I recommend that most people try to shoot for eating no more than 9 meals out (out of 21) per week to stand the best chance of extending our telomeres for a long healthspan. That being said, I travel the world and live in Hong Kong so I have moments when I am eating out a lot more than I like. I also have friends who eat out for all 21 meals a week and realize that not everyone has the luxury to eat at home or bring food to their work. I have solutions.
This doesn’t mean to let it all go and age faster than we want to. We can still eat out, learn how to forage like a ninja and choose the right restaurants that will offer the best choices to hack our age. Here’s my guide to which types of restaurants are best for longevity. And, if you’re ever in town, these are my favorite restaurants in Hong Kong.
TRAFFIC LIGHT RESTAURANTS
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 – Has the least healthy options
Fast food – Really, do I need to explain? Let’s make this short. There are too many deep fried foods, synthetic ingredients and generally low quality. Low selection of vegetables and plant-based foods. Poor cooking methods. All of these cause inflammation and poorly metabolized.
Street food – Same as fast food. Too many deep fried foods, less hygienic, low quality, sauces that contain too much salt, sugar, suspicious ingredients and chemicals. High inflammatory foods.
Chinese – Too many sauces (high fat, high sugar, high salt), too much oil (dubious quality depending on restaurant), deep fried. All of these cause “inflamm-aging” and shorten healthspan.
Indian – Sadly. Indian cuisine has gone too far into the red light zone these days. Indian food uses the most powerful super spices for aging and longevity, and an abundance of them. Unfortunately, the Indian restaurants we are likely to frequent use non nutritious white rice, too many sauces (high fat, high sugar, high salt), a disproportionate amount of high carb and high fat foods to fresh vegetables and drown out all the life preserving ingredients they began with. Think how a good salad can go wrong with too much dressing. If you find a good quality Indian restaurant, go for tikkas, raw fresh vegetables 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. If you’re lucky to find a good quality vegetarian restaurant that actually offers real vegetables, a few organic egg dishes and homemade yogurt, then you hit the jackpot and hitting some life extending 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. These types of ingredients lower inflammation, boost the immune system and populate our gut flora with healthy bacteria to fight infection and protect our DNA. Outside of Thailand, I have found Thai restaurants offering mainly 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 when it comes to Thai. Avoid the curries and stick with the grilled options to extend healthspan.
Vietnamese – Same goes for Vietnamese as for Thai. See description for Thai food above. My favorite “pho” age hack. Ask to replace noodles with extra vegetables and bean sprouts, which look like noodles and are a lot more nutritious.
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”, while 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. Stick with fajitas, grilled meat and fish, fresh ceviches and eat guacamole with a spoon or as a condiment. All of these healthy fats promote good brain health improving memory and cognitive function.
Korean – Korean food is becoming more and more popular. I rarely eat meat, but 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 to Seoul and wondered why. I took a few lessons on Korean cooking and, lo and behold, sugar popped up time and again. No wonder. 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 with the right choices can make it to the green light.
When going out for Korean food, stick to the grilled foods and go crazy on all the vegetable appetizers. Kimchi is a must try. It’s a fermented food with lots of good probiotic activity to foster good gut health. Some say kimchi is the secret to the long healthy life span of the Koreans.
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. You’ll be in the green light zone when you find a vegan restaurant offering, what do you know, vegetables. Like lots of great salads, gluten free quinoa, ancient grain buddha bowls, and more than just pasta, pizza and white rice.
Warning: Be mindful of vegan desserts. When eating out, the objective of the restaurant is to make the food so tasty, you come back for more. Let me explain. If you’ve done any Google search for “healthy desserts” a vegan one will certainly pop up and you can understand why you keep going back for more. Dry fruits and nuts are the base and quality oils like coconut oil and avocados keep the recipe tasty, healthy, life preserving and intact. 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. 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…but only up to a certain point. Too many carbs and too many fats that are not “burned” 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, cream, croissants, wine and suckling pig. A green light restaurant isn’t a license to choose anything on the menu.
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 always offered without dressing. It is up to us to control the amount of oil and vinegar that goes on. Yes, that’s all they got. Oil and vinegar. No ranch, no honey mustard and no creamy Italian.
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 why 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. You will find at least ten types of salads and five different types of cottage cheese in addition to a variety of fresh fish and homemade yogurts. 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, marinating and slow cooking, 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 and because it is heavily based on fish, you need to be sure to avoid tuna, swordfish or any other large fish that may have high levels of mercury. Go to the Seafood Watch guide for lists of fish to avoid and safe seafood. 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. Instead of pouring the sauce on your food, dip your fork into the sauce and then spear your food.
Look for Japanese restaurants that offer a variety of vegetables. Unfortunately, I find some Japanese restaurants that offer little to no vegetables and this kind of 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 in their salad. We need to have fats, 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. Usually grill bars are just open flamed barbecues using meats, fish and vegetables that are marinated in age extending herbs and spices. Grill restaurants often have salad bars and are used to putting sauces on the side. Just make sure the chef isn’t adding a big dollop of butter to your already fatty steak turning a green light option to a red light.
Learn more about how I hack my age in the Longevity Master Plan to get yourself set on the path for extended healthspan.