I learned fairly early on that eating out was not the healthiest thing I could do on a diet. Like, not at all. Just today I got a free iced cinnamon biscuit at Maple Street Biscuit Company because it was my first trip there. It was over 500 calories. The portion sizes are so ridiculous at American restaurants that I’m starting to believe that the food service industry is deliberately fattening us up to serve some nefarious end.
Well, maybe not. But when I started keeping track of what I was eating, I was a bit surprised to see just how many extra calories I was getting eating some things. I learned the hard way one day at the beach. My parents were in town about a year ago, shortly after I started using Cronometer. I was taking a nap in the condo my parents had rented only to be rudely awakened by a voice that said, “Wake up! You’re snoring like a damned animal!”
It was my father. This is normal behavior for him. He’s a retired Army vet, so he bellows a lot. He continued to tell me in no uncertain terms that I needed to lose weight to cure myself of this ungodly snoring. I had already started my diet, but this only made me more determined. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that fat-shaming doesn’t work. Unless it’s some rando yelling across the street. Screw those guys. They’re about as effective as catcallers. But when someone you know and respect does it, you tend to pay attention.
Anyway, we made our way down to one of our favorite beachside restaurants and ordered some food. It had the normal fare one would expect in an American restaurant (burgers, barbecue, etc.), but also had fish, since it was a seaside joint. So I ordered that, figuring it would be healthy.
The waiter brought out a sizable portion of fish in a basket, surrounded by an overgenerous, bordering on ridiculous, number of fries. I plugged the fish into my phone, estimating it was about six ounces, and was pleased to see that it was only about 300 calories. Not bad. Then I plugged in the fries, which appear to be maybe a cup and a half’s worth. And got back 330 calories. The fries were worse than the main course.
I think this is one thing I was getting wrong for a long time. We think of side dishes as little bit parts of the meal that don’t count. But if we’re not careful, they can do more damage than the piece of meat on the plate. Fries can sneak up on you. Potatoes by themselves aren’t bad, but fry them in a vat liquid made of the crushed lifeforce of murdered plants (cooking oil), and they can be really fattening.
I realized that the accountant in me was making me fatter. I tended to go for the most cost effective solution at the restaurant. I admit this knowing full well how lame and unsexy it sounds. But I like to make my money go as far as it can. Why spend $16 on the nine ounce steak when the twelve ounce steak is only a couple of bucks more? I can always get a doggie bag. Except, I never got a doggie bag and scarfed the entire thing.
And I made the same mistake with side dishes. This would catch up with me at, say, McDonald’s. Why not Super Size it? It’s only a buck or so more. At least it used to be. I don’t really go to McDonald’s any more, so things may have changed. But way more food for only slightly more money seemed like a good idea.
The small fry at McDonald’s is about 220 calories, which isn’t that bad. But Super Size fries? Actually, I guess they just call it “Large” now ever since that Morgan Spurlock guy made that movie. Which was fourteen years ago. Which makes me feel old and decrepit just for saying it. Anyway, “Large” or whatever is 490 calories. Which is almost as many calories as a typical hamburger.
And it gets worse if we get cute with the fries and put other unhealthy things on them. Want cheese fries? Add a couple hundred calories. Want chili cheese fries? Add another couple hundred calories on top of the cheese fries. And probably a day’s worth of incontinence and flatulence. And if you want to try that Canadian fry dish called poutine (Which they pronounce “poo-tin”, for some reason, which is probably really confusing to the Russians), that’s even worse.
For those of you that don’t know, poutine is french fries, gravy, and cheese curds. It’s supposed to be made from fresh, unpasteurized cheese curds which are illegal in the US. This is why the snootier of the Canadians (i.e. Quebecois) will pompously inform you that the stuff you get in America isn’t real poutine. Shortly before they die of E. Coli poisoning. But even if you don’t get the food poisoning variety of poutine, the calorie count can be anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500. This is probably why Canadians are almost as fat as Americans.
And the french fry’s distant cousins aren’t much better. Tater Tots on the side will be about the same as the small fry. So will potato chips. And if you get mashed potatoes (which are almost always doused in butter), that’s almost as bad as the Super Sized fries. Or “Large”. Or whatever.
So instead of fries, I’ve learned to go with just…potatoes. A regular baked potato only has about 160 or 170 calories. Which is not bad, if you don’t douse it with butter. Or bury it in cheese. Or sour cream. Or bacon. Or all of the above. And a twice baked potato has maybe another 60 calories on top of that. Don’t let my warnings about french fries imply that I’m against potatoes. They’re just fine. You just need to make sure you don’t overdo it.
I ran into a similar problem at the local barbecue joint. Nobody born and raised below the Mason-Dixon line can go more than a week or so without having a pig that was mercilessly sacrificed and slowly roasted over an altar of fire producing blessed hickory smoke. Although I guess it is weird that people who live in the Bible Belt would do something resembling a pagan animal sacrifice. But once you’ve had ribs cooked to the point where the meat falls off of the bone, the unholy magic of the barbecue smoker steals your soul and you can never go back.
