Inside Eating Out

One recent study showed that Americans today consume 42 percent of their calories away from home. Eating in restaurants can be a rare pleasure, a simple joy or a health nightmare.

 by Dr. Larry Wilson — 

Eating out has become the American way of life. One recent study showed that Americans today consume 42 percent of their calories away from home. Eating in restaurants can be a rare pleasure, a simple joy or a health nightmare.

Why eat out?

For many people, eating out offers the possibility of convenience, good nutrition and a congenial atmosphere. Some people are just not inclined toward preparing their meals. For travelers, eating out often is a necessity. Eating out also is a time-honored social activity. It is a way to celebrate any occasion where you want to focus entirely on the conversation, since someone else cooks the food and does the dishes.

Eating out also can be a wonderful escape if your home is chaotic or irritating in some way. By making your home cozy and inviting, you may find yourself wanting to stay home more.

Those who live alone often eat out rather than eat alone. Having a pet or listening to relaxing music can make a solitary meal much more enjoyable. Eating in front of the television usually is less desirable, though, as the images presented often are disturbing.

I recommend that people consume most of their food at home. This is the safest and best way to nourish yourself. It offers the fewest health hazards if you make the time to shop for fresh food and prepare it in healthy ways. Simple dishes with two or three items are easy on your digestion and quick to prepare, especially with an electric steamer. This device can dramatically cut preparation time and help you avoid burning your food. It is a fabulous kitchen appliance. Buy one with a mechanical timer for greater reliability, such as those made by Oster or Black & Decker.

General rules for eating out

Here are important things to consider when you choose to eat out, whether at a fancy restaurant or the local bar and grill.

Hidden ingredients may taste good, but go a long way toward ruining your health. Restaurants in general, and chains in particular, often add chemicals, sugar and fats to their meals. Special sauces and flavorings often contain sweeteners, flavor enhancers and hundreds of other additives.

This is not an issue if you do not care about your health. However, some people are unaware how sensitive they are to chemicals such as sulfites, MSG, sugars, aspartame and many others. Your headache, upset stomach, or aches and pains attributed to a flu or other causes may, in fact, be your body reacting to a meal. More serious consequences can occur as well.

Eating out can cause illness in many other ways. In some restaurants, food sits for several days in large refrigerators or worse, at room temperature for hours before being served. These items often harbor bacteria and other toxins. Food is often less fresh in restaurants because they buy more than is needed to avoid running out if they have a busy night. This means much is left over, which increases the risk of spoilage.

For this reason, beware of specials. While not always the case, when restaurants have extra food that must be used up by a certain date, it often ends up in specials. These sell well because they seem special, when in actuality, they are really just leftovers, reworked in some way to make them special. You may even pay extra for the leftovers, with the joke on the customer.

Many restaurant workers are low-skilled employees who are likely to be in varying states of health. Most need their jobs and do not stay home if they are feeling ill. They may inadvertently sneeze, cough into their hands, or use the bathroom without washing their hands. These actions may contaminate food, in spite of the apparent cleanliness of the establishment.

Also, angry or dissatisfied restaurant workers have been known to toss food on the floor, or worse, and then serve it. Many who work in restaurants today, especially in large cities such as Phoenix, may be undocumented workers who are recent arrivals and unfamiliar with our laws and the rules regarding cleanliness that we take for granted.

Are you getting what you pay for?

The answer may be no. Fish, for example, is a commonly substituted item. Pollack may be used when the menu offers more expensive cod or grouper. In one study, four out of 10 fish samples sent to a lab for identification revealed that a lower-quality fish had been substituted at local restaurants. In the same study, the lab found that in 24 U.S. cities, consumers have less than a 50/50 chance of actually being served the fish they order.

Maryland crabs may be on the menu, but cheaper substitutes often are used for convenience and cost savings. This occurs up to 70 percent of the time with some rare and expensive seafood items, according to James Anderson, chairman of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island.

