Living in Hong Kong means you eat out…a lot. I generally keep my dining out to weekends as much as I can, but life doesn’t always go the way I want it to and I must make compromises. I generally don’t recommend eating out more than 5 times a week if you are looking to gain optimal control of your health, but that’s not always possible to fit in the busy lifestyle associated with a big metropolis.

So here are a few of the tricks I use ALL THE TIME. I travel quite a bit too, so get to practice these 10 new hacks to dining out and stay healthy regularly.

1. Find healthy friends

Who do you hang out with? Have you heard the saying, “You are the average of your five closest friends?”. They say, if your friends are drinkers, you’re also likely to drink. If you friends are rich, you are likely to be rich too. The same goes for having a healthy lifestyle. If you’re looking to get on the fast track to good health, take care of your inner circle and make sure you are under the right influence to reach your goals.

Long ago I established that I am the “healthy” one in my group of friends, so have weeded out the ones who are not so attracted to a healthy lifestyle. Dining out now is not a challenge, because anyone who is happy to dine out with me, is either 1. happy to eat out healthy. Or 2. could care less what I think and is confident enough with themselves to not be influenced by me. Either way works for me.

However, if your friends are still the party animals who like a few gin and tonics and pub food, you may want to seek out new friends (or dig up old ones) who are on the same path of wellness as you.

2. Choose the venue wisely

When someone proposes getting together for a meal I jump at the chance to recommend the venue where I know I will have a wide variety of choices. I have my favorites where I get the best selection of healthy foods to make things easier. If you’re ever in town, these are my favorite restaurants in Hong Kong.

As you start your journey to hack your age, you will find that there are some restaurants that are easier than others to stay healthy. Do a Google search for “healthy restaurants” in your area. A few other keywords to add to your restaurant search are “salad bar”, “grill”, “farm to table”, “healthy food”, “organic”, “seafood”. You can also add “vegan” or “vegetarian”, but be mindful of these places. I will tell you why below.

I like to classify the order of restaurants into three categories. Red light, yellow light and green light. We can still stay healthy at any of the restaurants no matter what category, but I find that green light restaurants have an abundance of healthy options and red light restaurants are the most challenging.

RED LIGHT – Avoid these types of restaurants

Fast food – too many deep fried foods, synthetic ingredients, low quality. Low selection of vegetables and plant-based foods.

Street food – too many deep fried foods, less hygienic, low quality, sauces that contain too much salt, sugar, chemicals and suspicious ingredients.

Chinese – too many sauces (high fat, high sugar, high salt, MSG), too much oil (dubious quality depending on restaurant), deep fried.

Indian – too many sauces (high fat, high sugar, high salt), disproportionate amount of high carb and high fat ingredients that tend to drown out fresh vegetables, protein and other plant based foods. Go for tikkas and grilled foods to bump up to green light position.

Vegetarian – may or may not be a good choice. Disproportionate amount of high carb and high fat foods to fresh vegetables, may include “fake healthy food” like burgers, hot dogs and chicken made of synthetic or poor quality ingredients.

YELLOW LIGHT – May or may not have healthy options

Thai – There’s Thai and then, there’s Thai. It all depends on the quality of the restaurant. Generally, Thai food in Thailand is fresh, with lots of vegetables, light on the sauce, low fat and low carb and a high proportion of vegetables to meat and fish. Outside of Thailand in the rest of the world, I have found Thai restaurants offering only deep fried spring rolls, white rice, pad thai with way too much added sugar and fresh salads destroyed by too much high sugar, high sodium dressing. Go for quality and authenticity when it comes to Thai restaurants.

Vietnamese – Same goes for Vietnamese as for Thai. See description for Thai food above.

American/Western – American or Western (Australian, European…) can also be super healthy or super unhealthy. Western restaurants that offer burgers, fries and hot dogs will be classified as “non-hack-my-age-able” and higher quality Western restaurants offering wild caught Alaskan salmon, more than two types of fresh salads or something made out of quinoa will be a total green light. You decide.