Most of the sides that come with barbecue actually aren’t bad. Like collard greens and steamed carrots and corn on the cob. But the all time favorite barbecue side is homemade mac and cheese. But a half cup of this has about 220 calories. And any self-respecting barbecue joint is going to give you more than that. If they don’t shorten your life by at least a year, they didn’t do their job right. So expect more like 500 calories.
And if you’re really feeling adventurous and want bacon mac and cheese or mac and cheese with pulled pork, you can expect to pack in 750 calories. If you’re feeling snobby and bourgeois and want to go for lobster mac and cheese, it’s about the same. And I’ve seen cajun shrimp and mac and cheese that’s over 1,000 calories. The only advantage of this option is that the hot peppers clear your sinuses even as the meal clogs your arteries. But they also fill your eyes with tears, making you weep for the time you’ve lost on the temporal plane for daring to indulge in this seductive extravagance.
Seriously, mac and cheese isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t be a full meal. Because every time I’ve only had mac and cheese, even the kind with meat in it, I’m hungry again after thirty minutes to an hour. And it’s not a good thing to eat 500 to 1,000 calories only to be hungry again not long after. There are some diet folks out there who use this word “satiety”. Which I hate with an absolute passion, because it’s so trendy and pretentious sounding. But when they say this, they mean what normal people mean when they say “full”. Your meal should make you full. And mac and cheese doesn’t. A little on the side of something that does make you full is fine, though.
Since not eating barbecue is not a serious option (that would be heresy), I decided to switch to different sides, thinking I might avoid some of the downsides of mac and cheese. One time, I thought I’d go with baked beans, thinking it would be healthier. I’m fine with beans, because I’m not one of these weirdo bean-hating diet bros you see online. Strange people exist on Twitter. A statement so obvious I feel slightly dumber for writing it. Anyway, the problem is, beans are still not much better than the fries. And since the barbecue restaurants around here tend to brutalize their beans with bacon and pork and … well, you get the idea.
Most of these barbecue joints will also throw some sort of innocuous seeming bread on top. Now I’m not one of these anti-grain science bros (another type of weirdo I see on Twitter), so I have no problem eating carbs. But a roll adds another 180 or so calories. And if I substitute a couple of hushpuppies, I only save about 20 calories. And the all time greatest bread of all, cornbread, adds about 200 calories. And there’s a way to make it worse.
Those culinary apostates who make the sweetened variety of cornbread that is preferred by dark-hearted, diabolical heathens who dare to blaspheme by abusing the most sacred of all breads, will find that the extra sugar will add as much as 100 calories. And this is before you start slathering butter on it. So think carefully before you pop one of these things in your mouth. Don’t be a culinary apostate. Your waistline and your immortal soul will thank you.
Danger is everywhere, though, not just at McDonald’s and the local barbecue joint. Some sides are served at almost any American restaurant. Some of the more dangerous ones (unsurprisingly) are the fried sides. Don’t be taken in by the fried things, even if they appear to be vegetables. Onion rings, for example, are one of the most popular sides in America. And onions themselves have negligible calories. But the way some restaurants fry them up, you might be in for 200 – 500 calories. And if you try fried okra or jalapeno poppers, you’re not doing any better. And by all that’s holy, just forget about the Blooming Onion at Outback Steakhouse. That’s 3,000 calories. Besides, it’s not real Australian food. Which an Australian guy snootily told me once. Although less snootily than the guy from Quebec. Probably because he wasn’t French.
Now, I should point out that these aren’t all bad in small doses. Fries and fried things have some nutrients, and sometimes the oil they’re fried in will bring in some Omega-3s. And I’ve mentioned before that mac and cheese is not necessarily unhealthy and has some key nutrients in it, like Vitamin A. And beans and bread obviously aren’t bad for you, despite what the kooky diet quacks may tell you in the darkest, deepest recesses of Twitter.
I guess the point is, we need to have a care for what comes with our meals. Some of those sides are going to pack on more pounds than you realize. It doesn’t matter if you get a healthy piece of salmon or trout or catfish. Too many fries or fried things or cheesy things on the side will definitely give you expanding love handles. Big sides give you big sides. So pick side dishes that aren’t fried or drenched in some other form of fat. Or at least come in sensible portions.
Also, don’t eat out much. Have you been seeing a pattern here? Restaurants totally overfeed you. I’m convinced restaurants are really engaged in a modern day eugenics project and are slowly trying to cull the human race of the unwanted. It’s an elaborate Bond villain plot by the food service industry. If we don’t take care of ourselves, one day, most of us will die in a plague of chronic disease, realizing the sinister plot of the restaurateurs. Then, after most of us have been killed off, the few who remain will find that the mastermind behind it all was Gordon Ramsay who will emerge as God-King and rule with an iron fist over the remnants of humanity. He’s already tipped his demonic hand. His show isn’t called “Hell’s Kitchen” for nothing.
So be careful what you have with your meal. Especially when you eat out. The most tempting looking sides are the dangerous ones. Ignore their siren’s call as best you can. Otherwise you’ll be contributing to the evil plot of the tyrannical chef of Scotland, and he will rise to power and darkness will fall over the world. Also, you’ll get fat and die.
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