NEW YORK – Dining at a restaurant can be disastrous for your waistline, but one fitness guru has found a way around this pitfall — just bring a menu coach.
David Kirsch, founder of Madison Square Club in New York City, goes the extra step with his clients. Not only does he personally train people at his gym, he is also on call around the clock for panicky clients who can't decide if the chicken or veal entree is the best choice.
"I'm a hand-holder," said Kirsch, 41, who holds the hands of supermodels Heidi Klum, Naomi Campbell, James King, and Linda Evangelista. "I believe nutrition is 70 percent towards the battle of being physically fit and well — no matter how much time you put in at the gym."
Kirsch, who wrote the popular fitness book Sound Mind, Sound Body, (Rodale 2002), accompanies clients to restaurants to help them choose the healthiest options off the menu. He doesn't advertise the service, it's just another way he trains clients — for $250 per hour.
"Some of my clients will call me in a panic about going to a restaurant," he said.
To ease their anxieties, Kirsch has the restaurant's menu faxed to him ahead of time to lay out ordering parameters. He also phones maître d's and alerts them the client is coming in, so things like the problematic breadbasket won't even touch the table.
But this type of gastronomical babysitting draws mixed reviews from some.
"There is no reason to spend that much money — you could go to Weight Watchers for $10 a session and get shown the right way to eat," Debbie from Connecticut said. "And why would models need to do this? They are already so skinny!"
Ashwini Agarwal manages an Indian restaurant in Manhattan and feels Americans are in desperate need of dietary advice.
"People in this country are confused about what is healthy, they drink Sweet 'N Low in their coffee while they eat sausages. They avoid butter but eat cheese all day."
Agarwal said while the price for menu coaching services seems steep he feels health is worth an investment. "But they could also just read some books to get the same kind of knowledge for much cheaper," he said.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D., from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a center that conducts clinical trials on nutrition and health in Washington, D.C., thinks menu guidance is beneficial.
"I think it's a good idea to help people who want to change their diet," he said. "In our research studies we do something fairly similar. We will do group dinners at restaurants and I'm always on call. But no one ever calls — the last person they want to talk to if they cheat is me."
Faced with a menu of decadent choices (his clients dine at some of the city's finest eateries) Kirsch recommends clean, simple food.
"Fish is my staple and it's best to get it grilled," he said. "Chicken is best roasted or broiled and never eat the skin — that is all fat."
Vegetables should be steamed and sauces shunned. He enjoys garnishes of fresh herbs and lemon or lime and red pepper flakes.
And he suggests ordering carefully, including politely asking to have foods served without butter and other fatty additions.
"I was out to dinner with one client and she said to the waiter: 'I want you to know I'm dreadfully allergic to butter. If there's any butter in my food I will go into cardiac arrest and you will have to perform CPR,' and she wasn't mean about it," he said. "It worked and we got everything steamed."
So does this mean you can never indulge?
Cheating occasionally is fine, Kirsch said, but realize you will just have to work it off later.
"Call it an obsession, but it's a healthy obsession and my clients find it infectious — they want to be around it."
For those who can't afford Kirsch's pricey fees, Sound Mind, Sound Body teaches readers about making proper dining choices.
Phil Suarez, owner of some of Manhattan's most decadent restaurants such as Jean Georges, has been training with Kirsch for 10 years.
"Being in the restaurant business I know what the ingredients served are and he's really giving his folks flavors and tastes and that are consistent with someone who can stay on this diet," he said.
And most Americans can use some pointers — approximately 300,000 people in the U.S die every year due to complications from being overweight according to a study from the surgeon general.
Dr. Barnard said that what really counts isn't Kirsch's availability, but the advice he gives.
"If so many 'coaches' are saying things people want to hear like 'blame carbo for your weight problems' or 'eat more protein' that kind of unscientific advice scores no points in the health category."
Suarez, who considers Kirsch a friend, not just a trainer, said, "He almost knows by looking at me what I ate the night before, but I don't always tell him about that extra glass of wine."