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    You Ask, I Answer: Falafel

    imag0001What do you think about falafel sandwiches?  I find it hard to pass up a quick stop at Mamoun’s [falafel stand] here in New York City.

    A [falafel sandwich] is only $2.50.  I find it really satisfying and filling, and it often saves me on days when I haven’t had time to prepare a decent lunch or when I need a quick meal on the go.

    I know it probably packs a punch of fiber, but I’m concerned because I know the falafel balls are fried.

    What’s your take?  Should I consider some alternatives?  I’m trying to balance nutrition, budget, and feeling satiated.

    — Dan S.
    New York, NY

    For those of you unfamiliar with falafel, Dan is referring to a traditional Middle Eastern food composed of chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley, flour, and spices (mainly cumin, parsley, salt, and pepper).

    The mixture is shaped into balls (varying in size, although usually golf-ball sized) that are deep fried, stuffed in a pita pocket, and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, and either/a combination of hummus, tahini (sesame paste-based) dressing or/and tzatziki (Greek-style yogurt with cucumber, garlic, and dill).

    Although falafel is considered by some to be “health food” (and you certainly would be right to think so looking at the ingredients of each individual balls), it can pack quite a caloric punch.

    Deep frying certainly adds calories, although that is often a hard calculation to make.  When done correctly (meaning, at the right temperature and for an adequate amount of time), the additional calories are lower.

    What turns falafel into caloric overload are the pita pocket and accompanying sauces.

    Your average falafel sandwich, with all the trimmings, provides approximately 800 calories and two thirds of your daily sodium limit.

    On a more positive note, it at least offers anywhere from 6 to 10 grams of fiber (depending on the the type of flour used to make the pita bread) and somewhere in the ballpark of 10 – 15 grams of protein.

    Here are my tips for optimal falafel navigation:

    1. On days where falafel is your lunch, opt for a lighter breakfast and dinner.  Start your day with a piece of  fresh fruit and protein-rich non-fat or low-fat Greek yogurt; end it with a simple, healthy dish (i.e.: grilled protein of choice with a baked sweet potato or water-packed tuna and cannellini beans over salad greens, dressed with freshly squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.)
    2. Ask for the dressing on the side (use only half of what you are given).
    3. Get falafel over salad with the dressing on the side (again, only use half).  I know Mamoun’s charges $3 more for this option, but it is still a good tip for establishments where the price difference is lower.
    4. Accompany your falafel with zero-calorie beverages.


    1. Val said on May 26th, 2009

      This is exactly what I do when I have the ‘falafel jones’ going on…I eat very lightly for the rest of the day, basically all fruits and veggies. I’d rather ‘splurge’ on falafel instead of a Big Mac anyday! And if you have tzatziki sauce instead of tahini sauce on it, it is a better choice, calorie-wise, I’m pretty sure.

    2. Kristin said on May 26th, 2009

      I know this won’t save you on time, but if you want to enjoy your falafel without guilt there are some good recipes out there for tasty baked falafel (one to try: http://bakingbites.com/2005/01/oven-baked-falafel/). Falafel is easy to make at home (I know it sounds strange, but recipes that are based on soaked, uncooked chickpeas are the best). I serve mine with tzatziki sauce (fage lowfat yogurt, cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, fresh parsley and mint). Just stuff a few falafel balls into a 100% whole wheat pita, stuff it with lettuce, cucumbers and tomato, and drizzle with sauce.

    3. Andy Bellatti said on May 26th, 2009

      Thanks for sharing, Kristin!

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