One recent article suggested that one way to find out if something is fishy is to ask where the fish originated. If the server is not sure, order something else. Another solution is to avoid fish and seafood for the reasons discussed below.

Other hazards of eating out

Hidden calories — If you watch calories, as many people do, hidden fats and sugars often lurk in restaurant dishes and sauces. At home you can read labels and know what you are consuming; not so at restaurants.

This is not just a fast food issue. At Ruby Tuesday, for example, the classic burger has a whopping 1,013 calories. This makes a McDonald’s Big Mac, at 540 calories, look downright dietetic by comparison.

Hidden cameras — Your dining experience is often not as private or intimate as you might believe, as more and more restaurants are installing spy cameras. This goes for all types of eating establishments, from 4-star dining rooms to the local grills.

Restaurants claim the video cameras are used to help waiters and management know when customers need service, and to oversee the bars. Most often, however, they are there to help prevent employee theft, a growing problem that can also affect the restaurant customers’ wallets and purses. This is not a problem if you do not mind, but it is a hidden danger if you value privacy in your life or if, say, you are discussing business or otherwise need a private environment.

The high cost — Eating out is almost always more expensive than eating at home. There is some economy of scale by buying and preparing for many people; however, the cost of the food is always half or less than the cost of a typical restaurant meal, according to the president of the National Food Service Advisors. You are helping pay the restaurant’s overhead, payroll, advertising and profits. The restaurant industry in the U.S. is expected to bring in about $537 billion in 2007.

Credit card and identity theft — According to identity theft experts, restaurants are among the most likely places to have your credit card information stolen. This occurs because in restaurants you actually hand over your credit card to a stranger. This is much riskier than simply swiping the card at the supermarket or making a transaction on the phone or even online. Your name, address, card number and security code can easily be copied down while processing the transaction. One way to avoid this problem, of course, is to pay with cash.

Where to eat out

The following tips are generalizations, so they are just a guide.

Tip 1: Peek into the kitchen of your favorite restaurants to confirm cleanliness and orderliness, and to have a look at the cleanliness of the employees.

Tip 2: Single-owner, non-chain restaurants often offer the best food for your money. Chain restaurants may be cleaner, but often serve poorer quality food at the same prices, with more added chemicals. They are also more likely to use prepackaged or pre-prepared items.

Among the types of restaurants, East Indian and Thai establishments most often prepare food fresh and value cleanliness. These also are excellent nutritional choices, as they serve rice, vegetables and fresh meats. Chinese food prepared without all the sauces also can be nutritious and usually fresh, but cleanliness may be an issue.

Mexican food is delicious, but cleanliness and freshness may be less likely. Mexican food also often is heavy on carbohydrates like rice, beans and tortillas. Corn tortillas offer a lower carbohydrate alternative. Pasta is tasty, but contains no appreciable protein and is not as fresh as rice or even better-quality bread. You often will pay standard restaurant prices for a meal that costs the restaurant just a few cents in spaghetti.

Tip 3: A quiet eating environment is essential for best digestion. Blaring television sets or crowded conditions may be the rage, but they do not lend themselves to healthful digestion. Eating outside is wonderful if the temperature is comfortable, and the environment quiet and peaceful.

Finally, upscale restaurants charging higher prices may not necessarily serve better food or be cleaner. On the other hand, buffets at busy, quality restaurants may offer equally excellent food, along with the added benefit of being able to see what you will be eating. However, it is a good idea to ask at what times the buffet items were cooked. If food has been sitting out for hours, it is more than likely contaminated.

What to order in restaurants

The lowly egg — Eggs are an incredibly excellent food, in or out of the home, except if you eat Egg Beaters. Eggs also are the safest food to eat out, if you follow a few simple rules. Always order fresh eggs, rather than quiche, for example, as it could be old. Fresh eggs can be soft-boiled, hard-boiled, poached or fried. Beware of scrambled eggs, because fast food restaurants may add chemicals to them without your knowledge. This can include colorants, extra fat, which is a great filler because it is cheaper than eggs, or spices that are mainly comprised of MSG, which may give you a headache.

