Eating Out This Holiday Season (and the Rest of the Time Too)

I think without exception, all of the whole food plant-based doctors recommend against eating out. As we are all aware, restaurant food can be loaded with salt, sugar, oils, fats and some chemicals. It's what makes that food taste so darn good. Restaurants are in the business of selling food and that means finding ways for it to be more attractive to us than eating at home is. Of course, a big attraction is not having to prepare the meal or cleaning up afterwards. But after that, taste is the big attraction. Restaurants want to give their foods a taste that will keep us eating more and drinking more. That's the business they are in.

Many of us though have lives that mean going out to eat. It could be part of the lifestyle that we are used to and want to maintain. But it could also be that we work and find ourselves going out with clients a lot or being too tired to make a meal at the end of the work day. Others go out to be with friends or family and to socialize. There are a whole host of reasons to go out to eat. And it seems that during the holiday seasons, there become even more reasons for going out to eat.

So, what to do? I think the best defense is always knowledge. The more knowledge that you have the better. You may choose to break the rules when you go out to eat, and I'll admit that I do break the rules sometimes when I go out to eat, but at least, with knowledge, you are aware of what you are doing. And that gives you the power to make a choice. Without that knowledge, the restaurant is making the choice for you. You may order a white bean and kale soup thinking that you're ordering vegan, not knowing all the while that the broth the restaurant is using is a chicken broth. You might order a bean burger never realizing that the bean burger used eggs as a binder. Without that knowledge, the restaurant is making the decision for you. With the knowledge, you may still decide to order the bean burger, but at least you are the one making the decision and not the restaurant.

The good news is, I think more and more restaurants are willing to work with their patrons who want to eat healthier fare. Not all will, but many will. I always suggest letting the restaurant know how you eat and then asking if the chef can come up with something for you. Oftentimes, that will get you closer to a good meal that is whole food, plant-based then trying to piece something together off of the menu. The chefs, by the way, love the challenge. It gives them a chance to be creative, do something good and show off their talents. And the presentation usually turns out to be such that others at your table will find themselves looking at your food and wishing they had ordered that. And then that becomes an opportunity to talk about how you eat. You never know who might be influenced by that.

Mary McDougall, wife of Dr. John McDougall, has a presentation that she does at the McDougall Advanced Studies weekends in Santa Rosa, CA. For good insight on how to order in restaurants and what to watch out for, it's a good video to watch. It can be watched here. I like her title, Dining Out When You Must. She doesn't view dining out as the norm. She views it as the exception. While that of course is the ideal, there are many people who can't meet that ideal. I think her advice is doubly important for them.

Following is a summary that can help in eating out. It contains information that is in Mary's hour long video. But you're not going to watch an hour long video every time you plan to go out. Here, you can print this out and use this when going to the different types of restaurants. This is based on my own personal knowledge and experience plus a few additional tidbits that I picked up from Mary McDougall as well.

Plant-Based Restaurants

These restaurants include both vegan restaurants and the more healthy restaurants that are truly based on eating whole plant foods as opposed to vegan processed foods. I think it's important to distinguish between the two because some vegan restaurants serve highly processed, highly oiled processed foods. Those are not healthy in my opinion. And in fact, I've heard Jeff Novick say that some of the unhealthiest restaurant food comes from vegan restaurants. I try to avoid those restaurants.

But I am always delighted to find a good plant-based restaurant that serves food that's prepared from whole plants. We have a few in my local area; one of which is Pure Natural Market on Hilton Head Island. I took Dr. Greger there when he was in town and he loved the restaurant and the food. And it's so good, that it was voted by readers of the local newspaper to be the No. 1 favorite lunch spot in the local area. It shows that people can find real food to be delicious.

In restaurants like Pure, I don't worry about the food I am eating. The owners are members of Palmetto Plant Eaters, our local PlantPure Nation pod, and they know about eating whole food, plant-based. But if going to restaurants that are vegan but less so WFPB, then I try to avoid fake meats and cheeses and I try to be more aware of the use of oil and what ingredients are being used to maybe make some of the sauces.

Asian Restaurants

Most of the time when I'm meeting someone for a meal in the local area, I arrange it so as to eat at Saigon Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant. Two other regular favorites of mine are Fujiyama, a Japanese restaurant and Ruan Thai, a Thai restaurant.

