If you're tired of the same old food choices, perhaps it's time for an international food adventure. Learn how to eat healthy while enjoying the wide variety of foods that international cuisines offer.
Among international cuisines, it is difficult to find a more healthful cuisine than the so-called Mediterranean diet, which provides an abundance of grains, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and very little meat.
In the United States, Greek food is the most popular example of the Mediterranean diet. American consumers have become familiar with gyro sandwiches, Greek salads topped with kalamata olives and feta cheese, moussaka, and baklava. However, because a typical full-service Greek restaurant has a much greater variety of offerings, why not treat yourself to a five-course traditional Greek meal, armed with some tips to keep it healthful—and tasty?
To the surprise of some, pasta is almost as popular in Greek restaurants as in Italian restaurants. Rice is also featured in many dishes. Sauces are based on wine, stocks, tomato, and yogurt, rather than milk or cream. Lentils and beans are commonly used in appetizers and main courses, and vegetables are prominently featured in appetizers, soups, and main courses.
Ready to order? Instead of starting with taramasalata, a delicious, though calorie-rich, cream-based dip, experiment with pita bread spread and a yogurt-based dip, for example, tzatziki, made with yogurt, garlic, and cucumber. Or try bread sticks dipped into baba ghanoush (eggplant and olive oil) or hummus (sesame paste and chickpeas). If you order soup, try torato, which is a cold soup with eggplant, peppers, and yogurt. This has more fiber and less cholesterol than the better-known avgolemono soup, which has a lemon and egg base.
If you are watching your fat and cholesterol intake, you may want to pass up moussaka and pastitsio casseroles made from eggs and cheese for grilled or broiled meat, poultry, or seafood. Too nervous to order unfamiliar menu items? Maybe this will help: souvlaki is lamb marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and herbs, and then skewered and grilled; fish in plaki sauce is broiled with tomato sauce and garlic; and dolmas are grape leaves stuffed with ground meat, rice, and pine nuts. Because they are steamed or baked, there is usually no need to add extra fat for cooking.
Although they are the signature of a Greek salad, remember that Greek olives and feta cheese are high in sodium. Ask to have the feta rinsed before it is served if you need to limit your sodium intake. And if you must have baklava for dessert, remember that the usual single portion size can serve two or three people.
Interest in Japanese restaurants was originally piqued by the Japanese steak house concept. Today, sushi bars are gaining in popularity. The native Japanese diet is low in fat and rich in magnesium, iodine, and sodium. Because the terminology of a Japanese restaurant menu may be unfamiliar to you, here are some hints for keeping your Japanese meal as healthful as possible.
Tempura, agemono, and katsu refer to foods that are breaded and fried. You can control your fat intake by ordering foods that are yaki (broiled or grilled), nimono (simmered), or variations thereof. For example, beef teriyaki is marinated in soy sauce and rice wine and then grilled. Chicken yakitori is skewered, then grilled or broiled.
Sashimi (raw fish) and sushi (vinegared rice prepared with seaweed, raw fish and/or vegetables) are good low-fat choices that are also excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to be heart healthy. A note of caution, however: Sushi and sashimi should be eaten only in restaurants that are clean and have had no sanitation violations. Such restaurants are likely to employ highly trained chefs who are experienced in buying fish that meets safety and sanitation standards, as well as handling raw fish safely.
If you are watching your sodium intake, pass on the miso (fermented soybean) soup and the salted, smoked, or pickled fish. Ask for fresh lemon as a dressing for your salad instead of the traditional miso dressing. Soy and teriyaki sauces are also fairly high in sodium. As an alternative, ask for dishes prepared without soy sauce or request low-sodium soy sauce. For flavor without sodium, use a tiny bit of shredded wasabi, which is a strong horseradish.
The basic ingredients of Indian food are grains, vegetables, beans, and yogurt accented with meat or fish. Typical dishes contain lentils, chickpeas, rice, beans, and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves.
However, plenty of fat is added during food preparation. Many dishes are cooked in ghee (clarified butter), which can raise the proportion of calories from fat to almost 50%. Other dishes are made with coconut oil, which contains almost all saturated fat. Most restaurant curries are made with coconut milk, although you may be able to order a yogurt-based version. Always ask your restaurant server how food is prepared—lighter oils are often available on request. Items that include the words kandhari, malai, or korma indicate dishes high in cream or coconut milk.
Your more healthful choices include: pulkas, naan, chapati, and kulcha (various types of baked, low-fat breads); salad or vegetables with yogurt dressing; mulligatawny (chicken) or del rasam (lentil) soups; chicken and fish cooked tandoori (marinated and baked) or vindoori-style (marinated and braised).
Samosa (fried meat or vegetables), pakori (deep-fried breads and vegetables), thick cheese puddings, and honeyed pastries are examples of what to avoid. For dessert, opt for kheer, a sweetened rice pudding, or fruit chutney.
Ethnic cooking. Nutrition.gov website. Available at: http://www.nutrition.gov/shopping-cooking-meal-planning/ethnic-cooking. Accessed September 29, 2013.
Ethnic/cultural food pyramids. United States Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/dietary-guidance/myplatefood-pyramid-resources/ethniccultural-food-pyramids. Accessed September 29, 2013.
Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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