well in adjusting to variations in diet. In the past, we would exercise off the calories through activities like hunting deer or tilling soil. Today, we have oriented our lives to minimize exercise. Why walk if you have a car? Why work in a hot and sweaty field for little money when you can sit in an air-conditioned cubicle and make much more? Today these choices catch up with us. They are manifested in many overweight or obese people in symptoms like excessive tiredness, listlessness and lower back pains. In my case, perhaps because I exercise regularly, they were manifested in high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which generally go unnoticed unless you look for them.

You are what you eat but who you are is a result of what your parents ate. This link goes on back until the dawn of time. Your particular chromosomes are a result of natural selection, and natural selection includes the eating choices of past generations. If you are childless but planning to be a mother, you are shaping the destiny of your children by your eating choices. If you are an overweight woman, you are more likely to give birth to a child who will grow up overweight. Moreover, that child is more likely to have more health issues than children born to healthy mothers who are of normal weight. Dads, you don’t escape either. You provide the sperm and the quality of your sperm is affected by your diet and exercise. Whether you even father a child may be a consequence of your weight. Studies show that obese men and women have a lower sex drive than people of normal weight, which is likely a result of many of them having adult diabetes. Aside from the listlessness that often accompanies obesity, obesity also tends to make you less attractive, making intercourse less likely.

There are no Surgeon General warnings on restaurant menus, like there are on cigarettes. There should be. As a public service our next surgeon general could insist that restaurant menus come with warnings like this: Warning: the surgeon general has determined that most of the entrees in this restaurant are dangerous to your health. Some restaurants have little icons to indicate items that are relatively healthy, i.e. low in calories and fat. Perhaps there should be easily understood icons next to each entrée. Perhaps a scull and crossbones would do the trick for entrees that are high in calories or fat. As a start, simply putting the number of calories, fat and dietary fiber per serving for all items on menus would be helpful.

I know now that eating out can be dangerous to your future you. So I eat out less and try to research restaurants before I got there to find entrees that are relatively healthy. Often there are no healthy entrees on the menu. Sometimes you can convert an entrée to something healthier by asking it to be cooked or served differently. For example, a baked potato is healthy, if you skip the sour cream. Eating the potato skin adds important nutrition. Restaurants could actually increase business if they emphasized their healthy entrees. A small Wendy’s chili, for example, is 190 calories and has 6 grams of fat and 5 grams of dietary fiber (doubtless from the beans). Almost everything Panera Bread serves is unhealthy, but their Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean soup is delicious and has 250 calories, 9 grams of fiber and just 2 grams of fat.

The reality is you must be a very careful shopper if you wish to avoid packing on the calories. My guess is that four out of five products served in our modern supermarkets would not qualify as healthy food and that includes many of the products with “reduced fat” on them. If you care about your health, extreme vigilance is required.

I hope with our new administration and congress we will see new progressive legislation so Americans can easily make informed choices on restaurant eating. I bet the restaurant industry would adopt. McDonalds is trying, although their menu is still rife with calories and grease. Not only should all restaurant menus be labeled with their calorie and fat content, each restaurant menu should include a simple weight chart indicating the recommended daily calorie and fat allowances for men and women of various ages and weights. Except in a few cities and states, right now we diners have the odds stacked against us.

2 thoughts on “Eating out is hazardous to your health

  1. Thanks for this info! I am facing my first eating out since going on a diet. It is unavoidable as it involves a meeting but I had already done one of your suggestions and gone to the restaurant’s website and picked my dinner choice! Thanks again.

  2. P.S. Funny enough I am heading to Champps! I picked their Cobb Salad with a hold on the olives and bleu cheeses, half serving on cheddar cheese and hold the garlic buttered roll. How does that sound?

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