Tseng explains, “Japanese cuisine is generally lighter and lower in fat content. However, consumers must keep in mind that it may be higher in sodium. Like many Asian cuisines, Japanese cuisine uses soy sauce in addition to salt to flavor the food.” Tseng suggests using half of your normal intake of soy sauce if low-sodium soy sauce isn’t available. Look for high-nutrient menu items such as edamame, miso soup, or soba (buckwheat) noodles.
“Spices commonly used in Indian cuisine are known to be high in antioxidants. However, they use quite a bit of salt to enhance the flavors. Some regions of Indian cuisines also use full-fat yogurt,” says Tseng. She suggests choosing non-creamy curries when eating out in an Indian restaurant. Nutritionist Sheela Prakash gives further advice: “Though most people think saag paneer is healthy because it’s spinach, it’s actually super unhealthy because it’s made with cream. Choose tandoori chicken over chicken tikka. Both are spiced with the same red spice mix, but tikka comes in a red cream sauce while tandoori is more of a dry rub.”
Though rice, beans, and tortillas may sound healthy, Americanized Mexican cuisine throws in heavy amounts of saturated fat. “Be aware that beans in Mexican cuisine may contain hidden fats, as they are mostly refried beans,” warns Tseng. Stick to black beans instead, and cut back on sour cream and guacamole. Healthy fats can be found in Mexican cuisine as well — green molé sauce contains nutrient-rich ingredients such as pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, and chiles.
Though the “French paradox” seems to hold true — eating butter, cheese, and foie gras to their hearts’ content while remaining svelte — this doesn’t mean that French food sets the bar for healthy eating when dining out. Tseng reminds us that French cuisine is “known to have small delicate portions. The average American is not used to the small portion they see in French restaurants, and therefore tend to overeat by ordering more dishes."
"Stick with the small portions the restaurant provides,” Tseng advises. Additionally, stick to foods from the Southern region of France. Dishes like ratatouille or salade Niçoise are full of vegetables and healthy proteins, and use olive oil instead of butter as cooking fat.
Fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, pulled pork — soul food triggers images of dishes high in fat, sugar, and sodium. However, there are plenty of nutrient-rich options as well, though it might mean sticking to the sides. Consider making a meal out of dishes such as collard greens, red beans and rice, black-eyed peas, okra, or sautéed sweet potatoes, which are full of antioxidants and filling enough that you won’t miss the meat.
Chinese cuisine may contain hidden sodium and fat, and some dishes may be fried before being cooked in a sauce. Tseng suggests, “Stick with steamed dishes if possible. Stay away from thick, heavy sauces (particularly brownish sauces) to reduce sodium intake. Ask for brown rice instead of white rice to increase fiber in the meal, and cut rice portions in half. Chinese cuisine has a good variety of different vegetables in addition to broccoli and bok choy if you are daring enough to try them!”
Pasta has a surprisingly low fat content, but it’s important to stick with red, clam, or meatless marinara sauces in order to steer clear from saturated fat. Though not always easy to find, depending on which Italian restaurant you choose, farro is a traditional Italian grain that’s a healthy alternative to rich pasta dishes. Farro is a whole grain rich in fiber and vitamins, and it makes a delicious risotto.
A lot of eating out in American restaurants is about planning — choosing to fill up on lighter foods like salad or soup first, or sharing large portions with friends. Prakash notes other tips, like choosing different types of meat for burgers. "Bison is actually super lean and good for burgers. Turkey or chicken burgers are also good options. Replace fries with a baked sweet potato or sweet potato fries.”
Even though spanakopita (spinach pie), dolmades (stuffed grape leaves,) or Greek salad seem healthy, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), some Greek dishes can contain as many calories as a Big Mac. The CSPI recommends choosing kebabs (roasted lean cuts of lamb or pork), getting your dolmades stuffed with rice only, and asking for feta and dressing on the side of your salad.
Seafood is full of omega-3s and is said to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and stroke. But eating out in a seafood restaurant still presents its challenges — certain species of fish contain high levels of mercury and PCBs, and not every fish comes from a healthy source. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommends albacore tuna, Alaskan salmon, and shellfish such as oysters and mussels as the best choices for human health.