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Enjoying a Healthy Night Out

Dieting doesn’t mean forfeiting the right to dine out.

Many diet plans offer up ways to lose weight fast before transitioning into a permanent lifestyle change, but unless the change excludes going out to dinner forever, diners have to take control of what they order in restaurants if they want to avoid gaining weight.

Requesting specific alterations to menu items isn’t forbidden, according to some local restaurant chefs and owners. But don’t expect the restaurants to be the first ones offering up healthier alternatives to their menus.

“You tend to give up a little bit of control when you’re not at home,” said David Grotto, nutritionist and national spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. “You need to play detective.”

Since Grotto said the menu “is not etched in stone,” but “merely a suggestion,” there are ways to tweak high fat and high calorie dishes into healthier meals. For example, Grotto suggests asking for sauce on the side; that way the diner takes control over how much of the sauce will end up on his or her plate, reducing the amount of fat and calories. Cuyler Thomas, executive chef at Artie’s in Fairfax, said he is happy to make dishes healthier when guests ask for it, including sautéing or grilling something in place of frying.

“We’re here to please the guest,” said Thomas. “As long as it’s a reasonable request, we’re happy to accommodate.”

Eating out is a splurge though, said Thomas, so diners should “go for it.” That doesn’t mean they have to eat an unhealthy meal, but as long as people exercise and practice some portion control, he said eating a decadent dinner every once in a while won’t hurt the waistline. Portion control is usually up to the diner though, said Grotto, since restaurants often face criticism from consumers when they begin to scale back the sizes of menu items. A popular trick, he said, is to ask the server to wrap up half of the dish before it even hits the table. This will reduce the temptation of finishing the entire plate, since most people aren’t likely to unwrap the doggie bag if they’re still hungry, said Grotto.

At the Hopsfrog Tavern in Burke, Manager Kostas Daskalakis said when his restaurant noticed a high demand for both vegetarian entrees and low-carb items, they dedicated a section of their menu to those items. He said the demand has gone down and they've changed the menu, but now he recommends that guests make modifications to the regular menu items.

"We pretty much present the menu, and offer replacements for each dish [if the guest wants]," said Daskalakis.

LARGE PORTIONS sometimes give Italian cuisine a bad name, said Ray Farnood, owner of Vespucci, an Italian fine-dining restaurant in Fairfax. He said because of the heaping bowls of pasta served in so many Italian-American restaurants, people end up thinking that is what Italian food is all about.

“Italian food is not about pasta,” said Farnood. “It’s about good meat, fresh fish and a lot of vegetables.”

Grotto said people do tend to stereotype certain cuisines as either decadent or healthy, when all of them can be both. He said to order beans that haven’t been refried or mixed with fattening sauces when dining at a Mexican restaurant.

While French food is usually viewed as rich and fattening, “they have their portions correct,” said Grotto. And when eating Italian, order the fish instead of the Penne Alla Vodka.

The Food and Drug Administration funded a report on the obesity fight, released last month by the Keystone Center, an education and public research non-profit in Colorado. The report on “away-from-home-foods,” recommends more availability of lower calorie products, menu items and meals, in addition to providing consumers with better nutrition information. It also correlates the more than 65 percent of overweight Americans to an increase in dining out in America’s 900,000 restaurants over the past decade. The report states that Americans spend nearly half of their food budget on foods prepared away from home.

Farnood and Emilio Sadaghiani, executive chef at Vespucci, said they only use the best quality ingredients in their restaurant, which results in healthier meals. Vespucci uses extra virgin olive oil in its cooking, because Farnood said it is the healthiest alternative. As for pasta, they offer a section dedicated to the popular dish on their menu, but do not include it as a side with every dish. La Dolce Vita, an Italian restaurant just up the street from Vespucci, does include pasta as an accompaniment to most of its dishes, but happily substitutes vegetables or other items per customers’ requests, said Ricardo Bellucci, owner. Both restaurant owners agree that the fresh fish dishes on their menus are the healthiest way to go.

“It is so important to be health conscious,” said Farnood.

The National Restaurant Association initiated a nutrition information program at its annual trade show in May to help restaurants provide consumers with nutrition information. The “AskUs!” program will provide participating restaurants with better tools to provide this information to customers.