Scenes From a Low Carb Life: Counting Calories at the Chinese Buffet

A random Chinese buffet - they all look the same...

A random Chinese buffet – they all look the same…

Friday, February 01, 2013 – 199.8

On January 01 I was 209.4. In 1 month I lost 9+ pounds and just came in a hair’s breadth under 200. That’s the short story. All the in-between stuff reminds me of a Will Rogers quote: ‘People who like sausage or respect the law should not watch either being made.’ The month was not a steady progression downward as much as a roller-coaster.

Upon reflection, perhaps January is the worst possible month for doing anything except persevering through – at least for me. Snow holds no magic except that power to make my car slide uncontrollably into oncoming traffic or get stuck on the side of the road. Skiing – a sport that necessitates falling in the snow, I find as alluring as wrestling in a hog pen.

Perhaps I should avoid my inclination to overthink things, take my winnings for January, and be happy with what I got. Onto February – a month designed to be especially short because you’re just too fed up with winter to endure a long month.

I noticed myself in the mirror as I got ready for work and I just looked so fat. Compared to what? I asked myself. I am within 5 pounds of the lowest weight I’m been in 5 years and the reflection in the mirror seems distorted and bloated. Strange how this works: one day I might feel fine about my weight and the next day, the same weight, I feel like a sumo wrestler who’s let himself go.

I felt the same throughout the day. The term for this is ‘body dysmorphia’ and the problem with it is it feels like a revelation rather than a delusion: now I see how fat I am! I was a bit too busy to dwell on it, but the thought reappeared on occasions throughout the day. This is aided by the fact that I am between sizes right now – my 38 pants swim on me while my 36 pants are snug enough to be a reminder of the weight I want to lose.

Eats during the day were a cup of Greek Gods Greek Yogurt – the store didn’t have the Fage, my usual brand. Greek Gods has a stronger flavor and a slightly less smooth texture. These are NOT negatives in my book as I’ve grown to like – no, love – Greek yogurt plain and it is a pleasing variation on the routine. I’m not sure I would ever totally switch allegiances, but it is a fine substitute.

Later in the afternoon I had some of the roast beef and American cheese. I have to again state that I am enjoying the hormone and antibiotic-infused roast beef better than the pricier stuff – why does bad food have to taste so good?!?

On the way home my wife called and said the family wanted to go out for dinner. We ended up at the Chinese buffet. A buffet is such a minefield is so many ways. First and foremost, there is always the quality of the food to take into account. Just what am I eating here? Next is the problem that a good portion is deep-fried in batter, which is a good way to cook low-quality food to make it palatable. After that, a Chinese buffet’s favorite ingredient is corn starch, which hides in nearly every unbattered stir fry that looks somewhat acceptable. Additionally, there are plenty of dumplings I can’t touch and sushi I wouldn’t go near if you paid me – as Anthony Bourdain once stated: you never want to eat ‘budget sushi’.

There are still other problems navigating the Chinese buffet. The first is that these folks are experts at making OK ingredients taste pretty damn good. They know how to layer on the sugar, salt and starch people enjoy this stuff – the pans in the buffet frequently run out and are replaced quickly with a loud clang by a hurried cook who dashes in and out of the kitchen. There’s plenty of American-style comfort food as well: french fries, fried fish fillets, and hilariously awful pizza that kids under 8 love. There is also 25 linear feet of desserts – cakes, jello, cream-filled pastries as well as the self-serve ice cream machine/kid magnet. They also make a damn fine bread pudding – my personal weakness – a concoction of mostly stale bread, condensed milk and a whole lot of sugar – yum!

An even more awful aspect of the Chinese buffet, almost guaranteed to do in the most resolute of dieters is what in business might be called the ‘value proposition’ or ‘ROI’ (for Return on Investment). A regular restaurant feeds you a meal of your choice for a price, you get what they give you, and you either feel at the end the meal was worth the price you paid and come back, or you think it was a ripoff and don’t. The savvy dieter can also take home any leftovers and make a second meal.

An all-you-can-eat buffet challenges us dieters because it offers the worst possible value to us. When you go shopping, you check the ‘unit price’ – at least I do – to see what the value proposition is. Do I buy the name brand and pay $3 more for something or get the store brand for less? This is the usual questions those of us not gifted with an endless supply of money ask every time we buy something. In an all you can eat buffet, it is more like a casino: you ‘win’ by measuring how much you walk away from the table with. Like a casino, the ‘losers’ – those who eat only a little – subsidize the meals of those who pile up plate after plate of the most expensive dishes like Alaskan crab legs.