Meats — Because beef and lamb are purchased fresh or frozen by restaurants, hamburgers, steaks and even Mexican beef burritos or enchiladas are often good fare. Meat, with its high sulfur content, is an important food in a polluted world. Not all meat is good, but decent meat is a healthful food.

Fresh vegetables — Before ordering, always ask if vegetables are fresh. Vegetables also need to be washed carefully, as they can carry parasites, especially when imported from other countries, as often is the case.

Use caution when ordering salads. Many chemicals may be sprayed on salad greens to make them crisper, more colorful or shinier. Salad bars are better, as the food turns over quickly and you can see what you are getting. If something looks artificial, it probably is. More and more restaurants are turning to bagged salad items to save preparation time. This probably is a good trend, as these are usually well-washed by machines that reduce human contact and, therefore, the possibility of transmitting disease.

Fruit — Fruit, especially fresh or canned, is hard to contaminate, providing fresh fruit is washed well. A well-washed apple or peach is a healthful item to consider. Fruit salad may be less healthful, as it is handled more and may contain added sugars or syrups.

Bottled water — If you are health-conscious, avoid tap water. Bring your own spring or distilled water to the restaurant, if they allow it. Otherwise, you can order spring water at many restaurants. It is worth the cost, compared to the tap water.

Tea — Tea in restaurants is almost universally made with tap water, so you are getting flavored tap water, not the most healthful product. Tea made with filtered water may be better, but who knows when the filter was last changed. A dirty filter is worse than no filter at all. Freshly brewed tea is generally safe from bacteria because it has been boiled, which also helps reduce the chlorine in the water. Bottled tea may be better, as this is often made with filtered water.

Foods to avoid when eating out

Fish and seafood — These are best avoided due to mercury contamination, especially shellfish. Sadly, fish has become an unhealthful food today. Most of it, even wild salmon, often contains too much mercury and other toxic metals. Seafood or shellfish are even more contaminated with metals that may cause severe reactions.

Chicken, turkey, ham and prepared meats — In most restaurants, “chicken breast” is a patty of chicken scraps molded together to look like the real thing. “Turkey” at most restaurants comes off a roll of turkey scraps that are glued together to resemble turkey. These are not high quality foods, especially in the form of “nuggets” which are a popular item with children. Pork, ham and bacon are also best avoided, as they can harbor parasites.

Vegetables, unless freshly prepared — Old or canned vegetables can be disguised easily with sauces, colorants and sprays that enhance color and texture but provide no nutritional value. Ask if vegetables are fresh, and if not, order something else.

Salad dressings and sauces — Dressings and sauces at restaurants are often the cause of food poisoning, in part because they may be left out of the refrigerator too long. Most are concoctions of chemicals and sugar. Ask for oil and vinegar or squeeze some fresh lemon on your salad or other dishes.


1. Bockman, C., “Ten Things Your Restaurant Won’t Tell You,” Smart Money, April 2007, p. 100-102.

2. Jensen, B. and Anderson, M., Empty Harvest, Avery Books, New York, 1990.

3. Dr. Julian Whitaker’s Health & Healing Newsletter, Vol. 17, #4, April 2007, Healthy Directions, Potomac, MD, (800) 539-8219.


Dr. Lawrence Wilson has a medical degree and has been in the health field for more than 25 years. His books include Nutritional Balancing and Hair Mineral Analysis, Legal Guidelines for Unlicensed Practitioners, Healing Ourselves and Manual of Sauna Therapy and The Real Self. He also co-authored Toxic Metals in Human Health and Disease and contributed to The Dangers of Socialized Medicine. or 928-445-7690.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 2, April/May 2007.

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