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How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Advice from SF food critic Michael Bauer

by | Jul 7, 2010

by Misserion


Most of us take it as given that eating out makes us fat. Modern restaurants are famous for super-sized portions and customers with over-grown bellies.

But renowned San Francisco Chronicle food critic, Michael Bauer, recently took issue with this assumption. In his blog post Eat Healthy, Eat Out Bauer argues that rather than compromising his health, his daily restaurant habit keeps him healthier than the majority of American homebodies.

To find out more about his eating habits, I asked Bauer to share with Summer Tomato readers how he manages to stay healthy while eating out almost every single day.

(This post is part 4 of the series How To Healthy Eat In Restaurants, originally published July 27, 2009. The rest of the series includes Healthy Tips for Real Life (or how I learned to stop worrying and never eat fast food), Neighborhood Convenience, Sit-Down Chains and Truly Special Occasions.)

For a food critic, eating out is a way of life.

Bauer eats dinner in a restaurant every night of the week, always orders three courses and usually eats with a friend. He re-patronizes the same restaurants over and over until he has tried nearly everything on the menu–always with a cocktail and frequently with a glass of wine.

There is no escaping high-calorie and decadent food on his diet.

So how exactly does he keep himself healthy?

“Here, we’re blessed with great produce, which makes it easy to eat out and eat well.”

Without a doubt the Bay Area has fantastic farmers markets that make healthy eating a piece of cake, so to speak. But portions at restaurants can also be problematic.

Bauer is careful to distinguish between large chain restaurants and the independent establishments where he dines. High-end Bay Area restaurants show more restraint and offer more reasonable portions than places like Denny’s. This too comes from the difference in food quality.

“Many chains can’t afford to (or don’t) buy pristine seasonal products. Instead they rely on fat, sugar and salt to make foods palatable.”

Better ingredients mean smaller portions and balanced meals. But some of us still find ourselves overeating in restaurants, even here in San Francisco.

“In the Bay Area we love our fried chicken, pork belly and pate, but we also equally embrace vegetables and moderation, which is key.”

Moderation is the holy grail for eating what you want. But it is often easier said than done, especially at fabulous restaurants. Bauer has taught himself not to eat everything he is served, though he grew up in a household “where you clean your plate.”

He says this habit of portion control has evolved naturally over the course of his career, but when pressed further he confessed that his motivation for self-restraint does not always stem from a desire to be healthy. Instead it sits patiently in his home, anxiously awaiting his return.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I start to feel really guilty if I come home without something for my dog.”

Extra meat and other leftovers from Bauer’s meal never go to waste, nor do they add to his waistline. It seems his dog’s taste for high-end dining is Bauer’s biggest diet secret.

Sheba and Bella

Sheba and Bella

Those of us without pets can mimic this tactic by substituting children, roommates, family members, co-workers and even your-future-self-at-lunch-tomorrow as our own calorie-saving opt-outs. The point is to do something to prevent yourself from eating everything in one sitting. Practice moderation and you can eat whatever you like, it does not matter where you get your inspiration.

Bauer admits that small portions and high-quality ingredients are not the only things that keep him svelte. He skips breakfast (though this was muttered with a hint of shame) and only eats a light salad or soup at his desk for lunch.

“I’m also pretty religious about working out every morning on the treadmill. I set the goal of burning 500 calories.”

Having a fast metabolism doesn’t hurt either.

Overall Bauer finds his health by living a balanced life full of nutritious meals, reasonable portions, plenty of exercise and an affectionate relationship with what sounds like the best-fed dog in the city.

Do your pets help you upgrade your healthstyle?

Michael Bauer is the executive food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. Read his blog Michael Bauer and follow him on Twitter @michaelbauer1

Also see the commentary in The New York Times Well blog by Tara Parker-Pope.

Correction: This post was changed to correct an error. Bauer normally eats dinner with a companion, not by himself.

Read more How To Eat In Restaurants:

  1. Healthy Tips for Real Life
  2. Neighborhood Convenience
  3. Sit-Down Chains
  4. Healthy Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer
  5. The Truly Special Occasions

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For The Love of Food

by | May 15, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome back to For The Love of Food. Thanks to everyone who sent me articles this week, I couldn’t have done it without you. We have a ton of great stuff here. I particularly love the Cheerios story, the fake “local” food from Frito-Lay and the video clip of Michael Pollan on The Colbert Report.

If you would like to see more of my favorite articles each week or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page.

Submissions of your own best food and health articles are also welcome, just drop me an email using the contact form.

For The Love of Food

  • When ‘Local’ Makes It Big << OH SNAP! New York Times calls out Frito-Lay and other food industry giants for pretending to sell local food. But I know you guys won’t be fooled. I love this movement because it supports the exact opposite of selling out. Big Ag would love to package, cheapen and sell “local” like they have with organic, but this time they can’t do it without looking like fools. Funny to watch them try though.
  • It really does help <<Great advice on how to stay inspired to cook yourself dinner when you lack motivation, from Orangette.
  • Michael Pollan on The Colbert Report
.The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Pollan
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Gay Marriage

Let us know what you think!