Additionally, there are no ‘doggie bags’ at a buffet – that’s cheating.

So when a dieter goes to a buffet with the intention of only eating a little, it is a bit like going to a casino to play cards and lose so the other guy at the table can win big.

I thought I would play the ‘casino’ like many people do: I go for the fun of it, lose a little but not too much, and enjoy the experience. They had an Asian-style button mushroom stir-fry which was meant to be a side and I had a large portion of that. The sauce didn’t appear to have that shiny, almost gelatinous sheen that screams ‘cornstarch’. I also had a lot of spicy shrimp, unbreaded, in a sauce that most probably DID have cornstarch, but I only took the shrimp and left the sauce to minimize the damage. I also had some pea pods that were too shiny to not have corn starch, and ended up with 2 plates of food total. I eat fast, and when done (as indicated by a bloated, sickly feeling that diners at buffets across America get as the signal they are full), I waited while my wife and kids finished up.

Of course, sitting watching other people eat dumplings, noodles and ice cream – and then just leaving them there is a bit much to bear. While I successfully avoided the bread pudding, I couldn’t help but to swipe an abandoned fried dumpling and a few spoonfuls of my daughter’s chocolate ice cream.

I was really thirsty and kept asking for glasses of water – probably the salt and the MSG they add to make thing taste extra good. They do NOT state ‘no MSG’ as some Chinese joints do, so you can be sure the stuff is full of it.

I left feeling I had minimized the damage (the entire plate of bread pudding I didn’t have was evidence of that) and while I DID subsidize the 8-plate marathon eaters, I felt I got an OK value.

Now that this was over – how the Hell do I count it? Calorie counting sucks in the best of circumstances – this is about the worst. My approach walks a fine line between precision and sanity: I believe that calorie-counting is an instrument of torture designed by sadists who cackle fiendishly as they see dieters try to tally their meals that come without measurement, with the goal to sell their processed, unpalatable crap solely on the basis that it is easy to count, making the counting more important than the quality of the food you are eating – which is so wrong!

Despite a desire for precision – I remind myself that precise calorie counting is impossible – US law allows the calorie count on food with nutrition labels to be off by 20%! – and do my best to guesstimate.

I had a lot of shrimp – 2 large portions. I guesstimated 40 of ‘em. I looked up shrimp in my LoseIt! app and their calculation shows that to be 218 calories. I know it’s not 218, but it’s not 1,000 – I might be off by hundreds, but I am working the law of averages here: one day I might count high, the other day low, but over the long haul there’s a ‘close enough’ set of data to work with – and the act of counting always brings awareness to what you eat so eating is never ‘mindless’.

I continued by putting in 3 cups of mushrooms – all mushrooms are more or less the same in calories. I entered whatever dumpling I had listed. It seemed a bit low at 40 calories so I put down 3. I put in 2 cups of broccoli, 1/3rd cup of chocolate ice cream, and 8 tablespoons of canola oil to cover the amount of grease across all the dishes. Now, I am sure that they used whatever oil was cheapest – probably low quality corn oil, but the nutrition profile – at least the calories and fat – are essentially the same from one liquid oil to another. Close enough. I didn’t have pea pods in my calorie counting app so I skipped those – their calories don’t amount to much. I did add a tablespoon of cornstarch – I’m sure that’s more than reasonable.

So my guesstimate for the meal in calories was 1,767, which is laughable because of the false preciseness of the number. Really, I probably had between 1,500 and 2,000 calories in that meal – and I am fine with that counting. If I wasn’t even attempting to count, I might have mindlessly eaten way more and packed away 4-5,000 calories, which is why I think counting badly is better than not counting at all.

This give me the following total for the day:

Calories: 2,552
Fat: 188g
Net Carbs: 72g
Protein: 133g

Not great but not horrible, either. The next morning I was 201. Given the fluid intake the night before, it isn’t all that bad. If I mind my Ps and Qs over the weekend, this will just be a blip on the screen of my diet.

And the most important part was that I enjoyed the night out with my wife and my daughters. You can’t beat that.

