Even for those of us who have a pretty good grasp on our diet – eschewing most grains, keeping our carbohydrates below 100 grams a day, and even staying in ketosis for weeks at a time – eating out with friends, family, and colleagues is always difficult. It is easy to watch what we eat when we cook at home, but even the most introverted person has to dine out now and then, be it for a special occasion, vacation or a business trip, or when forget your carefully prepared lunch on the kitchen counter in a rush to get out the door in the morning.
More and more restaurants have menu options that are gluten-free, primal-friendly, or keto-compliant, but they may nevertheless be loaded with calories, carbohydrates, and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs or industrial oils, which have high levels of oxidants). In fact, one study published in Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAAND) found that over 90 percent of meals served at both large chain and local restaurants have more calories than would be recommended for an average meal for a standard eater.
Moreover, even when the restaurant menu provides calorie counts and lists other nutritional information, those numbers may be widely off. The values posted are calculated in a carefully controlled laboratory setting rather than “on the line’ when a busy chef might be trying to juggle a dozen or more complex orders and cannot take the time to carefully weigh or measure ingredients.
Despite these challenges, there are a number of ways of eating out now and then while still maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle:
1. Choose the restaurant carefully.
Making healthy choices starts with where you go to eating. As it turns out, three of the most popular cuisines in the US — American, Italian, Chinese — tend to have the least healthy options. Opt instead to go to restaurants that specialize in cuisines that are more traditionally centered around veggies, healthy fats, and lean protein. Examples are Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Greek, and Indian. Additional good choices are 2restaurants that specialize in using local ingredients and have menus that change seasonally (thankfully common where I live in the Hudson Valley region, the home of the farm-to-table movement) The focus on fresh, local produce not only results in a menu that is more vegetable-heavy, but also tends to use organic pasture-raised meats and wild-caught fish. These meals are not only healthier but taste better too.
2. Think leftovers.
Even when you can’t avoid going to the traditional Italian-American steakhouse (or, shudder, Olive Garden), you can still make smart choices in both what and how you order. You can opt for leaner cuts of meat, for example, and avoid pasta. It is also important in those situations to think about portion sizes. Many restaurants, particularly family-style restaurants, emphasize quantity over quality. The sizes of portions served in American restaurants, research has found, have more than doubled in the past twenty years. Consider this carefully when you order and when you start eating. You might order your meal from the appetizer section. Alternatively, if there is a particular dish you are craving (no matter how decadent) go ahead and order it but ask that half be put aside in a take-home container. That way you won’t overeat, and you’ll have another delicious meal to look forward to tomorrow.
3. Avoid “saving up” for dinner.
Even if you are going out to your favorite restaurant to celebrate a special occasion, don’t skimp on breakfast or lunch. Don’t deprive yourself throughout the day, otherwise it will make it that much harder not to eat an entire bowl of pasta, partake of the bread basket, or resist the more decadent entrees or desserts on the menu.
4. Dine out with a small group of friends and enjoy the conversation.
When we dine out alone or only with our partner, our attention can often 2wander and the conversation can drag. As a result, we engage in mindless eating to fill that void, consuming far more food than we intended. Instead, if you are eating out, go with a small group of friends and keep the lively conversation going throughout the meal. This helps to slow the eating process and allows our bodies’ satiety signals (which take about 20 minutes to develop) to register before we eat too much. Another trick to slow our eating is to put the utensils down between each bite, only picking them up again after we’ve finished chewing each bit. By savoring our food in this way, we not only enjoy the food more, but we also end up eating less.
5. Go light on the booze.
It’s almost expected that we have a cocktail or a glass of wine when dining out. Nowadays, a table’s drink order is the first thing that the waiter takes. Although most bar selections are nothing but empty calories and carbohydrates – little more than sugar and alcohol – there are some ways to partake in an adult beverage without overdoing it. We can start by choosing our drink wisely, opting for drier wines (particularly reds) or distilled spirits with low to no calorie mixers (like a single-malt scotch on the rocks or a gin and tonic). We can also moderate our drinking of alcohol, opting for one glass of wine with dinner and then switching to club soda, or sticking with ice tea throughout the meal but ending dinner with a nice aperitif. This not only makes sense from a caloric perspective, but also is good for the wallet since most alcoholic drinks are marked up 400% to 1000% at most restaurants.
Eating well and staying fit doesn’t mean that we can’t go to a restaurant or cafe and have fun. It just requires that we make smarter choices when we do decide to eat out.