Primal living in a decidedly modern world is mostly awesome, but there are difficult moments we’ve all faced. Things like having to explain the jar of coconut oil and greasy spoon we keep at our office desks, or facing the strange looks we get when doing lunges down the street, pull-ups on tree branches, box jumps on park benches, and overhead presses with our pre-adolescent children – those little moments where you and everyone around you suddenly realize that maybe you’re just slightly different from the “norm.” A bit off, as it were. Of course, we often pride ourselves on our individualism, on our constant skepticism of Conventional Wisdom (especially diet- and fitness-related). If I wasn’t different (or at least willing to consider alternative viewpoints), I might never have questioned the bread-and-ice-cream-fueled chronic cardio way of life that was killing me. If you guys weren’t inherent skeptics, you probably never would have found your way to my blog. If a guy like Sterling scoffed at the supposed preposterousness of eating fat to lose fat, he’d probably still be unhealthy.
So we see that embracing our weirdness is what makes all this possible. You might even say that we have a healthy appreciation for going off the beaten path (actually, the path enjoyed quite a bit of traffic for hundreds of thousands of years, but it’s only recently that it was largely abandoned and the brush allowed to flourish and cover it all up; luckily, we’re armed with razor sharp machetes and dusty old maps).
Sometimes, though, we’re forced to stay on the trail. Sometimes, social obligation requires us to eat at less than appetizing locales. Maybe it’s hitting the local happy hour with co-workers on a Friday or going out to eat at a chain restaurant with family from out of town – whatever the occasion, when we’re stuck in an unfamiliar or unpalatable culinary situation, there are ways to mitigate the potential damage and still remain relatively Primal. Almost any restaurant will have something for you to eat, even if it wasn’t raised in pasture or cooked in healthy fats. Just because the food isn’t ideal doesn’t mean you should order the Awesome Blossom, a large Coke, and a burger and fries. There are alternatives.
Avoid eating out. I’m kinda kidding, but it goes without saying that eating out at chain restaurants on a regular basis probably isn’t a good idea.
Lobby for restaurant-picking powers. If you’re deigning to eat out, the least your companions can do is let you pick the place. Pro-tip: don’t use the word “deign” when trying to pick the restaurant.
Don’t eat. Treat this as an Intermittent Fasting day. If you need visualization, imagine Grok happening across a rotting, stinking carcass. Doesn’t sound so different from most restaurant fare to me.
Be a super modern forager. Scan the menu for anything that might work. If you’re eating Mexican, get the fajitas and lose the rice, beans, and tortillas while upping the veggies, meat, and guacamole.
Make special requests. Yep, you’re gonna have to “be that guy” who customizes his order so much that the final product is completely unrecognizable from the original. Expect eye rolls and audible sighs, but those are a small price to pay for eating right. You can always claim gluten-intolerance or various food allergies if you want to avoid the hassle; they can’t ignore you then.
Remember the 80/20 principle. Think of this as your “20.” As long as you’ve been eating and exercising right consistently, one random meal isn’t going to throw you off. Besides, you’ll probably wake up regretting it and will be even more strict with the food and the workouts.
Make substitutions. All restaurants have vegetables. Most of them will be happy to swap out the starchy foods like rice, bread, or potatoes for steamed or grilled veggies.
Get stuff on the side. For sauces and dressings of indeterminate origin, ask for them on the side. That way you can control their distribution rather than letting the cook slather your food with it.
Some restaurants are more amenable than others. Fast food burger joints, for example, will usually give you the meat surrounded by lettuce instead of bun, and you can always skip the fries. A Brazilian churrascaria, with its heaping platters of meat, sausage, and salad, is perhaps the most Primal restaurant of all – you won’t have any trouble at one of these. But at a pasta house, unless you can convince the waiter to replace the noodles with vegetables, you might have trouble finding something to eat. And dinner at a vegetarian or a raw vegan restaurant will probably be the day you try IF.
