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How do you choose a healthier takeaway?

How do you choose a healthier takeaway?

Whether it is for a quick lunch or a ‘can’t be bothered to cook’ evening, takeaway food is a staple for most of us – even though we know that it is not always healthy. What can we do to enjoy our takeaways with a clearer conscience?

Our fast food menu in the UK is an eclectic mix from all over the world. We can enjoy fish and chips far from the coast, savour Chinese stir fries and spring rolls and delight in Indian food that is actually very different from that eaten in India. Pizza and pasta is available ‘just-a like mamma used to make’, although whether a genuine Italian chef would recognise some of the concoctions on offer is questionable. Chicken tikka pizza, anyone?

It is no wonder that our national waistline is increasing with all this on offer. Excessive fast food consumption is also bad for the heart and circulation, and doesn’t do the wallet too many favours either. We love our takeaways – so how can we reduce the damage?

Is takeaway food always bad?

No food is bad in itself – we need a variety of food types and nutrients and all food has value to us. So the occasional takeaway treat is perfectly allowable, but if too many of our meals are heading towards the fatty, sugary and high-calorie route then it is time to take control.

The other issue with takeaways is excessive portion size – this has got worse in recent years. Portions at fast food places are much bigger than is usually served when we cook for ourselves, and so it is all too easy for our evening ‘snack’ to provide an entire day’s calories. This is not good as a regular event!

How can takeaway food fit into a balanced diet?

Current thinking is that a balanced diet consists of the following approximate proportions of food types:

  • 35% complex carbohydrates (‘starchy food’) such as pasta, bread, potatoes and rice
  • 30% vegetables and fruit (with attention to the high sugar content of some fruits)
  • 15% dairy food (for calcium)
  • 15% protein (such as meat, fish and pulses)
  • 5% high fat foods

There is no need to ‘micro-manage’ this at every meal, but over periods of a week or so this is the balance that we should all aim to achieve.  Your takeaway needs to fit into that balance.

What are the healthier takeaway choices?

As with all of our diets, the two keys to healthier fast food are portion control and limiting fat, sugar and salt intake.

Portions from Indian and Chinese takeaways and chip shops are usually much bigger than necessary. Anyone who has ever eaten at an Indian or Chinese restaurant will know how easy it is to order far too much and have lots leftover – the same applies with takeaways.  The trouble with takeaway food is that we often collect it when we are really hungry, and will eat far too much. Eating after an alcoholic night out also tends to wreck portion control, so with all the empty calories in alcohol this kind of evening can do some serious damage to weight.

Takeaway rule 1 is ‘don’t order too much’. For example, the staff will usually be happy to show you how big a portion of rice or ‘regular chips’ is, so you can decide how much you actually need. Pizzas are another item that is often colossal so try to share with a friend – it is a meal out, not an eating competition!

Takeaway food tends to be high in fat, salt and sugar, the three things that really need to be limited in all our diets. So takeaway rule 2 is about making the best choices. Here are the things that we need to treat with caution:

  • For Chinese food, minimise the deep-fried or fatty items such as spring rolls, crispy duck and prawn crackers.
  • For Indian food, go easy on the creamy sauces such as korma, and watch for naan bread which is very fatty.
  • If you are at the ‘chippy’, the deep-fried sausages and fatty kebabs are choices to be reserved for rarer occasions.
  • Eating Italian? Red meat, pepperoni and creamy sauces are red flags with a big pizza, the calorie and fat count here will be eye-watering.

Here are the better choices:

  • For Chinese food, go for vegetable dishes, lean meat and seafood. Choose the less fatty sauces – black bean sauce is highly recommended as it adds more protein. There is also some research showing that black beans play a part in general health.
  • For Indian food, swap pilau rice for boiled rice for an instant massive fat and calorie reduction. Choose dishes in tomato-based sauces and load up on the vegetables.
  • At the chippy – go for breaded fish if available, rather than in batter. Reduce your portion of chips, and remember that bigger chips have less fat than ‘french fries’. Better still, have your meal with mushy peas or beans to add fibre and nutrition.
  • For Italian, load up on tomato-based sauces which are full of vitamins and useful nutrients. Go for thinner pizzas with plenty of vegetables.

There’s no need to give up on your takeaway treats – but choose with care, order frugally and make sure you walk to the shop rather than taking the car!