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Farmers Market Update

by | Nov 15, 2008

romanesco broccoli

I must start by saying it is 80 degrees here in San Francisco and absolutely beautiful outside. In November! The farmers market at the Ferry Building was spectacular today, and for me few things are as inspirational as nice weather.

So I will just come out and say it: I went nuts.

Last week a Thought for Food reader asked how much I normally spend at the market, and some people were surprised to hear my weekly costs hover around $30. This week I admit I went over $40. But I had very good reasons, I assure you.

For one thing, as another reader pointed out my roasted vegetables were not really enough (alone) to sustain me for lunch the entire week. I noticed this after about two days, and ended up making a supplementary quinoa dish (recipe on the way) to fill the gap. With those two things I was good to go, but the moral of the story is that I want to make a bigger batch of roasted vegetables this week.

Another thing is that I have become very excited about the prospect of roasted root vegetables. I never know what to do with those funny looking round things, but they are affordable and I imagine that their sweet, earthy flavors will really shine in a roasting pan. But I do not yet know which kinds I like best, so I figured I should just try them all.

Consequently, the theme for today was buying things I do not know how to use.

Ever heard of quince? I hear you cannot eat quince raw, but since they were available I bought one to play around with. Quince is a yellow fruit that is related to pears and apples. The smell is fantastic, and I am excited to see what I can do.

I also bought both black and watermelon radishes for the first time. They looked so neat in this Whole Foods Blog post that I knew I had to get them if I ever saw them. It is amazing to me that although I go to the market nearly every week, there are still things I manage to overlook until someone points them out to me.

Another special appearance today was baby Romanesco cauliflower. My bag was already really full, but how could I ignore these beautiful things? (see pic)

I also really wanted to buy one of the winter squash I read about in the San Francisco Chronicle, but I already had too much stuff to carry home. Next time!

Today’s purchases:
  • Romanesco cauliflower
  • Red and white Tokyo turnips
  • Black radish
  • Watermelon radishes
  • Candy-striped beets
  • Parsnips
  • Multi-colored carrots
  • Fingerling potatoes
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Dinosaur kale
  • Pomegranates
  • Fuyu persimmons
  • Warren pears
  • Fuji apple
  • Quince
I am really going out on a limb this week, so any serving suggestions are appreciated!
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Considering Prop 2

by | Oct 29, 2008

Ask people what they think about Proposition 2, the California ballot initiative specifying “Standards for Confining Farm Animals,” and you will quickly find that few people know the details of the measure or what it might mean for Californians if it passes. As someone who cares deeply about what we eat and how it affects our health, I decided to investigate Prop 2 myself.

The initiative is only about 750 words. I encourage you to read the measure on your own, but I will summarize it here:

  • It applies only to egg-laying hens, pregnant pigs and veal calves in a farm setting.
  • It prohibits confinement of these animals in a way that prevents them from “lying down,” “standing up,” “fully extending” limbs and “turning around freely.”
  • Exceptions are made for research, veterinary care, transportation, rodeo, state fairs or 4-H programs, lawful slaughter and the seven days before a pig is expected to birth.
  • Compliance will be enforced beginning January 1, 2015.
  • Enforcement involves either a fine of less than $1000 or less than 180 days jail time.

There is no fine print or other dubious language in Prop 2. Nowhere does it demand a “cage-free” environment. Specific numbers on space requirements are not given. However, the vague language of the measure may be what is worrying some opponents.

In essence, this measure is about egg hens. Other states (Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon) have already passed measures to regulate the pig and veal industries, and there is little opposition to these elements of the California initiative. It is the $337 million egg industry that is at the center of this issue.

Supporters of Prop 2 offer several convincing arguments. As would be expected, cruelty to animals housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions is high on their list. They point to the industry’s practice of painfully removing the beaks of chickens to keep them from injuring each other, as well as the inability of hens to perform “natural” movements such as perching and dust bathing.

Supporters also point to the recent scandal at a Southern California egg ranch as evidence that the egg industry is not doing a good job of self-policing its practices.

Opponents argue that it is actually healthier for animals to remain in cages, because chickens sometimes choose to jump on top of each other when allowed to roam free (a phenomenon called “hysteria”). This, they say, makes the hens more likely to be smothered, injured and killed in cage-free settings compared to conventional cages. It is not obvious how much (if at all) this behavior may decrease the animals’ quality of life compared to existence in more confined quarters, though it may lower egg production to some extent.

Prop 2 does not specifically require a cage-free environment, but neither is it clear that bigger cages would meet the requirements of limb extension. As written, the measure may require current “battery cages” be replaced by larger “furnished” or “enriched” cages, but it could also demand the elimination of cages altogether. This confusion is why some call the initiative modest and others call it extreme.

