the human condition: the curry with three hundred calories

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Indy Lifestyle Online
AT FIRST glance, the Healthy Cuisine Eating-out Guide for Slimmers looks like one of the most dismal books in the world. Who would save up to go to a restaurant such as the acclaimed Walnut Tree Inn, Gwent, and restrict themselves to the Spaghetti Con Sugo di Arogosta just because it has only 408 calories and 8.7 grammes of fat? What kind of finnicky, diet-obsessed saddo would heed the frequent warnings printed in bold: "The Chef may glaze cooked vegetables with butter. When ordering your vegetables please ensure you ask for NO added butter"?

Each entry in the guide suggests dishes that are suitable for a diner on a diet, giving the calorie count and fat content for each one; the restaurant's recipes have been analysed by Nutra-Data Dietary Advisory Services (NDDAS). But going out for a meal is meant to be fun, not an exercise in masochism, so we weren't particularly gleeful at the prospect of testing a restaurant picked at random from the book.

We chose an Indian, the Mandeer in central London, as Indian food is a notorious diet wrecker, and ordered Kadhi (warm yogurt with cumin seeds and spices, 51 cals, 1.9 g fat), Chapatis (two of them, without ghee, 215 cals, 3.0g fat), Special Fresh Spinach (238 cals, 14.2g fat) and Puffed Lotus Savoury (157 cals, 7.4g fat). And, worried that this couldn't possibly be enough, we then added a forbidden chick-pea dish, but we needn't have bothered: the portions were enormous, there was loads of food and it was delicious. A complete Indian meal for 661 calories between us!

"I can't decide if this is liberating or constraining," said my companion, thoughtfully flicking through the guide. "And I couldn't really care less," she added, draining her wine (83 calories a glass).

NDDAS, publisher of the guide, is run by a voluntary staff of nutritionists and dieticians. Everything is co-ordinated by consultant nutritionist Kathy Lewis, who runs the organisation from her front room in east London. It's a non-profit making organisation; money made from the Slimmers' Guide, which costs pounds 8. 75, is used to produce tailor-made eating-out guides for those with more severe dietary restrictions, such as diabetes, peanut allergies, and heart disease.

"We were originally working out this kind of thing just for our patients, but we wanted everyone to have the right to know what they're eating," explains Ms Lewis. Business people who often have to eat out are a prime market for the guide. NDDAS's own survey, carried out amongst business executives who regularly ate out, found that 81 per cent of them would be more likely to dine out in an establishment which offered healthy options.

But surely it's perfectly simple to pick a non-fattening meal off any given menu - grilled meat, salad, mineral water ... "If you have to eat out three or four times a week, you get heartily sick of grilled chicken and green leaves," says Ms Lewis. "And restaurants are very different in the way they cook, what they add to different dishes. Most menus don't give enough information. Even for a dietician, it's difficult to pick something out and say: `This looks okay'. With the guide, people can pre- plan before they eat out. What we are doing is cutting out the excuses for not eating healthily - even eating out, you don't have to stick to grilled fish and salad."

The guide has its drawbacks. The NDDAS restrictions are so strict that for most of the restaurants listed they can only recommend two or three dishes, and establishments outside London are under-represented.

"We are working on a new edition that will have many more entries, including restaurants outside London," says Ms Lewis. "People ring looking for restaurants in their area, and if we don't have enough on our database we have to go to the area, go out in the field, approach restaurants, see if they want to be in the guide, and analyse their recipes. It's very time-consuming."

The reward comes from satisfied customers. "We get a lot of parents of diabetic or food-sensitive children who are concerned about what's in food - for example we have people writing in saying: `The restaurant we went to told us there was no milk in the dishes we chose but we know there was because our daughter was very sick.' We can help them make informed choices so they can go out to eat again."

She would like to see stricter Government guidelines on nutritional information when eating out. "The Americans have taken to this very well; they are a lot more open to putting nutritional information on menus. Restaurateurs over here say they don't want to clutter up their menus, or have to do a new print run."

Perhaps this is taking things a bit far. Most eaters-out escape feelings of greed and guilt by not thinking about weight: when it comes to calorie counting, lots of us often simply don't want to know.

8 NDDAS: 0181-532 9012