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Eating Out, the South Beach Way

Share This article - Because this diet is designed to be practical and user-friendly, it's easy to stick to the rules even if you dine out often.

This is not usually the case for weight-loss plans, which is why it was so important to us that the South Beach Diet work no matter who does the cooking. The dining-out dilemma was especially painful for people on low-fat regimens. You either had to give the waitstaff the third degree -- What are the chicken breasts sautéed in? What exactly is in the vinaigrette? -- or you had to bring your own food and hope no one objected. Even if they didn't, there was something sad about seeing healthy adults hovering over their Tupperware containers while their tablemates enjoyed fine dinners.

The overall trend in restaurant food over the past few decades has been toward healthy and fresh. Olive oil is now an American staple. Every day it seems we read more about the benefits of certain fish. Menus include lots of grilled items and few that are fried. As a result, it's not hard to eat out when you're on the South Beach Diet.

Of course, you still have to watch what you're doing, but eating out is a good time to indulge in the things you love most, if only because doing so makes it a little easier to be moderate the rest of the time. There are a few strategies, many of which we've learned from patients, that can help you eat wisely even when you're on the town.

Here's a simple one: Eat something 15 minutes before you arrive at the restaurant. Just a little snack-a protein of some kind. A piece of low-fat cheese is good because you can carry it in your handbag or briefcase. It will begin the process of filling you up so that when it's time to order, you won't do so while feeling ravenous.

I recommend this also because it will help you get beyond the most treacherous part of any restaurant meal: the bread basket. Typically, you arrive, you're hungry, and there it is-fresh, perhaps warm and fragrant, and loaded with bad carbs. It won't really do much to satisfy your hunger, but it will jolt your bloodstream with glucose and set you up for reactive hypoglycemia and cravings for the rest of the evening.

Many people on the diet take the preemptive measure of telling the waiter to skip the bread basket altogether, which is a great idea as long as your fellow diners don't mind. If they do, you can always ask them to take their bread, then banish the basket.

Here's another good idea for the moment you arrive: Order soup, preferably a clear broth or consommé. The point of this, besides being filling, is that it extends your eating time. That's a good idea because there's a lag between when your belly begins to fill and when your brain notices it -- maybe 20 minutes, the experts say. This fact explains why it's so easy to reach the point where you feel uncomfortably stuffed. Today, when speed is valued in both the preparation and the consumption of food, this is a danger. We eat so fast that we zoom right by the point of satiety and keep feeding ourselves until all of a sudden, we feel like we'll explode.

Starting a meal with broth begins the process of satisfying your hunger and initiates the signals to your brain that you are on the road to fullness. Anything that takes the edge off your hunger now is good, because it will keep you from eating more than you really need in a little while, when the food arrives.

If you peeked inside the bread basket and found a piece of the good, whole grain variety, you may decide to indulge yourself. If you do, dip it in olive oil, which will slow down the absorption of starches and contribute to your feeling of fullness. Believe it or not, bread with oil or even a little butter is better for your diet than bread alone, despite the fact that you're adding calories.

Here's another tip: Go to restaurants serving Mediterranean-style food. I don't just mean Italian -- in fact, Italian restaurants can be dangerous because of how pasta and bread tend to dominate the meal. I'm thinking of Greek and Middle Eastern food. These are cuisines that employ lots of olive oil, which is always a plus. You can have hummus (paste made from chickpeas) on pita bread, which is a big improvement over white bread and butter, and it's more flavorful, too. You'll find good, whole grains such as tabbouleh and couscous, which take the place of potatoes or rice. And usually, these cuisines rely on spices and condiments rather than sweeteners to make the dishes taste good.

And if you do go Italian, try and structure the meal the way they do in Italy -- in courses, with a modest serving of al dente pasta topped with a healthy tomato sauce, followed by a main course of meat or fish and fresh vegetables, including either leafy green ones like escarole or spinach or crucifers like broccoli, plus a salad dressed in olive oil. In Italy, you don't sit down in front of a huge dish of pasta with a bottomless bread basket and call it dinner. That's why Italians can eat pasta twice a day and not suffer the obesity rates we see in the United States. In many restaurants here you can request a half-order of pasta as your appetizer. If you try this you'll see that it satisfies. It's important to eat enough good fats (the entrée and the olive oil) and good carbs (the vegetables and the salad) to counter the starches in the pasta.

We all tend to assume that restaurants serving Asian food are healthy. The various Asian national diets tend to be heavy on fish and vegetables, light on heavy meats or sweets. But that's not always the case in Asian restaurants in America. One major difference is portion size -- we are accustomed to a lot more food on our plates. And because everybody hates waste, we tend to finish what's there. Another significant difference is in the rice. Asians have always used the whole grain, including the fiber, and your digestive system has to work to get at the starch. In this country, and increasingly in many Asian cities, a more processed variety of white rice is used. That change substantially increases the glycemic load of a meal.

Something else you may not realize: MSG, the flavoring agent, is made from beets, which are a healthy vegetable but have a very high glycemic index. They're loaded with sugar, in other words, though it is disguised fairly well in your average Chinese take-out dinner.