What about chain restaurants? These are (rightly) vilified by the Primal set for being bland disseminators of industrial crap masquerading as food, but are there any hidden gems? Okay, maybe “gems” is the wrong word, but there are definitely a few items on the menus that won’t derail your progress entirely.
McDonald’s/Carl’s Jr./Fast Food Burger Joints
Ubiquitous in just about every city in America (and possibly even globally), McDonald’s remains popular. Now, I imagine you haven’t stepped foot in one for years, but there may come a time where you’re faced with the prospect of eating here. If all your other options are exhausted, the best bet is to go for one of the burgers, sans bun. From what I understand, McDonald’s microwaves most of their meat products, but they do grill the Angus Third Pounders, so go for one of those. The data for the Angus Deluxe Third Pounder:
You can nix most of the carbs by removing the bun. There’ll still be a few left over, but that’s just from the tomato and onion (real food). The trans fat is worrisome and should be avoided. Hopefully, the mayo (probably made from soybean oil) and the processed American cheese product are responsible for it, as those can easily be removed. If they grill the meat in hydrogenated oil, you’re out of luck and will just have to suck it up. It’s not perfect, but you could do a whole lot worse at McDonald’s. Other fast food burger places, like Carl’s Jr. or Wendy’s can probably do the same bun-less burger deal. For you west coasters, In-n-Out makes a great “protein style” bun-less burger.
Is there really any difference between these restaurants? They all serve burgers, ribs, salads, sandwiches, and pasta, along with lots of deep-fried and heavily-battered appetizers, and it’s all pretty bland, forgettable stuff. Still, they do have a good happy hour, and they’re pretty popular, so you may find yourself stuck at one with friends or coworkers with your stomach rumbling. Bun-less burgers are an option, of course, as are the salads. If you get a salad, hold the croutons and get the dressing on the side. Unfortunately, chain restaurant salad dressings are usually rife with sugar and industrial vegetable oils (high in Omega 6s), so there aren’t any fantastic options. If you’re lucky, they’ll have olive oil and vinegar on the premises and you can simply make your own. I usually opt for whatever cut of steak they have on the menu. Sure, it ain’t grass-fed or organic, but it is meat, and you can usually request they cook it in butter (rather than corn oil). Skip the mashed potatoes or fries for mixed veggies, and you’re good to go. I couldn’t find any specific data for steak from any of these restaurants, but FitDay says a 10 oz lean sirloin steak looks something like this:
Add some more fat if they honor your request to cook it in butter, along with a few more carbs from the veggies, and you’re looking at a decent meal.
A carb-lovers paradise, Olive Garden is actually a decent pick for Primal eaters. You obviously won’t be ordering the pasta, but the smattering of grilled items, plus the endless salad bowl, make eating here definitely doable. They even have a low-carb menu, which was a complete surprise. There’s the 14 oz Steak Toscano, cooked in olive oil and served with broccoli and mixed veggies; the Mixed Grill, which consists of skewers of chicken and steak with zucchini and broccoli; the Herb-Grilled Salmon, brushed with olive oil and served with broccoli; the mussels served with a wine, garlic, and onion sauce; and the Pork Filletino, marinated in olive oil and rosemary and served with mixed vegetables. Those all sound pretty delicious and, with the net carbs all under 20g (and none of them coming from starch), very reasonable for Primal eaters.
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The Final Word
Eating out at normal restaurants can be done, and it can be done without sacrificing your progress or ruining your health. Even if you don’t opt for the pseudo-Primal fare at these places and instead just eat whatever you want, don’t beat yourself up over it. After all, an important part of the Primal Blueprint is enjoying life – and eating, drinking, and generally being merry with friends and family is what it’s all about regardless of the food and drink in question.
As for the actual damage to your body from a single chain restaurant meal, it was just a one-time thing (80/20!), and your body can totally handle it. Just remember: the guilt and stress from agonizing over a small lapse in judgment will be more harmful than what you actually ate, so lighten up!
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.