There are certainly some supporters who argue that the egg industry is not required to entirely convert to cage-free practices, while other supporters (including the Yes! on Prop 2 Web site) simply argue that switching to cage-free will not be as burdensome as industry suggests. That cage requirements are not directly specified in the measure is one of its key weaknesses.

Proponents of Prop 2 also make a strong case for food safety issues, arguing that crowding, unsanitary and stressful conditions make hens and their eggs more susceptible to infection. Their argument acknowledges the tremendous progress in egg safety that was enacted in the 1970s, but purports that current crowding conditions have created new threats that make the measures inadequate, especially in regard to Salmonella.

Those against Prop 2 argue that the industry is already held to the highest standards. They also claim that free-range systems result in eggs that are even more likely to be contaminated than conventional eggs due to their potential contact with wild animals. Again, because Prop 2 does not specify if specific kinds of cages are permitted it is difficult to assess the validity of these arguments.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of Prop 2 is that it will likely strengthen small, family farms that do employ humane, safe practices. Currently, many small farms easily comply with the stipulations required by Prop 2. It has been difficult for some of these farms to compete with large industrial agriculture, which keep prices low with high production efficiency—the driving force behind animal overcrowding. Indeed, most of my personal favorite small farmers support Prop 2 (Bill Niman, Prather Ranch, Eatwell Farms, etc.).

Despite this, some opponents to Prop 2 including the San Francisco Chronicle suggest that the measure is in fact harmful to small farms. Specifically the Chronicle points to their conversation with Steve Mahrt of Petaluma Farms who argued that the “rigid language” of Prop 2 would be detrimental to his business. It is important to note, however, that Petaluma Farms is one of the largest industrial organic farms in California and does have financial motivations to keep other large industrial farms from competing with it in the cage-free egg market. Smaller farms do not threaten Petaluma Farms financially.

In my opinion, the best argument I have read against Prop 2 was outlined in a report issued in July by the University of California Agriculture Issues Center at Davis. The goal of the report was to assess the economic impact of Prop 2. They cite no financial conflict of interest in their analysis.

The authors of the report make a compelling case that Prop 2 will do little to change the way animals are housed in California. Instead, they suggest that the increased production cost for California egg farmers would result in the industry being unable to compete with other states that have more lenient animal standards. The consequence would be that the California egg market would be flooded with cheaper out-of-state eggs and most of the California egg industry would be eliminated. Currently California imports about one third of its eggs, suggesting that this issue of out-of-state competition is indeed a real threat to our egg industry.

This argument is persuasive because if the egg industry moves out of California it is more likely to reduce animal standards than increase them, thereby nullifying the objectives of Prop 2. It could also hurt local economies and potentially eliminate jobs for approximately 3,000 California employees. These are very serious risks for our state.

However, I am skeptical of many elements of the report. For instance, an assumption is made early on that neither conventional nor European-style “furnished” cages would be permitted under Prop 2. If this is the case it would effectively mandate cage-free systems for California egg growers. It is not clear to me if supporters of Prop 2 agree with this interpretation. Presumably an extended cage system (as opposed to cage-free) would have a substantially smaller impact on the production costs for egg farmers and the California economy as a whole.

Supporters of Prop 2 argue that the egg industry is not likely to leave California. Instead they claim this report is a scare tactic used by Prop 2 opponents. In 2006, an animal welfare measure for pigs and veal was passed in Arizona with similar economic arguments against it. The Arizona initiative ultimately passed with overwhelming support and, according to supporters, turned out to be a “catalyst for national reform.” Major pig and veal producers remained in Arizona and other large producers in the United States and Canada began phasing out inhumane practices within three months of the measure’s passing.

Whether or not a similar trend would begin in the egg industry is not clear. Something to consider is that major retailers such as Safeway and Burger King are already demanding higher animal standards because of consumer demand for improved safety, taste and nutritional value.

I also doubt the assertions in the report that health risks to animals and humans are increased under cage-free conditions. Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and stress are almost always more likely to foster disease than more humane conditions, so I question the credibility of this research. Additionally, the costs cited in the report are disputed by Prop 2 supporters who argue prices would go up only one cent per egg.

Honestly I do not trust the opponents of Prop 2. Much of the funding against the measure comes from industry giants who have themselves been found guilty of malpractice, animal cruelty and threats to public safety.

On the other hand, it is questionable if a California ballot initiative is the best place to combat issues with industrialized agriculture.

Regardless of your personal, philosophical or political reasons to support or oppose Prop 2, I encourage you all to remember that every day you make decisions that impact the food industry when you decide what to eat. We all vote with our forks whether we think about it or not. Prop 2 reminds us how important it is for us to ask ourselves if our choices are helping or hindering the growth of the world we want to live in.

This article is also available at Synapse.

For the record, I will be voting yes on Prop 2. I do not find the arguments against it convincing enough to let this opportunity pass. Industrial agriculture practices threaten our health in many ways including risk of disease outbreak, environmental pollution and decreased nutritional value. Restricting these irresponsible practices will ultimately make all our lives better and is worth the investment.

What do you think about Prop 2?

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