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3 thoughts on “Scenes From a Low Carb Life: Counting Calories at the Chinese Buffet

  1. Ah, the insidious Chinese buffet. I lol’ed at the “budget sushi” there – there is also an All-you-can-eat japanese buffet near my house: for 8.99, you can enjoy your fill of sushis, wraps, and sashimi. I wouldn’t go near that sort of raw fish with a ten-foot-pole.
    It’s a shame that these “Chinese” buffet doesn’t serve real chinese foods. I am Taiwanese, and having been to more than my share of authetic restaurants, authentic asian cuisine is waaaaay more than cornstarch+sugar+deep-friends batter+MSG. Pork fat is really big in my culture- and if you ever go to Taiwan the local cusine is incredible – fresh/season veggies steamed with meat sauce (generally stewed pork in its own pork fat) and various beef/pork/chicken made with simple spices like anise, black/white pepper, chili, soy sauce (the good kind), seasame oil… etc. Even though rice/noodles are a staple, they are usually in small portions and serve as vehicles for more delicious (pork/beef) fat :D
    Anyways, but I digress. Thoroughly enjoying your blog :) Please keep fighting the good fight!

    • I am well-acquainted with cuisine from the Chinese mainland. I’ve been lucky to have lived near some authentic Chinese restaurants, which you can tell by the fact:

      -the menu is in Chinese and there are and only sometimes English translations
      -I am usually almost the only Caucasian in the place
      -they give everyone else chopsticks and me a fork, thinking I don’t know how to use the things.

      I’ve been lucky to have lived near an authentic Sichuan restaurant where the cuisine seems a mix of the northern cuisine and the spicy southern cuisine – sort of how I see Thai food as a fusion between Indian and Chinese. I love the spiciness of the southern region, which is what you typically find in authentic restaurants because the people who tend to open these restaurants in the US come from the south and speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin.

      I think Americans have a hard time with traditional Chinese fare because we don’t like our food to resemble what it came from. We see beef as a slab of meat on a white styrofoam tray covered in saran wrap, not as a slab of flesh taken from a cow corpse. When you get a fish in a good Chinese restaurant, they take it out of the tank in front of you, conk it on the head before gutting and scaling it, and it comes to the table head-on with a look like: ‘What the HELL just happened?!?’ frozen on it’s face. I think this presentation is a bit much for Americans who see fish only as a fillet in beer batter – it places them too close to the scene of the crime, complicit in the crime of killing an animal to fill your belly.

      The second aspect that unnerves Americans is the bones. Americans see bones as a built-in handle for chicken legs and ribs. God forbid you should be eating a piece of fish and a *bone gets in your mouth* – it’s time to call the paramedics for the ‘big nose’ while Chinese are adept at simply removing the bone from their mouth and proceeding on. In fact, while I myself am adept at dealing with the bones now, it is still off-putting: chicken feet, which are pretty darn good if you ask me, are just too much of a hassle to eat – too many damn bones!

      My introduction to authentic Chinese cuisine was in fact a turning point in my life. It changed me from a food neophobic (a person afraid of trying new foods) to a food neophillic (a person who loves to try new foods). I think this is one of the keys to any success I have had: I am not afraid to expand my list of foods – I’ll at least *try* new stuff, where as a kid I wouldn’t.

      One of my favorites is an asian-style stewed pork belly with a band of creamy fat nearly a centimeter thick. Heaven.

      Admittedly, I don’t know much about the regional differences in Taiwanese cuisine, though my daughter’s best friend is Taiwanese and told her the story of going back to visit her grandparents this past summer and grandpa tricking her into eating chicken butt – and how good it was.

      • “I think Americans have a hard time with traditional Chinese fare because we don’t like our food to resemble what it came from. ” -> Agreed. I’ve lived in Canada for most of my childhood and whenever I went back to Taiwan it’s always a culture shock when I go to the traditional “wet” markets where vendors have little make-shift kiosks and sell fresh meat/chicken/fish/vegetables/tofu. Blocks of congealed pig blood are sold in big plastic bowls filled with cold water (Food Safe 101!!11). Before I have always thought that the giant supermarket way is “superior” because everything is so nicely processed and wrapped up in plastic – but now, I’m not so sure. It’s so easy to forget where food comes from when you shop at big box chain stores and not identify with the person who actually produces the food.
        And yay for being a Chinese foodie :))) I was extremely afraid of chicken butts as a child, but to be honest if you didn’t tell me which part of the chicken I was eating beforehand, I wouldn’t be able to tell myself lol.

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