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 Eat @ Joe's

THE LOWDOWN
ON LOW-CARB DINING


BY JOEL ANN REA

March 4, 2004 -- Chances are you're watching your carbohydrate intake these days. After all, estimates suggest that as many as 30 million Americans have recently jumped on the low-carb diet bandwagon. Low-carb diet programs such as Atkins, South Beach, The Zone and Sugarbusters all have their avid proponents.

The travel industry has noticed. Hotels and restaurant chains, as well as many independent operators nationwide, are weighing in with low-carb menu options.

Hilton Hotels recently announced that about 1,250 Hampton Inns would add low-carb breakfast items like salsa wraps to its complimentary hot morning meal. Holiday Inn, which serves more than 25 million breakfasts annually, also recently added low-carb choices to its morning menu. Loews Hotels offers low-carb options to its diners and the chain says that 25 percent of its guests request such menu items on a regular basis. Doubletree Hotels ensures that low-carb items are featured on menus and offered during refreshment breaks for conference attendees. And Omni Hotels added low-carb dining to its Ideal Living program, a comprehensive guest wellness initiative, back in 2001.

Among restaurant chains, you'll find low-carb, Atkins-licensed menu items at TGI Friday's and Subway and low-carb "friendly" items at Ruby Tuesday, Chili's, Hardee's, Blimpie and Burger King. Applebee's has resisted the low-carb trend, but recently announced a partnership with Weight Watchers to help patrons adopt a healthy eating lifestyle.

But how do you navigate a menu that's not designed with low-carb eating in mind--especially if you're on the go, running to catch flights, make meetings, deliver proposals or otherwise take care of business?

If you're counting carbohydrate grams, you'll want to do some homework before hitting the road. Arm yourself with information about dishes that offer a specific number of net carbs. Several diet-specific and other sites feature carbohydrate counters, including this one, which lists popular fast-food items and links to fast food-chain nutritional information. If you'll be joining colleagues or clients for a business meal, you can avoid a lengthy personal discussion tableside by calling ahead to inquire about the day's specials that best fit your carb requirements.

If you're trying to choose "smart carbs" as part of a healthy diet--as I'm doing as a fledgling convert from carbohydrate queen to South-Beach-diet-success-story wannabe--you'll want to limit your intake of processed flour, sugar and starchy vegetables. Just say no to the bread basket and reach for your water glass instead. In lieu of potatoes, most restaurants will let you substitute a green salad or an extra portion of vegetables. At breakfast, you can request sliced tomatoes, cottage cheese or some of the veggies that they use in omelet fillings, such as diced peppers, onions and mushrooms.

Some dishes may harbor unexpected carbohydrates. For example, flour and breadcrumbs are often used to help thicken sauces and soups or to prepare meat, fish and poultry for cooking. These include stews, chowders, bisques, meatballs, meatloaf, breaded cutlets and, well, you get the idea. Choose clear, broth-based soups and cooking methods such as poaching, steaming or broiling to steer clear of unwanted flour.

Sauces and marinades may also contain hidden sugar, so try to avoid those with "honey" or "sweet and sour" names. Opt for mustard instead of ketchup on that bread-less "sandwich." Salad dressings can be similar offenders: The best choice is oil and vinegar. Have the server check with the chef if you're unsure. You can also ask for sauce or dressing on the side. That enables you to sample the dressing without going overboard.

Beverages can add to your carb intake as well. Try to kick the full-sugar soda habit. Work instead to drink those eight or more glasses of water daily. Juice of all kinds is delicious, but watch the serving size carefully. It's easy to guzzle more than you should at a breakfast buffet or in a full-service dining room with freely pouring waiters. At a cocktail reception, sparkling water is always a good choice, although a wine spritzer or low-carb beer--quiz the server or check the bottle label to be sure--could also fit into your regime.

When choosing room service, I order green salads with dressing on the side, grilled chicken or fish and a large side of steamed vegetables. And be sure to ask for lemon slices or salsa and cracked black pepper; they can do wonders to perk up a less-than-appetizing entrée. For a late-night meal, I'll skip the salad. If the mini-bar is calling to me, I try to see only the bottled waters, diet sodas and, in a pinch, a handful of the mixed nuts. I'll reserve the rest of the nuts for breakfast on the fly or a mid-day snack between meetings.

Having cuisine-specific choices in mind prior to ordering while you're on the road can also help keep things under control.

At an Italian restaurant, I'll start with insalata Caprese or a salad lightly tossed with balsamic vinaigrette. When others are indulging in pasta, I'll choose grilled fish and a side of garlicky broccoli rabe. In a Chinese restaurant, I'll start with lettuce wraps if they are offered, then select leafy green vegetable dishes and brown rice. With a Mexican menu, I'll start with ceviche (ask if they have sliced jicama instead of chips to go with the guacamole), then order steamed fish in banana leaves or chicken mole and discard the chicken skin. If it's a Tex-Mex spot, I'll order steak or chicken soft tacos and leave most of the tortilla. I'll request lettuce and salsa instead of rice and beans. At an Indian restaurant, I stick to basics such as tandoori chicken or chicken tikka and jasmine rice and I try not to covet the next table's samosas and pakoras. When it's a pizza joint, I have been known to order sides of salad and broccoli. Generally, however, I'll have one or two slices heaped with mushrooms, onions and whatever other veggies they offer as toppings.

Increasingly, online restaurant guides are adding "low-carb friendly" info to dining reviews. For example, Seattle City Search features some upscale, casual spots and take-out joints that are Pacific Northwest choices for low-carb fare. Personal sites with low-carb dining tips and restaurant recommendations abound, too. At Low Carb Luxury, for example, you can search by state for low-carb dining spots recommended and submitted by readers.

What have I found to be most important as I attempt to live a smart-carb life? As with any positive change you're trying to make in your life, curb the impulse to indulge just because you're traveling. Life on the road is synonymous with life for many of us, so do for eating what you'd do for business: Plan ahead, stick to your plan and, whenever necessary, ask lots of questions.

The good news? To paraphrase New York, New York, if you can make healthy eating work for you while traveling, you can make it work anywhere.

This column originally appeared at joesentme.com.

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joel Ann Rea. All rights reserved.