I know most of my readers don't live in this local area, so why do I mention these three restaurants? The reason is because Asian restaurants offer some of the best ways to stay eating on a whole food, plant-based way. As a result, when I'm traveling, I will usually look for an Asian restaurant if I can't find a good plant-based restaurant. The next alternative might be a Mexican restaurant, which I will discuss more about below. I used to also look for farm-to-table restaurants because they often had good fresh vegetable dishes for their main courses. But it seems like more and more farm-to-table restaurants these days are focused primarily on meat as opposed to veggies. I'm not sure exactly how that qualifies as farm-to-table since it involves a slaughterhouse in between, but I guess that's another story.

The nice thing about Asian restaurants is the dishes are generally vegetable focused with just small amounts of meat. That is, meat is not the main event like it is in so many other places. And even better, I've never been in an Asian restaurant that didn't also offer tofu as an alternative to meat. So, in essence, every Asian restaurant is a vegan restaurant also. There's no dish you can get that you can't get with tofu as opposed to meat. Right away, that makes life easier. Just be sure to ask for the tofu to be boiled or steamed as opposed to fried.

And there are usually things like spring rolls or papaya salads that can be gotten for appetizers. Even if spring rolls say they come with pork or shrimp, they can almost always be ordered as vegetarian. After all, a good restaurant will be making the spring roll for you. It's just as easy for them to make the spring roll with vegetables as it is with meat. So, don't be afraid to ask if you don't see a vegetarian option on the menu. Just make sure that you are ordering spring rolls and not egg rolls. Egg rolls are fried and are not healthy.

Some of my favorite foods in Asian restaurants are sushi in Japanese restaurants and miso soup in Vietnamese restaurants. Like spring rolls, sushi can be made vegetarian. In fact, sushi is popular in all parts of Japan, not just along the coast. In the inner parts of Japan, sushi is made with vegetables and not with fish. So, again, if you don't see it on the menu ask. Also, regarding sushi (and other dishes ordered in Asian restaurants), white rice often predominates. But more and more Asian restaurants are offering brown rice, black rice or red rice. Those are worth looking for. Regarding the miso soup, it is often pre-made in broth containing fish. But as Mary McDougall points out, it can usually be asked to be made fresh for you using a pot of boiling water.

As with any restaurant, be careful about the salt, oils and sugars used as well. Many Asian dishes can be high in sodium, particularly if they contain soy sauce or tamari. Main courses can be sautéed in oil. But again, a simple request to have it sautéed in vegetable broth can fix that. And Chinese buffets, which I personally tend to avoid, oftentimes use sugar to improve the tastiness of the food.

Mexican Restaurants

Next after healthy plant-based restaurants and Asian restaurants, my choice will be Mexican. Here, I tend to think of beans and rice and bowls. I love Mexican food and it's easy to order healthy versions of it.

Chipotle is a "go to" restaurant for me when I'm traveling on the interstate. By the way, Subway, which I'll get to below, is my other "go to" option when traveling on the interstate. The point being, there are fast food options other than the big names we always think of. Or at least always used to think of.

At Chipotle, I get a vegetable salad bowl with lettuce on the bottom, then brown rice topped with black beans and grilled veggies, pico de gallo, medium or hot salsa, corn salsa, guacamole and cilantro. I will usually ask for a double helping of the black beans and the rice. You could argue with the guacamole and I did not get that for a long time, but our doctors do say that avocado is a good fat and that you do need some fat with your meals for nutrient absorption. So, that's what I do now. You don't have to of course.

But ordering a bowl in a Mexican restaurant is easy to do and it's always good. Just explain to the server what ingredients you want the bowl built with. Also let the server know that you don't want any cheese or sour cream. Too often, they will put both on the food, even when it's not mentioned on the menu or even though you didn't ask for it. I've found they will always take the food back if put on, but it's better to explain upfront that you don't want sour cream or cheese.

Sit-down Mexican restaurants will usually bring chips and salsa to start off with. And even at Chipotle, you can get a bag of these chips and some salsa. Don't do it. Even if they are said to be baked, they will be fried. They're just baked before they're fried. Instead, do as Mary McDougall says, and order soft corn tortillas, which are almost always oil-free. Note that the same is not true with flour tortillas though, so stick with the corn tortillas.

