Most of us think of fast food, office doughnuts, or that tub of ice cream in the freezer when we think of diet traps. But what about those unplanned little grazings that happen when we wander out to happy hour with colleagues after work, hit the nightclubs for somebody’s birthday on the weekend, or gather with friends at the local sports bar to watch the playoff game on Sunday afternoon? Somebody passes around a bucket of wings, a plate of calamari, or a couple of orders of fries and onion rings, and you decide you’re just going to try one of these, one of those, and you surely can’t refuse that one at the happy hour price—it’s like throwing money away! Emboldened by judgment-loosening alcoholic beverages (not to mention highly caloric), a whole diet plan can be shredded in one evening. But none of us wants to stay home with our celery sticks and cabbage soup while our friends and coworkers are out on the town. So let’s take a look at some of the worst offenders offered up at our favorite watering holes and some alternatives we can order instead.
1. Buffalo wings
These little deadlies took off like crazy in the 90s and now they, or some variation, are available at almost every bar in town. Sold by the pound, by the half-dozen, or by the wing, they are delicious, but watch out—these babies can give you a buffalo butt. The basic recipe for the classic Buffalo wing is to deep-fry separated wing sections and then toss them in a combination of butter and hot sauce. Some places have added breading to the mix to better absorb the fat and sauce, and most serve them with celery and carrot sticks with a healthy serving of full-fat ranch or blue cheese dressing. Why have they become so popular? Well, of course, they taste great, but more than that, think about the bar’s strategy. What are they in the business of? Serving drinks. And here’s where the wings become the perfect bar food. They’re spicy—which makes you want to drink more. They’re salty—which makes you want to drink more. They’re fatty—which makes you feel the effects of the alcohol less . . . and makes you want to drink more. It’s a perfect storm of high-calorie temptation to make you ingest more high-calorie drinks.
I initially went to the Hooters Web site to get nutritional info for their wings, and finding none, went to their FAQ, where I was informed they couldn’t possibly give out nutritional information for such a customizable dish. I found this to be the case at most of the popular chains. This reluctance to divulge didn’t bode well for the dainty chicken wing. I finally found a third-party site reporting that a 10-piece chicken wing appetizer order at Ruby Tuesday had 910 calories and 66 grams of fat. Add the blue cheese dressing, and you can knock it up to 1,090 calories and 85 grams of fat. This seemed pretty typical. If you add variations like breading, or syrupy sauces like teriyaki or sweet-and-sour, you can bump up the calories even higher. It’s safe to guess that for every wing you eat out of your table’s wing bucket, you’re getting around 100 calories and 7 grams of fat. Chicken wings are mostly skin, so they’re pretty much the least healthy part of the chicken you can eat. And chicken “fingers” or “nuggets” aren’t much better. Some grind up the skin into the meat, which ends up being the base for the nugget, and even the all-breast-meat versions have tons of fat from the breading.
Instead: Just treat yourself to one or two wings or fingers from the bucket. But then fill up on the accompanying celery and carrot sticks (however, skip the ranch and blue cheese; ask if there’s salsa or marinara sauce). You can ask your waiter and barkeep for extra sticks, too, so your friends don’t think you’re a celery hog.
2. French fries
Fries are definitely high on the bar’s salty-fatty scale. But they’re another perfect bar food. Loved by vegetarians and carnivores alike. Usually the cheapest appetizer on the menu and great finger food for passing around. But a basket of fries, depending on how they’re prepared, can have 500 to 1,000 calories, at least half of which come from fat. Not to mention the sodium content, and even the accompanying ketchup which is usually full of high-fructose corn syrup. And, you can also get creative by adding cheese, chili, bacon, or anything else to the fries. At the Outback Steakhouse, you can order the Aussie Cheese Fries, whose one-pound, 12-ounce serving contains 2,900 calories and 182 grams of fat. Outback—it’s Australian for heart attack! Hopefully, this dish is meant to be shared, but even an individual 10-ounce cheese fries order at Johnnie Rockets clocks in at 760 calories with 43 grams of fat.
Instead: Skip the toppings. Fries, at heart, are just potatoes, which, while a bit carby, aren’t unhealthy. If you have an option between steak fries and shoestring/thin-cut fries, go with the steak fries. The potato-to-grease ratio is much higher, so essentially each steak fry absorbs less fat than the shoestring/thin-cut variety. Also, if you’re at an Irish or British pub, you could use no-calorie vinegar as your condiment of choice instead of HFCS-laden ketchup.
This “snack” plate is a fiesta of fat and calories—a bed of deep-fried tortilla chips, loaded with full-fat melted cheese and sour cream. At least there’s some salsa, which is low in calories; refried beans, which give you a little fiber with your fat; and some heart-healthy guacamole. But don’t let those ingredients justify the indulgence—nachos can often be the most caloric item on the menu. One order of Classic Nachos at Chili’s contains 1,570 calories and 115 grams of fat (58 grams of which are saturated). Even if you share this pile of fatty goodness with a friend, you’ve still inhaled almost your entire day’s recommended allowance of fat, and you haven’t even ordered dinner. Olé!