Mexican – Mexican food can go so right or so wrong. It all depends on the quality of the food. I will dare to say Taco Bell is a red light and Mexican fusion with more than one type of ceviche on the menu, will be a green light. Follow the ordering methods below.

Korean – Korean food is becoming more and more popular. I rarely eat meat and when I do, I like to be sure it is grass-fed/grass-finished. It’s because I simply don’t really like the taste and texture of meat. However, when I travel, I will taste about anything. When I traveled to Korea I learned 1. not all Asians drink tea and 2. Koreans love meat.

I turned into a carnivore for a week while I traveled and wondered why. I took a few lessons on Korean cooking and, lo and behold, sugar popped up time and again. No wonder I was so fond of meat that week. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, Korean is a red light cuisine. However, South Korea still often makes it to the top 10 countries of longest life expectancy, so there’s something here and Korean restaurants can make it to the green light too.

When going out for Korean food, stick to the grilled foods and go crazy on all the vegetable appetizers, especially the kimchi!

Vegan – Like most restaurants, vegan joints can be great or a total downer depending on the quality. If there is a lot of imitation food (fake burgers, fake shrimp…) it’s a red light. If you find lots of great salads, quinoa and ancient grain buddha bowls, and more than just pasta, pizza and rice, then it’s a green light.

Be mindful of vegan desserts. I have a real sweet tooth and indulge in vegan treats from time to time. When eating out, the objective of the restaurant is to make the food so tasty, you come back for more. If you’ve done any Google search for “healthy desserts” a vegan one will certainly pop up and you’ll understand why you keep going back for more. I love these recipes, because they use little or no refined sugar at all, based on dry fruits and nuts and rely on quality oils like coconut oil and avocados. That being said, just because something is good for you, doesn’t mean more is better. These treats we find in vegan restaurants and online, are loaded with sugar from dry fruit (aka adult candy) turning into an overload of carbohydrates, which convert into glucose. With the use of nuts, oils, seeds and avocados, the fat and calorie content may be more than what we expend. Yep, “calories in vs calories out” has been debunked…up to a certain point. Too many carbs and too many fats that are not burned in the body will be stored as fat no matter how healthy they are. Vegan treats are great. Just be mindful.

GREEN LIGHT – Has the most healthy options

Mediterranean – Italy, France and Spain are some of the regions of the Mediterranean we think of for Mediterranean cuisine. This, however, does not mean pizza, pasta, croissants and suckling pig. Green light restaurants don’t mean that you can choose anything on the menu. See my tips below for how to choose.

I put Mediterranean cuisine in a green light category when choosing a restaurant above the category of Pizza Hut and Delifrance. In Italy, yes, people do eat pizza and pasta, but it’s not the cornerstone of their diet and they eat a higher proportion of vegetables and meat than we think they do. In every restaurant a large salad is offered without dressing. It is up to us to control the amount of oil and vinegar that goes on.

The longest living people in the Mediterranean eat an abundance of vegetables, legumes, plants and seafood. They don’t eat a lot of processed food if any at all. It is for these types of fresh foods and the elimination of highly processed foods that Mediterranean is on my green light list.

Middle Eastern – There’s nothing like an Israeli breakfast buffet. Google it and you will understand. Middle Eastern cuisine may be Israeli, Lebanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Palestinian and more. They use an abundance of fresh and cooked vegetables, heart healthy olive oil, anti-inflammatory spices, high fiber legumes and a proportionate amount of meat and seafood. The cooking methods in most restaurants rely on grilling and steaming, so you will not find your dishes drowning in sauces, sugars and overloaded with salt. You should be able to find at least five different types of salads, grilled kebabs and easily ask for sauces on the side.

Japanese – Japanese makes the green light, but can also easily fall into red light category if you’re choosing monster sushi rolls, sugar coated eel, high fat tempura or noodle only dishes. What I like about Japanese food is that you also have lots of choices for grilled meats like teppanyaki (with little or no sauce) and fish. Sashimi is the best option to keep things as simple as possible. The only big downer of Japanese food is that it is high in sodium. Another reason sashimi is a good option. You get to control the amount of soy sauce to use. Japanese food is often served with sauces on the side and you can avoid these or use the fork dipping method (explained below).

