At the start of the new year, you probably promised yourself that you were going to eat healthy and exercise more. Your Pinterest board was filled with Buddha bowl recipes, and that pair of gym shoes was getting more action than it used to. But as the new year marches on, you find yourself taking fewer Mason jar salads to work, and you can't even remember the last time you went to the gym.
It's those times that you have to lean on healthy habits you've developed when your willpower was stronger. In a sea of seemingly unhealthy fast-food options, there are still ways to approach a menu and fill up on nutritious items. To help with that, we asked two dietitians to give us some tips and tricks for choosing healthy options and then made them prove the tips would work by taking them to popular fast food and fast casual restaurants.
We accompanied Bethany Doerfler, a registered dietitian at the Digestive Health Center at Northwestern Medicine, and Lori Welstead, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at the University of Chicago, to some of Chicago's favorite lunch spots to show us how to hack the menu for the healthiest options and give us tips on how to stay on track.
Their suggestions are geared toward people who want to maintain their weight or lose weight. For women, this means a 1,200- to 1,600-calorie daily diet, and for men, 1,600- to 2,000-calories a day. To accomplish those numbers, Doerfler recommends sticking to 400 calories for breakfast and lunch and 500 calories for dinner, which leaves some room for "two thoughtful snacks."
Don't despair. There's still hope for your New Year's resolutions.
It's easy to go into a restaurant, look at the menu and pick something on the spot, but Doerfler recommends studying ahead. See if you can check out the menu online, or pick one up when you're there -- some restaurants even have a calorie calculator to help you make better choices.
"Go in with a game plan," Doerfler said. "Don't show up and ask what looks good because everything looks good. You're less likely to make an impulsive decision."
Examine the calories, fat, sodium and sugars if there is a menu available with that information, Welstead said.
Once you get into the habit of checking nutrition information, it will be easier to modify your meal to make it lower in calories and healthier, Doerfler said.
FIND THE IN-BETWEEN
It's all about finding a combination of foods that are not only healthy but will also satisfy whatever you're craving, whether it's something spicy, savory or sweet. You don't want to fall into the trap of eating something nutritious but unsatisfying and then later grabbing a candy bar, Welstead said.
"When it comes to making these healthy choices, and I think with regard to making a healthy lifestyle, it's all about balance," Welstead said. "If you know you want to eat something that is higher in calories, higher in fat, higher in sugar, enjoy it, have that meal, and the next time you have something to eat, make better decisions."
GO FOR PROTEIN
Choosing options high in protein helps keep you satiated, Welstead said. And while skipping the rice, bread or noodles is preferred -- since carbohydrates cause your blood sugar to spike and then drop down -- getting a half or partial portion is better than getting the entire serving. Also, skip the lunchmeat.
"Unfortunately when you get things like lunchmeat, there's not going to be as much bang for your buck when it comes to protein, and it's going to have more salt," Welstead said.
DRESSING AND CRUNCHY BITS
Crunchy toppings, like croutons and wontons, can add empty calories to a meal, so opt to have them on the side and have only one or two pieces to appease that hankering, Welstead said.
Dressings can add a lot of calories and sugar to your meal, so the best option is to get it on the side and use only a little bit, Welstead said. Avoid nonfat dressings because they typically have more sugar than normal ones, and opt for avocado, which has healthy fats to help you stay full longer.
WORK THE SIDES
Building a bowl with salad as your base already gives you a good start toward clocking in fewer than 500 calories for a meal, Doerfler said. This way, you can layer in other healthy things without worrying about overdoing it.
When entrees are too high in calories, check out the sides or a la carte options to build a satisfying meal. Sides like soups and salads can help keep calories down while giving you a variety of options that are filling. Studies have shown that starting a meal with a broth-based soup can help people cut back on calories by 30 percent, Doerfler said.
DRINK WATER, EAT COLORFULLY
Instead of reaching for a fountain drink or sweet iced teas, drink water. Other drinks can add unwanted sugar and don't help keep you full. Instead of picking a sweet drink, save those calories for a healthy afternoon snack, Doerfler advised.
"Try to skip all the sodas and milkshakes that can add easily 1,000 calories when you otherwise weren't planning on it," Doerfler said.
A quick rule that Doerfler and Welstead give their clients is to eat something green, something red or purple, and something yellow or orange every day to ensure they get the antioxidants they need.
"Get all the colors of the rainbow," Welstead said.