Fat Trap: Olive Oil for Dipping
While EVOO is heart healthy, most people go overboard, soaking up as much as a tablespoon — or 119 calories' worth — with each chunk of bread, says Marissa Lippert, RD, the owner and head chef of Nourish Kitchen + Table in New York City. "Dunk a couple of slices in oil and you could end up consuming 400 calories before your meal arrives."
Fix: Drizzle a little olive oil onto a small plate and add balsamic vinegar to dilute the fat and pump up the flavor. Or — surprise! — use butter. Cornell University researchers found that folks who spread it on their bread consumed 21 percent fewer calories per slice than those who chose olive oil. Butter eaters, however, consumed more bread, so cut yourself off after one piece.
Fat Trap: Chopped Salads
These can seem light compared with the other items on the menu at chain restaurants. "But because everything is so finely diced, way more fits in the bowl," explains Lippert, who says that chopped salads can contain upwards of 700 calories. "And the pieces are usually so small, you can't always tell what you're eating, which is crucial in terms of satiation."
Fix: Order a regular tossed salad instead. If you're building your own at the salad bar, add no more than five toppings and avoid crispy Chinese noodles, dried fruit and other high-calorie options. Either way, get your dressing on the side, along with a few lemon wedges or vinegar. Both make a little vinaigrette go a long way, according to Hope Warshaw, RD, the author of Guide to Healthy Restaurant Eating.
Fat Trap: Sweet Potato Fries
Yes, sweet potatoes are a superfood, but when cut into strips and deep-fried they're, well, fries. Plus, many restaurants overdo it on the salt to balance out the vegetable's natural sweetness, bringing the sodium count to a whopping 800 milligrams, as opposed to 40 milligrams for regular fries.
Fix: Gram for gram, sweet potato fries contain about the same number of calories as regular fries. But because it has more fiber, calcium and vitamin A, the sweet potato type is your better bet, says Pamela M. Nisevich Bede, RD, the author of Pocket Posh Dining Out Calorie Counter. The key is to keep portions in check: Eat only a handful and share the rest with a friend.
Fat Trap: Small Plates
Just because there's less food on each plate doesn't mean that you'll consume fewer calories. "When you're sharing a bunch of tapas, it's easy to lose track of how much you've eaten," says Rachel Berman, RD, the director of health for About.com. "Psychologically, you don't feel full the way you do after finishing a regular meal off a single plate." Plus, many tapas are fried or drowned in oil, which can push their calorie count past 600.
Fix: When we order tapas, most of us end up with at least one dish too many," says Brian Wansink, PhD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the author of Slim by Design. Stick to two or three small plates per person and include protein, vegetables, and carbs. "Making it a balanced meal will help you feel more satisfied," Berman notes.
Fat Trap: Veggie Entries
You know that eggplant Parm isn't waistline-friendly. But veggie mains that sound as if they're virtuous can also be bad news. "Eggplant stacks, for example, are usually layered with around five ounces of mozzarella, which will cost you 425 calories and 30 grams of fat," Berman says. Also, chefs tend to use more oil in vegetable dishes to make up for the missing fat in the main ingredient, says Jason Harrison, the executive chef of the Four Seasons Resort and Residences in Vail, Colorado.
Fix: Stick to veggie entries made with vegetables like cauliflower, sweet potatoes and parsnips, which absorb less fat than eggplant and mushrooms do, Berman says. And ask your server exactly how the vegetables have been prepared. Grilled and roasted are good, says Annie Somerville, the executive chef of Greens restaurant in San Francisco. So are soups with a vegetable-broth base, like minestrone.
Fat Trap: Grain Mains
Farro, barley, and bulgur — the hottest new salad ingredients since kale — are good sources of protein and fiber. But the ratio of grains to veggies is often way out of whack, Berman says. "These dishes are listed as salads, but in terms of carbs and calories, they're on a par with a plate of pasta," she explains.
Fix: Grain salads tend to keep well for at least a couple of days, so eat half and save the rest for later, Berman advises. Or ask the waiter to bring out half your order served over mixed greens, and have the remainder boxed up.
Fat Trap: Gluten-Free Desserts
"It's a common misconception that gluten-free automatically means healthy," says Rachel Begun, RD, a dietitian in Boulder, Colorado. In fact, gluten-free desserts are often just as decadent — or even more so — than their gluten-containing counterparts. That's because some pastry chefs use extra sugar or fat to offset changes in taste and texture, while others use dense nut flours, which are more caloric than the grain variety. Almond flour, for instance, has about 50 calories more per quarter cup than white flour.
Fix: "A piece of cake is a piece of cake, whether it's gluten-free or not," Begun says. "It's a treat that should be savored, since mindfulness can help you slow down and eat less." If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, look for naturally gluten-free treats such as meringue and sorbet, which tend to be lighter than baked goods.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2014.