Look out for Japanese restaurants that offer a variety of vegetables. I find too many Japanese restaurants that offer little to no vegetables and this kind irks me. That being said, most of the time you should be able to find edamame beans and some pickled vegetables. Be careful of the seaweed salad, though. The typical wakame seaweed salad tastes lovely, but usually loaded with sugar and preservatives.

Salad bars – Be careful a good thing doesn’t go sour by drowning your salad in dressing or choosing only the high fat/high carb potato or pasta salads. Keep in the green light zone by choosing a large base of spinach or other dark leafy green and load with fresh cabbage, celery, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, jicama and bell peppers. Add some healthy fats with a quarter or half an avocado, olive oil, goat cheese (if you tolerate dairy), seeds and nuts. Going for carbs? Choose quinoa, sweet potatoes or beans over the white pasta and white rice dishes. Many women my age (40 – 60) are putting way too many fats and carbs in their salad. We need to have both fats and carbs, but in proportionate amounts. If you’re having an avocado, goat cheese, tomato salad, then you may want to flip that around with about 2 – 4 cups of spinach and use the avocado, cheese, nuts and/or seeds as a gentle topping instead of the base.

Grill bars – It’s much easier to control the amount of salt, sugar, sauce and fats in grill restaurants. Just make sure the chef isn’t adding a big dollop of butter to an already fatty steak turning a green light option to a red light. Usually grill bars are just open flamed barbecues using meats, fish and vegetables that are marinated or soaked in age extending herbs and spices. Grill restaurants often have salad bars and are used to putting sauces on the side.

3. Check the menu before you go

When the venue is already pre-selected, check the menu online before you go. Nearly every restaurant these days has a website. Alternatively, find more details in Yelp.com or an equivalent such as Open Rice (Asia). Scan the menu to be sure there are healthy options for you. If you are stuck with a restaurant that has very little variety, consider having a snack or “light meal” before you go out.

I don’t always find the time to pre-scan the menu, so sometimes I will find myself without much choice in a restaurant. In these cases I prefer to intermittent fast than eat fried potato skins or pasta Alfredo. Once I get out of the restaurant I can pull out some snacks from my bag (you’d think I still have toddlers) or eat another small meal once I get home if I am still hungry.

4. Order like a rockstar (without being a bitch/A-hole)

There are three things to consider when ordering like a rockstar. Be polite. Translate the menu. Make special requests.

There’s nothing more annoying than someone who takes an hour to order and substitutes the sauce with a side of lobster. See this episode of The Goldbergs to get it. Well, I turned into THAT person…almost, but not quite.

via GIPHY

Most restaurants in the US are used to substitutions and menu changes, however once you leave the States, you find that waiters and chefs are not as tolerant. You’ll also find that at “finer dining establishments”, chefs may even be a little insulted (Ok, seriously insulted) to alter their creation that took them months if not years to create. Under these circumstances, you’ll have to use your better judgement to get what you need.

Most of the time I put a big smile on my face, apologize before hand for my “complicated” order and try to keep things as simple as possible. And most of the time I get a smile back and/or “I will check with the kitchen”. More and more people these days have allergies and intolerances, so restaurants even abroad are getting used to special requests. My most common requests are dressing/sauce on the side and leave out the fries/potatoes/noodles. 99% of the time I get an extra portion of vegetables.

My health is more important than what the waiter thinks of me, so I am now confident in how and what I request. Practice makes perfect. Just be polite and leave a good tip.

Cooking Methods

Pay attention to the cooking methods of your order and certain keywords on the menu to give you a clue to what your dish may consist of.

