How to Win a Reprieve From The Food Court's Guilty Pleasures

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

You've just elbowed your way through the holiday crowds at the mall when hunger strikes. The scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, hot pretzels and bacon cheeseburgers wafts from the food court, beckoning you like the sirens did Ulysses.

Ulysses lashed himself to the mast. What should you do?

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"Yule fuel" is how Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," describes the tempting holiday fare that begins creeping into homes and offices as early as Halloween and lingers until New Year's.

Whether you sip eggnog laced with rum, eat potato latkes sweetened with applesauce or munch iced gingerbread men like Santa, there's no getting around the fact that traditional holiday food is delicious precisely because it's high in calories, often loaded with fat and sugar.

The steely resolve that may make you resist temptation at other times of year is undermined by a near-perfect storm of elements: stress and erratic schedules.

"We have found that the more your schedule is disrupted," says Wansink, the new executive director of the Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, "the more room there is for mindless eating. All these environmental cues have a disproportionate impact."

Take that food court. By encountering it when you are tired and famished, it's easy to fall victim to major nutritional mischief. Plus, Wansink's research shows that we eat with our eyes and not our stomach. Cues around us -- tempting aromas, large portion sizes -- "have a huge influence on not only what we eat, but also how much we eat, and when we feel full," he says.

Just how much influence these cues have is illustrated by a soup study Wansink conducted at Cornell University. One group of participants ate from bowls that were secretly refilled. The result? They ate 73 percent more soup than those who were served a regular bowl of soup. The bottomless-bowl participants also didn't report feeling full, saying, "How can I be full? I still have half a bowl of soup left."

That's why you need to hit that food court prepared to resist its charms.

Knowledge helps. A growing number of fast-food chains and restaurants provide nutritional information upon request, on their menus or online. Find a list at under "tools."

At Jerry's Subs, a fixture of many mid-Atlantic food courts, discover that an eight-inch bistro roll has more than 300 calories. The eight-inch (and aptly named) Fat Daddy cheese steak contains 1,329 calories, 64 of them just from fat, including 30 grams from unhealthy saturated fat. Super fries clock in at 1,485 calories -- nearly a day's worth of calories for most adults. Stick with the wiser Health Zone choices including: four-inch original cheese steak sub (375 calories), four-inch turkey breast sub (280 calories) and the Angus steak salad (288 calories).

Choosing dishes with plenty of vegetables is another way to cut calories. Salads, soups and stir-fried foods are generally wise options, as long as you skip any that contain deep-fried foods, such as crispy chicken or beef. A survey of Chinese food by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that an order of crispy beef with steamed rice had more calories than four Quarter Pounders.

At P.F. Chang's, the spareribs pack nearly 1,300 calories, with 80 grams of fat, 20 of them saturated. Compare that with the ginger chicken and broccoli with 660 calories. At Panda Express, the fried rice has 450 calories; the orange chicken, 500 calories, with 27 grams of fat. Instead, choose steamed rice (380 calories), kung pao chicken (240 calories) or broccoli beef (150 calories).

Branching out beyond the familiar can also give you a lot of options. At your favorite fast-food chain, a double burger with cheese, fries and a shake can total nearly 2,000 calories, with almost 100 grams of fat. But think outside the wrapper and you may be surprised: At Wendy's, the broccoli and cheese potato has just 330 calories; at McDonald's, the three-piece premium breast strips have 380 calories while an Asian salad with grilled chicken has 300 calories. Low-fat sesame ginger dressing adds another 90 calories.

The cookies, cakes, buttered pretzels and other treats that are easy to grab when you're in a rush may taste great at the time, but they won't do your caloric bottom line any favors. At Mrs. Field's, skip the regular cookies and the brownies, which pack 200 to nearly 400 calories each. Soothe your sweet tooth with the muffins (about 70 calories each) or the bite-size nibbler cookies (about 55 to 60 calories each).

One last pitfall: beverages. Most people know that a supersized guzzler soda can pack nearly a day's worth of calories. Not so obvious is the fact that many of the specialty coffee drinks also come loaded with calories. So instead of fortifying yourself with a Starbucks venti caramel frappuccino blended coffee whip (500 calories), sip a grande cappuccino with skim milk for a mere 80 calories -- or 96 if you sweeten it with a pack of sugar. After all, it is the holiday season.

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