Dining With an International Flair: Eating Healthy in Greek, Indian, and Japanese Restaurants
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
If you're tired of the same old food, maybe it's time for an international food adventure. Learn how to eat healthy while enjoying the foods that other cuisines have to offer.
It is hard to find a more healthful cuisine than the Mediterranean diet. It uses 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. Americans are familiar with gyro sandwiches, Greek salads topped with kalamata olives and feta cheese, moussaka, and baklava. But Greek restaurants have much more to offer, so treat yourself and keep these healthful tips in mind.
You may be surprised to learn that pasta is almost as popular in Greek restaurants as in Italian ones. Rice is also in many dishes. Sauces are based on wine, stocks, tomato, and yogurt and not milk or cream. Lentils and beans are often used in appetizers and main courses. Vegetables can be found in appetizers, soups, and main courses.
Taramasalata may sound like a good place to start, but this creamy dip is full of calories. Instead, opt for pita bread and a yogurt-based dip like tzatziki. It is 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. This is a cold soup with eggplant, peppers, and yogurt. It has more fiber and less cholesterol than avgolemono soup, which has a lemon and egg base.
If you are watching your fat and cholesterol, you may want to pass on moussaka and pastitsio casseroles made from eggs and cheese. Instead, choose grilled or broiled meat, poultry, or seafood. Souvlaki is a good choice. This is lamb marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and herbs, and then skewered and grilled. You could also order fish in plaki sauce, which is broiled with tomato sauce and garlic. Dolmas are another option. They are grape leaves stuffed with ground meat, rice, and pine nuts. They are steamed or baked, so there is usually no need to add extra fat for cooking.
Greek olives and feta play a key role in meals. But remember that they are high in sodium. Ask to have the feta rinsed before it is served if you need to limit sodium. And if you must have baklava for dessert, remember that one portion size can serve 2 or 3 people.
Japanese steak houses started the interest in this cuisine. Today, sushi bars are becoming more popular. The Japanese diet is low in fat and rich in magnesium, iodine, and sodium. Here are some hints for keeping your Japanese meal healthful.
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 using other methods. 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 hearty healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Be sure to only eat in restaurants that are clean and have had no health violations. These places are likely to have highly trained chefs who buy safe fish and handle it properly.
If you are watching your sodium, 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 miso dressing. Soy and teriyaki sauces are also high in sodium. Ask for dishes prepared without soy sauce or using low-sodium soy sauce. You can also use wasabi to add flavor without sodium. It is a strong horseradish.
Indian food uses grains, vegetables, beans, and yogurt accented with meat or fish. Typical dishes have lentils, chickpeas, rice, beans, and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves.
However, plenty of fat is added when the food is made. Many dishes are cooked in ghee (clarified butter). This can raise calories you get 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, but you may be able to order a yogurt-based version. Always ask your restaurant server how food is prepared. You may be able to ask them to use lighter oils. Items that include the words kandhari, malai, or korma mean that the dishes are high in cream or coconut milk.
More healthful choices are pulkas, naan, chapati, and kulcha (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 some items you should skip. For dessert, opt for kheer, a sweetened rice pudding, or fruit chutney.
MyPlate—US Department of Agriculture
Canada's Food Guide
Culture and food. Nutrition website. Available at: https://www.nutrition.gov/topics/shopping-cooking-and-meal-planning/culture-and-food. Accessed November 4, 2021.
Mediterranean diet. Oldways website. Available at: https://oldwayspt.org/traditional-diets/mediterranean-diet. Accessed November 4, 2021.
Tipsheet: eating healthy ethnic food. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/eat/tips_eth_dine.htm. Accessed November 4, 2021.
Last reviewed November 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 11/4/2021
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