Stay away from these words:

–fried
–deep fried
–crispy
–crunchy
–barbecued
–creamy
–cheesy
–curry
–honey

Ask more about these words:

pan fried
stir fried

Order dishes with these words:

–baked
–broiled
–steamed
–braised
–raw
–fresh
–grilled
–in broth
–sautéed
–boiled

The problem often isn’t “the potato” (meat, cheese…), it’s the way that it is cooked. There is a big difference in the way your body will metabolize a french fry (not to mention the amount of added fat and calories from some dubious oils) and a boiled potato.

10 Health Benefits of Potatoes (SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN)

Image via: AHealthBlog

Dressing on the side

My most common request is to bring dressing/sauce on the side. There’s nothing worse than having a perfectly constructed nutrient dense salad or lovely piece of grilled fish drowning in a sea of sauce. 80% of the time I skip the sauce all together and use the “fork dipping method”. I dip my fork into the dressing or sauce and then stab my food to get the essence of the sauce. I prefer the taste of the actual food rather than the sauce and prefer to be in control of what goes in and how much.

No bread, thank you!

Have the waiter skip the bread, chips, crackers… It’s a great way to keep your appetite for the real food that is coming as well as save extra calories, fat, sugar and carbs that are simply not going to do anything for your gut.

5. Substitute

If you have allergies or intolerances, there is no question that you have to make substitutions. Be polite and kindly ask to remove the allergenic ingredient. If a waiter asks if I have an allergy, I just say yes. Really, who cares if it’s true or not.

Ditch the starch

Unless you’re really in the mood for those potatoes au gratin or in Italy with only one day to taste authentic penne pesto, then I’d rather skip the potatoes, pasta, rice and noodles. Most of my meals are high carb anyway that include a healthy amount of quinoa, lentils, fruit and other high carb foods that are more nutrient dense.

Noodle-less noodles

I love noodles, but I prefer buckwheat or konjac noodles to white flour noodles. When I go out for “pho” (Vietnamese noodle soup), Asian wok noodles, Thai noodle soup or other noodle/rice dish, I ask for it without the noodles or rice. Sometimes I get a funny look, but usually the chef figures they must put something in there instead and the cheapest option is more veg. If I see they have bean sprouts or enoki mushrooms, I ask them to put more of that instead…they look just like noodles!

Skip the wine, beer, alcohol…

Just drink water. Need I say more?

6. Operate

Sometimes we don’t always get our requests granted and our order still comes out with the extra sauce and the fatty steak. Or maybe we are with a group of friends for dim sum (Chinese dumplings) and don’t want to ruin the fun for everyone else. So what do we do? We pull out our tools (fork and knife) and start to operate.

–Remove the burger bun

If all that looks edible on the menu is a burger or a sandwich, eat it without the bun or bread. Ask for some lettuce leaves on the side and eat your meat Vietnamese style. Alternatively, eat an open burger by removing the top bun and just eating the bottom one.

–Open the wrap/sandwich

Sometimes I find myself at a Starbuck’s type cafe and there is nothing out there except a wrap or sandwich. In these cases I eat the insides (chicken, lettuce, tomato, onion, etc..) and chuck the white flour processed wrap or Wonder bread.

–Cut away fat, skin, breading

The worst is when you order something and it comes to you breaded and deep fried. In these cases I seriously get operating and pull off the breaded outside and eat the inside. If a steak or chicken comes out with the skin on (and it’s not organic) or full of fat, then it’s time to slice those pieces out and save room for something more nutritious.

–Scoop out insides

People think I am crazy sometimes, but when I go out for dim sum or dumplings, I usually try one (I have FOMO) and then get operating on the rest scooping out the delicious shrimp that’s been suffocating in a pillow of bland dough.

–Gently remove from sauces

When traveling abroad, there are more times than not, that something is lost in translation and food comes out with the sauce ANYWAY. This is when I just suck it in and gently remove the food from the sauce, dab it on my plate and enjoy as much as possible.

7. Respect Your Food

I have a whole new respect for my food and my body seems to be more satiated when I follow these rules:

–Put away electronics

These days we are glued to our phones, checking our emails and social media channels when we get a break from work or have some down time. And, unfortunately, our electronics get more attention and respect than our food. When I eat (even when alone) I put away the phone, turn off the TV, put the book down and stay away from the computer. These are distractions from what I should really be doing – enjoying my food!

