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Restaurateurs offer advice for fighting fat in the Magnolia State

Normally one wouldn’t expect a restaurant owner to suggest that people share an entree. But, really, something needs to be done about rates of obesity in the U.S.

Mississippi has once again landed on the top of the list for having the largest percentage of its population overweight. But Mississippi isn’t alone in the problem that is estimated by the government to cost a staggering $78.5 billion per year in direct and indirect costs.

‘Welcome to the land of fat’

“Welcome to the land of the fat,” says John Currence, who operates City Grocery, Bouré and Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford. “Unfortunately, the easiest answer is the least sexy answer out there, which is moderation. The simplest diet out there is one that will never catch on because it involves self-discipline. To live a healthy life really means a certain amount of sacrifice, which is a concept Americans as a whole have lost touch with. It means sacrificing things you want for the betterment of yourself. In my way of thinking, we have just gotten to where we feel entitled to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it. Folks have lost sight of that need to sacrifice to take care of themselves.”

Many times restaurant servings are large. So Currence recommends either splitting a meal with someone else or taking half of the meal home.

“This is about moderation,” he said. “Don’t eat everything on your plate. We do tend to as Americans to have grotesquely sized meal portions, especially in fast food. A McDonalds’ hamburger in Europe is on average 30% smaller than in the U.S. There is an epidemic going on in our country that is only now beginning to be addressed. The ramifications of the epidemic are almost ungodly in terms of healthcare costs as a result of obesity. The fact is that airlines are redesigning seats to accommodate the average-sized American. It is kind of overwhelming.”

Currence believes combating the weight problem is a matter of raising overall consciousness. He compares it to what he calls the sudden, overnight infatuation with being more carbon conscious. Fuel has gotten much more expensive, and all of the sudden everyone is more conscious of the need to conserve energy.

He would like to see similar consciousness-raising about food.

Short, simple advice

“We need to make everyone realize that if you want to live a healthy life, you have to sacrifice some of the things you want,” Currence said. “Why doesn’t someone put out the shortest diet book in the world? It would be one page and say, ‘Eat half of what is put in front of you.’ I think we are too conditioned through advertising and the media to believe that we are entitled to whatever we want whenever we want it, and not to consider the consequences of our choices. That combined with the convenience-driven mentality we live with every day has led to some bad diet choices.”

The worst foods out there give us the greatest convenience. Junk foods are easy to grab when in a hurry. And there is the reality that if one lines up 100 people who need a snack and offer them an apple or potato chips, 80% or more are likely to dive into the chips.

“That is the worst thing you can do,” Currence said.

It might be a good idea to look at what has been called “the French paradox.” French people eat incredibly rich foods often cooked with butter and duck fat, but have fewer problems with being overweight, are healthier and live longer.

Cooking with zero trans fat, offering vegetarian items and low-calorie entrees are some of the things that the Eat With Us Group (www.eatwithus.com) in Northeast Mississippi (which operates Harvey’s, The Grill, Sweet Peppers and other restaurants) does to help customers who want healthy eating choices.

“In our Peppers concept, we have what we call a light line menu, which is five or six items,” said Bernard Bean, director of operations for the Eat with Us Group. “Most items at Sweet Peppers Deli are fairly healthy, but these are specific items we point out. We offer low-cal and low-fat dressings. Most of our units have vegetarian items. Most of the fish in our full service units are grilled and not fried.”

Special requests

Most restaurants will accommodate special requests. For example, patrons can ask to leave the butter off if ordering a grilled item. And remember that what one adds at the table can pile up the calorie content. One may want to forgo the butter, sour cream and bacon bits on the baked potato, for example. Or better yet, get a vegetable as a side item instead of a baked potato or French fries.

Bean advises backing off on the salt and cutting the carbs. Although the low-carb craze has faded away, Bean said it is still a good idea to take it easy on breads and other high carbohydrate foods. Some people will even eat a hamburger without the top bun.

Sam Sabagh, owner of Phoenicia Gourmet Restaurant, Ocean Springs, recommends avoiding bread and also starchy foods such as rice and potatoes.

Eat fresh.

“Everything we serve is fresh,” Sabagh said. “We cook with olive oil because it is so healthy. Olive oil is lowest in saturated fat. They claim it will lower cholesterol. We eat a lot of hummus, which is made of chickpeas, sesame seed paste, lemon and garlic. Another good choice is tabouli salad, which is parsley, mint, tomatoes, green onions, red onions, cracked wheat, lemon juice, salt and pepper served over lettuce.”

Sabagh, whose Greek restaurant also serves grilled seafood dishes, says one doesn’t have to sacrifice good taste to eat healthy. And after the delicious meal, enjoy taking a walk (the walking path over the new U.S. 90 bridge to Biloxi has proven to be very popular with walkers, joggers and bicyclists) or some other form of exercise.

Sweet talkin’

No discussion of obesity would be complete without talking about sugar. Quite simply, avoid it.

“We do a Sugarbuster menu, and we get a lot of orders for that,” said Charles Fergeson, kitchen manager, BRAVO!, Highland Village, Jackson. “We do a Sugarbuster pizza. We also do a vegetarian pizza, and have a grilled vegetarian dish on the menu that includes marinated vegetables and portabella mushrooms.”

Marinating vegetables is a great way to get an extra zing that makes one forget about missing the meat. BRAVO! does marinades with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette and in-house dressing marinades with such as orange vinaigrette. Pasta salad is a popular offering, and the restaurant also gets a lot more orders for grilled or sauteed shrimp and chicken rather than fried.

“I eat a lot of baked fish myself, baked or grilled with lemon, green onions, salt and pepper and tomatoes,” Fergeson said. “That is something healthy and light. If I’m going to grill it, I use a light lemon pepper, Lawyers seasoning and black pepper. I rarely use salt.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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