Now that our favorite bars, restaurants, hotels, and cafes are opening fully after the pandemic, we’re ready to get back out there and have someone else prepare our food for us. It’s great news for those of us that are sick of eating the same meals week after week, but this doesn’t mean we have to overindulge in foods that make us feel bloated and uncomfortable later in the evening.
With the right knowledge, you can cut the calories and eat a well-balanced meal when you go out to eat, whether that’s a sit-down meal at a local fancy spot or grabbing a meal from a fast-food joint.
We asked Dr. Nancy for her top tips for us so we can make healthier choices when we eat out:
How can I continue to eat healthily when I’m dining out?
1. Pick a High-Protein Entrée
Whether it’s fish, tofu, seitan, beans, meat, or poultry. Protein is the easiest way to satisfy your hunger, and it’s widely available! You can get protein from many delicious plant-based and animal-derived sources. Eating protein-rich meals will aid in satiety and limit the number of carbohydrates you need to stay full, and you can find protein everywhere! If you’re at a Mexican restaurant, opt for dishes with beans and white meat, or if you’re at a seafood restaurant, go for a grilled fish and vegetables, rather than creamy chowder.
2. Avoid Appetizers
If you’re not extremely hungry, try to avoid the appetizers as they often contain more sugar, fat, and carbohydrates than the entrée. The sauces, oils, and dressings that come drizzled over your starter all add up, and before you know it, you’re not even hungry for your main course! (Though you’ll eat it anyway, right?) When you eat dinner at home, you don’t usually incorporate a starting platter because you don’t need it. So why should you do it at a restaurant?
3. Swap the Side Salad
We often think side salads are a healthy option, but in most cases, salads contain dairy-heavy dressings, croutons, nuts, and cheese, making them more caloric and higher in sugar than a side of sautéed, steamed, or roasted vegetables. Whenever possible, switch that side salad for a side of veggies to increase your fiber intake and decrease unnecessary calories.
4. Don’t Snack on Carbs
Avoid snacking on bread if it’s brought to the table, or refuse it if you can as it’s often so difficult to limit yourself to just one piece. If guacamole is brought to the table, ask for a side of vegetables to enjoy it with, rather than tortilla chips. Some Italian restaurants bring crudités and olive oil instead of bread, but it’s still a no-no. This is a tactic many restaurants use to keep you happy even if your meal takes a long time to arrive, but your body won’t thank you for your impatience!
5. Say No to Mixed Drinks
Think twice about ordering sugary mixed drinks. Dining out is often a celebratory occasion and many of us usually enjoy our meals with an alcoholic beverage like a cocktail. But many of our favorite cocktails are high in sugar and can cause an insulin spike, so a nice glass of wine or a neat liquor is a far healthier option. Alternatively, having your drink mixed with soda water and lime instead of soda can significantly lower its sugar and decrease your chances of having a hangover the next day.
6. Drink Plenty of Water
Drink lots of water throughout your meal (and in general)! Restaurant foods tend to be more heavily seasoned than home-cooked meals, so don’t skip the water when enjoying your meal or you may find yourself feeling dehydrated later. Drinking water before and throughout your meal will also slow you down and decrease your chances of eating in excess.
7. Slow Down!
Eat your meal slowly and enjoy every bite. When we really enjoy something, we tend to eat it as quickly as possible, especially in a restaurant where the food is delicious. It takes 20 minutes for your gut to tell your brain that you’ve eaten enough, and when you eat too quickly, you will likely overeat before you feel that signal.
8. Don’t Starve Yourself Before You Go Out
It can be tempting to hold off from eating earlier in the day so you can “save up” your calories for later, but fasting isn’t always the best option if you’re trying to lose weight. Make sure you eat something at least three hours before you arrive at the restaurant. If you’re extremely hungry when you get there, you’ll likely eat more bread and opt for a salty and high-carbohydrate or high-fat main course.
If you’re going to get takeout, be aware of how hungry you are when you order. If you’ve had to skip lunch and you’re heading to get takeout on the way home, remember that you won’t need to eat more to satisfy your hunger. We often order more potions or bigger sizes than we would usually to make up for that missed meal, but you don’t need to!
Eating out doesn’t have to feel restrictive, you just need to think about what’s going into your food and, by consequence, what’s going into you. Now that you know how to avoid overeating or choosing less healthy options, you can use these tips the next time you go to a restaurant or to get fast food. The more you use these tips, the quicker you’ll be able to identify healthier options and avoid buzzwords that indicate less healthy dishes. Don’t forget that you can also ask for substitutions, so consider swapping your fries for fresh veggies so you don’t overindulge.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.