Instead: Let your fork be your friend. Instead of using the tortilla chips as your cheese delivery system, use a fork and pick at the healthier things on the nacho plate—the salsa, the guacamole, the jalapeños, the olives, the beans, or the lean chicken or steak (if the nachos come with that). I also recommend sitting/standing far away from the nachos. It’ll be less tempting to eat them absentmindedly. If you’ve only ordered chips and salsa, try keeping your salsa-to-chip ratio high. The salsa’s low-calorie and nutritious, the chip is fattening and virtually nutrition free. So load up a chip with healthy salsa. Better to get refills on the salsa than the chips.
4. Deep-fried delicacies
This year, a top seller at state and county fairs is deep-fried Coke. Clearly, as a society, we have arrived at a point where we are able and willing to deep-fry pretty much anything. From classics like onion rings and calamari to new innovations like deep-fried jalapeño rings, anything that can be dipped in batter and dropped into a vat of sizzling oil will be served at your local bar. But keep in mind that while these munchies may have begun their lives as vegetables and seafood, they are not for the health-conscious. A large raw onion has 60 calories and no fat; a typical serving of onion rings has 500 calories and 34 grams of fat. Three ounces of squid contain 78 calories with one gram of fat; an order of calamari fritti at the Macaroni Grill has 1,210 calories with 78 grams of fat (13 of which are saturated). Clearly the lesson is to stay away from the deep fryer.
Instead: The bright side of a deep-fried menu is that a deep fryer is usually a sign of a working kitchen—one that might have a refrigerator. If so, you could order an alternate appetizer like shrimp cocktail—a 10-shrimp serving only runs you 228 calories with 4 grams of fat. Or order a salad with dressing on the side. And if you feel bad that you’re not joining the crowd at the saturated fat trough, see if you can get a buddy to go halfsies with you on a healthy menu item like a salad. Then you can bond with your friend instead of having plaque bond with your artery walls.
If your alcohol-themed gathering is at a Japanese-themed or sushi bar, you may have hit diet heaven. Sake is only 39 calories an ounce, comparable to wine, and sushi—generally a roll of fish, rice, and seaweed—is actually low-calorie, low-fat, and healthy! Score! Be careful though, not all sushi is created equal. Some rolls that contain spicy mayonnaise sauces or tempura batter can rack up the calories big time. For example, a plain tuna roll is about 184 calories with 2 grams of fat. A spicy tuna roll is 290 calories with 11 grams of fat; and a tuna tempura roll is 508 calories with 21 grams of fat. Of course, with true Yankee ingenuity, Americans have figured out ways to incorporate all manner of ingredients into sushi. I swear to you, I’ve seen cheeseburger and pizza sushi on menus. Watch out for the ones that will turn your heart-healthy snack into a gut bomb—like the salmon-cream-cheese roll which has 517 calories with 20 grams of fat. Traditional Japanese appetizers like tempura can also be as fattening as onion rings. Three pieces of vegetable tempura run about 320 calories with 18 grams of fat.
Instead: Stick to sushi made without sauces, tempura, or other caloric ingredients. If you really want to cut calories (and carbs), order sashimi, or sushi without rice. A typical serving of tuna sashimi is less than 40 calories and 3 grams of fat. Also, look for other low-calorie items on the menu like miso soup (76 calories) or edamame (100 calories for half a cup).
6. Peanuts, pretzels, popcorn, and mixes
The diviest bar in town might not have a menu from the kitchen, but they’ll probably have a barrel of some crunchy treat which will be served in small refillable bowls—gratis. Again, this isn’t just an act of incredible generosity by the bartender, it’s motivation for you to get full of salt and fat so you can order more drinks, early and often. Peanuts are a good source of protein, but they have about 164 calories an ounce (about 30 peanuts) and 14 grams of fat. Popcorn is 140 calories an ounce (about 2-1/2 cups) with 8 grams of fat. Pretzels are only 107 calories an ounce (about five pretzels), with almost no fat, but you also get a full 20 percent of your sodium RDA in that ounce. An ounce of Chex mix (about 2/3 cup) is 120 calories with 5 grams of fat. And Asian snack mix (largely seasoned rice crackers) is 142 calories an ounce (about a cup) with 7 grams of fat.
You can pretty well name your poison on this one. They’re all around the same calorie count per ounce. I’ve yet to find the bar where the bartender dished out a healthy alternative from the bottomless snack bucket behind the bar. The main thing to remember is that the bowl is indeed bottomless, and the bartender will keep filling the bowl, so you keep filling your glass. And keep in mind Ben Stiller’s speech from Along Came Polly, where his risk assessor character explains to Jennifer Aniston the number of people in the bar who went to the bathroom, didn’t wash their hands, and then plunged those dirty hands into the communal nut bowl. The nice thing about joints like this is that they’re not going to give you a dirty look if you pull a P90X® Peak Performance Protein Bar out of your purse. Also, if you plan on getting your nutritional sustenance from a bartender in the evening, it might be wise to pop a couple of ActiVit® multivitamins in the morning. Bottoms up!