–Be mindful

Before I take my first bite, I take a deep breath to slow down, look at the colorful array of vegetables and meat on my plate, smell the flavors that have been cooked inside or freshly cut and I try to give thanks to every person who has been in charge of getting this nutritious meal to me. Taking the time to pay attention to our food sends signals to our brain and our body to prepare to receive food. Digestive enzymes start flowing and our metabolism starts to rev. In the end, our meals will be a lot more satisfying.

–Chew 15 times

Chewing at least 15 times (try 30!) slows our eating time down and gives our brains enough time to receive the signal from our stomach that we have had enough to eat. People who eat slower tend to be slimmer and enjoy their food more, simply because they’re not overeating and make their meals last longer.

8. Find Satiety (without overeating)

Eat slowly

One of the easiest ways to lose weight and stop overeating is to chew your food 15 times and eat slowly. If you have toddlers in the house, follow their pace.

–Eat proteins and fiber first

Ordering a soup or salad before your meal is a good way to control overeating, because you’ve got some nutrient dense food in you when you may be starving and by the time your entree comes, your brain has started to receive some of the signals that it is reaching satiety.

A rule of thumb I give to most of my clients looking to lose fat and gain muscle, is to start with their proteins first. Protein is the main macronutrient needed to build muscle and burn fat. When my clients start with their carbs (bread, rice, pasta, lentils, etc.) they get full quite quickly and then don’t have room for the protein or even the vegetables. Leave carbs for last.

Eat to 80% full

The Japanese are known for their longevity and good health, and they’re also known to eat to 80% full or even less. In the west we tend to eat until 110% full and then order dessert. Try and leave a little food on your plate and listen to your gut. Leave the table without that overstuffed feeling and soon the signals your stomach is trying to send to your brain will get there and you’ve totally forgotten you didn’t finish everything on your plate.

9. Modify Dessert

–1 bite rule

I have a sweet tooth, but I know what types of treats nourish me and what don’t, so I usually have an arsenal of treats at home waiting for me…if I still feel like it by the time I get home. Knowing this is already half the battle to warding of sugar bombs that come with a set menu. That being said, sometimes there are desserts that just look too good and my curiosity is just too great, so I go for the “1 bite rule”.  I take one bite and that’s it. Maybe I’ll take two if it was really “all that”. It stops there mostly because someone at the table doesn’t have the same rule and winds up scarfing it down before I even have a thought of another bite. When I think of it, it really is the first bite that is the most delicious.

Beware: If this method backfires and only leads you to eating the whole thing, skip the cake and follow the next rule.

–Fruit

Fruit at the end of the meal is a much more nutritious way to have your dessert and eat it too. It may provide the sweetness or “end to the meal” that you are craving and comes with plenty of antioxidants, fiber and nutrients that does a body good.

–Coffee or Tea?

Sometimes there just isn’t any options for dessert, yet you want to put a clear “end to the meal”. This is where a cup of coffee or tea can do the trick. Just be mindful of any sensitivities you have to caffeine. In this case, order a decaf or herbal tea.

–Snacks in a bag

I like having a little treat at the end of the meal, but most restaurant desserts are not made for me. I love them, but they don’t love me back. So, instead, I choose to fill my bag, office, car or home with a tablet of 85%+ dark chocolate, home made protein bar, apple or other sweet treat that can satisfy. Just knowing you’ve got something better around the corner makes it much easier to pass on the dessert.

10. Don’t Stress

The last and most important rule to staying healthy when eating out is – don’t stress out about it. Planning is key, but life doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. When eating out, it’s a time to enjoy food that is prepared differently, discover new recipes or foods we never knew about and finding out what works for us and what doesn’t.

Stressing out about what to eat and how our food is prepared is not a fun experience neither for ourselves or those around us. If thing’s don’t always turn out the way you want it to, “let it go”. Tomorrow is another day and we can learn from our experiences to make wiser choices in the future.