Stay away from rice or potatoes in any restaurant. Order a double serving of the vegetables instead. And never order anything that's fried. Roasted, broiled, braised, baked, steamed, even sautéed -- all right. If there's a sauce, ask for it on the side. That doesn't mean you won't have any, but I guarantee that you'll be satisfied using half of what they would have ladled on.

As for drinks, start with water as soon as you're seated, but feel free to have a glass or two of red wine (which is actually good for your health and not terribly fattening). Avoid white wine, spirits, or, worst of all, beer.

For dessert, don't be too hard on yourself. If you eat out four times a week you need to say no most of the time; but if it feels like a special event, make the most of it. If fresh fruit would do the trick, have that. If fruit with ice cream is what you need, that's fine, too. You can ask for them in separate dishes and make your own dessert, using 3 teaspoons of ice cream topped by the fresh fruit. If only the most decadent chocolate cake will suffice, go ahead and order it -- along with enough forks for everyone at the table. Have three bites only and eat them as slowly as possible. Then send the rest away with the first passing busboy. Try this experiment at home: Have three bites of any dessert, then stop and put the rest aside for a few minutes. You'll see that it was just as satisfying as eating the whole thing. And you'll still respect yourself in the morning.

Of course, all this presupposes that you're eating in a normal, sit-down restaurant. But the fact is that most American dining out these days is done in fast-food places. It's hard to think of any strategy that might actually help that situation. Everything seems to conspire to deliver the worst meal possible, at least from our perspective.

Start by eliminating all the main attractions. No burgers (too many saturated fats in the meat and the cooking oil, too many carbs in the bun). No fish, either, since the breading and the cooking method make it even more fattening than the burger. No fries (the worst part of the meal from the glycemic index point of view, both the potatoes and the ketchup). No soda, which is pure sugar rush. Look at how fast-food restaurants emphasize their worst fare-even the offer to "supersize" is simply a way to sell you excessive amounts of the cheapest part of the meal, the soda and fries. The emphasis in fast food is on big, sweet, fat, and fast -- everything that has made obesity such a problem in America today.

If you can visit a fast-food restaurant and limit yourself to salad (with oil and vinegar instead of any other dressing) and plain grilled chicken breast (in the places that serve it), accompanied by water or coffee, you can do all right. Chicken nuggets or fried chicken are bad news. Like the fish, they're a lot of deep-fried bread over a little meat, all of which has been cooked in a trans fatty substance. Otherwise, you can't really eat at these places and follow any sort of healthful diet. That's no surprise, is it?

My South Beach Diet

JUDITH W.: I WENT DOWN THREE DRESS SIZES, AND MY CHOLESTEROL IS DOWN, TOO. I've had high blood pressure and angina for many years, and heart trouble runs in my family. I had a triple bypass in 1990, and I was the baby in the cardiac ward. My mother had already had one, and my sister had one, too. A few years ago I needed a new cardiologist and I went to Dr. Agatston. The first thing he told me was that I had to lose weight, and since I weighed 172 at that time I knew he was right. He didn't tell me anything I didn't know. But he gave me the inspiration and he suggested this diet.

I cut out all of the carbs that I was supposed to cut out, and the sugar, too. They told me not to buy no-fat, because that just meant the foods were higher in sugars. But I did buy 2% milk and low-fat cheeses. Before I went on the diet, I never ate breakfast. But I would snack in the evening. I never snacked on sweets; it was always fruit or pretzels. I always ate baked potatoes, but never with butter, because I thought potatoes were all right. I'd have french fries whenever I wanted. Of course, I had a roll with my hamburger. I was trying to eat sensibly, but I wasn't really killing myself at it. And slowly but surely, I gained a lot of weight. I was in a panic when I started the diet, because I had never looked that big in my life. Never.

Once I got through the strict phase, I began adding back some carbs. But not many. I don't trust carbs. I'll eat whole wheat pasta, but just a small amount. Brown rice, too. That's about it. Cheerios. No potatoes at all -- only sweet potatoes. I bake them. I won't eat a whole potato, though -- half. Sugar-free jams or jellies, if necessary, but I don't have a sweet tooth, so I'm lucky. When I added the carbs back, I still kept losing weight. I will now, occasionally, have a sandwich made with stone-ground whole wheat bread-thin-sliced, if I can get it.

I lost 30 pounds over the course of maybe 6 months, and 3 years later I've kept it all off. I went down three dress sizes, and my cholesterol is down, too. My husband said it's the most expensive diet I ever went on, because I had to throw out all my clothes and start over. I'm an attorney, so I have a very expensive business wardrobe. And we go to a lot of nighttime functions, too. I love it. I finally have a great excuse for a whole new wardrobe now.

Reprinted from The South Beach Diet: The Doctor Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss by Arthur Agatston, M.D. © 2003 by Arthur Agatston, M.D. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold, or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit




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About The Author


Arthur Agatston is an American cardiologist best known as the developer of the South Beach Diet, but also the author of many published scholarly papers in the field of noninvasive cardiac diagnostics. His scientific research led to the Agatston Method and the Agatston Score for measuring coronary artery calcium.