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My Paleo Diet Experience: Fighting the Restaurant Menu

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As a former fatso, almost all of the meals I ate came from a restaurant.  It didn’t matter if the restaurant was fast food or fine dining, I probably ate there.  There is no doubt that eating like this was a major contributor to my weight gain.  During week four of my Paleo Diet experiment, I had family stay with me and we were going to be making plenty of day trips.  This meant that I would be eating most of my meals in restaurants.  I was very concerned that I was going to have trouble following Paleo Diet principles.

Through the first three weeks of my experiment, I was able to be Paleo Diet compliant by spending one hour each week menu planning for lunch and dinner.  Unfortunately, family being family, I wasn’t able to plan any activities let alone a menu until my guests arrived.  I felt that I was setting myself up for failure.  Having to eat several restaurant meals was going to make it hard enough to follow Paleo principles.  The lack of menu planning was going to make it that much harder.

Once I accepted my fate that I had limited control over where I was going to eat, I decided that I would control what I ate.  I would simply put the Paleo principles into action when ordering and all would be good.  In reality, this was a little tougher than I thought.

What I soon realized was that fast food was out.  Traditionally fast food is deep fried and full of processed foods and this does not meet Paleo Diet principles.  However, I thought that I would be able to enjoy a new healthy option such as a salad.  Some leading fast food chains such as McDonald’s offers a Lighter Choices menu which may be lower calorie than the regular menu but it’s hardly Paleo compliant.  From the six options on the McDonalds Lighter Choices menu, only one came close to meeting Paleo Diet guidelines; the grilled chicken entree salad.  Unfortunately, the salad dressing had some sugar and I’m sure the chicken had more salt than I needed but it was the best Mickey Dee’s could do for Palaeolithic eating.

Staying away from the difficulties fast food restaurants provided was easy.  I simply didn’t eat there.  The bigger problem in maintaining Paleo compliance was at the sit down restaurants.  Restaurant menus are designed to generate a profit.  They are not designed to help you make healthy eating decisions.  In her 2007 research article How Major Restaurant Chains Plan Their Menus: The Role of Profit, Demand, and Health Karen Glanz found that only 27% of chain restaurants offer healthier choices and most of those believe that the demand for healthier food is not widespread.  With attitude like this, it’s no wonder that I had difficulty finding healthy dining options.

Because restaurant menus are designed for profit generation, they are also deceptive. If a customer eats more than one course, the size of the bill increases and the restaurant’s profit increases. In a series of studies, Dhar and Simonson (1999) found that consumers prefer to balance an unhealthy main course with a healthy dessert, or a healthy main course with an unhealthy dessert, rather than choosing two healthy or unhealthy main courses and desserts.[i] It’s for this reason, that many restaurant menu items have ratings or logos that an item is a healthy choice.  Pierre Chandon’s and Brian Wansinks paper The Biasing Health Halos of Fast-Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions discusses the placement of healthy choice logos next to relatively unhealthy menu options to facilitate sales. 

After reading the menus of chain restaurants meal after meal, it became clear that I had to work to find Paleo compliant meals.  The menus were great in selling me food, but they weren’t making it easy for me to make healthy decisions.  I could have made it easy on myself and just had a salad for every meal but that gets real boring real fast.  On the other hand, I always had the option of having steak, chicken, fish or ribs.  Unfortunately, 95% of the cuts of meat available were not considered lean protein by Paleo Diet standards.  I could have had a New York strip or rib eye every night, but they are fatty cuts which is why they are prevalent on restaurant menus.  Often the chicken or fish were deep fried.

As you can see from my Week Four menu, I succeeded in my fight against the restaurant menu.  I was able to survive by surveying the menu and eliminating the foods that I couldn’t eat.  I had to combine two appetizers one night to make a salad but it worked.  My only failure was my day at Comerica Park.  Healthy options couldn’t be found anywhere in the park (but there were 6 different types of hot dog or sausage) so I had a couple of Hebrew National hot dogs since they answer to a higher authority.  Do I want to eat out like I did last week and like I did for so many years?  No!  The food service industry makes it very easy to make bad decisions and very hard to make good ones.  I’m going to eat at home more often.

[i] Dhar, Ravi and Itamar Simonson (1999), “Making Complementary Choices in Consumption Episodes: Highlighting versus Balancing,” Journal of Marketing Research, 36 (1), 29–44.

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About Layne Pennell

  • Josh

    Don’t worry about the fat! As a paleo dieter myself and someone who has been pretty heavily interested in the biology of nutrition ,fat and particularly saturated fat is fine. If weight loss is still a concern low carb paleo is the way to eat. And even if it isn’t, it is the most healthy way to eat. Did you know there is no correlation between sat fat intake and heart diease? Or that relatively high cholesterol is good for you? Especially women. Look up Dr mike eades for some excellent info.

  • Thanks for the tips Josh. I am interested to learn more about the lack of a link between saturated fat and heart disease. I’m going to look up Dr. Eades

  • Happy gf

    Simple. Dont put salad dressing. Squish the tomatoes and drizzle their juices on top instead. Salad dressing is mostly sugar, HFCS,soybean oil, MSG, and milk, none of which are remotely paleo I’m sure you know. Be sure to get some apple packet and ice tea too.