Also, always select black beans. Everybody loves refried beans, but refried beans are killers when it comes to fat. And pinto beans are often cooked in pork. So, stick with whole black beans. They're good and they're good for you.

If you are a real stickler about being vegan, then you may not be able to eat in a Mexican restaurant since many of them use chicken broth to make their rice. But if you are whole food, plant-based for health reasons, Dr. T Colin Campbell has said "Don't sweat the small stuff" when it comes to things like that.

I'll add that even as a vegan, I'm not overly concerned about that though for two good reasons. First, no chicken is killed for the broth. The chicken is killed for the meat it provides. Using the leftover carcass to make broth is just efficiently using the entire chicken, which if you are going to kill an animal for food, then in my opinion, the maximum benefit should be gotten out of that animal. It would be wasteful to do otherwise. The second reason I'm not concerned is PETA itself on its website says to not be concerned over things like that. It says that when we get too strict about things like that then all we do is discourage restaurants from even trying to do better. So, without getting into any arguments over that, that's my position as well.

Sandwich Restaurants

As I mentioned, Subway is a "go to" restaurant when traveling on the interstate. And I just discovered a new place called Which Wich that also offers vegetarian and vegan sandwiches and wraps. While I would not eat at these places on a regular basis, mainly because I try to avoid floured products, an occasional stop when traveling and nothing else is available can be worthwhile.

The rules are easy. Order the whole wheat or whole grain bun or wrap when available. Ask that the sandwich be filled with lots of greens (spinach) to start with and then lots of veggies. Instead of putting mayo, ketchup or oil on the sandwich, ask for mustard or vinegar instead. And skip the fries or chips of course. Most sandwich places will offer at least a small side salad that can accompany the sandwich. Do that instead if a side dish is desired. Or eat an apple when you get back out to your car.

Pizza Parlors

A close kin to the sandwich restaurant is the pizza parlor. While I love pizza, I hardly ever stop at these places. One reason is the crust is flour again and another reason is I tend to eat the whole pizza. In other words, I over indulge. Coming back from this past year's vegan cruise, my traveling companion and I stopped for pizza in Ormond Beach and between the two of us, both WFPB eaters, we managed to wolf down three entire pizzas. And that was after a week of eating gourmet plant-based foods on the vegan cruise! Not good! Well, actually it was good!

My main suggestions are about pizza: Order a whole wheat crust and ask for it without cheese. Skip the fake cheeses. No cheese is just as good. And finally, order it by the slice if you can. Looking at a whole pizza sitting in front of you can be just too tempting. At least it is for me.

American Restaurants

These restaurants can include everything from steak houses to seafood restaurants to farm-to-(slaughterhouse-to)-table restaurants, diners, fine dining establishments, comfort food restaurants, southern restaurants and more. I've been in these sometimes where the only thing I could order was baked potato. Would you believe they didn't even have a vegetable I could order? In such cases, I've been known to order as many as three baked potatoes for a main course and then add salsa or mushrooms or beans or whatever I can find on the menu as a topping.

It can help to call the restaurant before going. As mentioned above, the chefs may be able to prepare something specifically for you if you let them know how you eat. And if they do, I guarantee you that you'll be the envy of the table.

Otherwise, look at what you can piece together from the menu. Think vegetable side dishes, rices and potatoes and steak or seafood toppings. Sometimes a steak topping can be a great topping for rice to make your own idea of a main course. The possibilities are there. I like to study the menu before going. That way, I've had time to thoroughly review and decide on all the options. Plus, then my attention is on the people I'm with and the table conversation as opposed to having my face buried in the menu.

Other Restaurants

There are many other restaurant types not mentioned here. For example, Ethiopian is a favorite food of mine. Other restaurants not mentioned here include Italian and Indian restaurants. Mary McDougall does a good job talking about them (and not recommending either) in her video linked to above. If you're interested in either, then I strongly suggest watching her video. You may still go, as I do from time to time, but at least you'll know what you're up against.

I hope that as we get into the full swing of the holiday season, you've found this to be useful information. Many of you, I'm sure, know even more about this subject than I do. But for those who don't, I wanted to offer what information I had on this.


J Lanning Smith
November 26, 2017