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How to eat healthy when you dine out

The average American eats approximately five meals per week in restaurants. That’s roughly 20 meals a month or 240 meals a year, where someone else controls what goes into your food and into your body. How can you avoid a restaurant food “hangover”—and keep unwanted pounds at bay?

Woman eating healthy salad

As a restaurant reviewer, my dining experiences have run the gamut, from awesome to awful — and plenty of mediocre in between (Trust me: it’s not all four-star dining!). I know, firsthand, how eating out all the time takes a toll on the body: bloating, constipation, gas, indigestion and a fast-expanding waistline. Sure, grabbing a meal out is easy and convenient when you’re busy. Or, maybe wining and dining clients is part of your job. But there’s an unfortunate trade-off.

You often end up consuming high-calorie foods cooked with hydrogenated oils, hydrolyzed proteins, excessive amounts of salt, sugar and fat, as well as additives and preservatives. For example, monosodium glutamate (MSG), found in soy sauce, is a food additive commonly used in Asian restaurants. MSG also lurks in fast food and chain restaurant food, most notably in sauces, spices and sweeteners. Hip and casual restaurants may use trendy condiments containing chemical preservatives. For example, sriracha sauce, a popular, spicy Thai condiment, contains potassium sorbate and sodium bisulfite.

How can you eat healthy when dining out?


Research restaurant menus online first

Take note: does the menu skew heavily toward comfort foods (mac ‘n cheese, meat loaf and mashed potatoes or barbecue)? Are simply prepared vegetable side dishes available? Are grilled or roasted meats, fish or poultry on offer? Are any organic green salads — at least one — listed? Is the meat and poultry organic, grass-fed or locally raised? Know your healthy options in advance — and stick with those choices at the restaurant.


Call ahead

Why invite digestive upset? If you have specific food sensitivities or allergies (wheat, gluten, dairy, nuts or soy), ask the restaurant if they can accommodate your sensitivities. Ditto if you’re vegetarian or vegan. When you make a reservation, ask that the chef be given a heads-up about your dietary restrictions.


Limit (or nix) alcohol

Have no more than one glass of wine or one cocktail. Studies suggest that alcohol stimulates appetite. And when we feel less inhibited, we’re more likely to give into cravings for sugary and high-calorie foods. Liquid calories add up, too: wine (5 ounces), beer (12 ounces), spirits (1-1/2 ounces) and soda (12 ounces) typically have 100 to 150 calories per serving. Fruit juice–based cocktails have even more. Opt, instead, for mineral water flavored with lemon or lime.


Just say NO to “welcome” wheat treats

Say no to that basket of bread, warm dinner rolls, grilled pita or salted chips — before they arrive at your table. Starchy carb starters invite mindless munching and they’re often a gateway to caloric spreads, dips — and more alcohol.


Scan the menu


Look for preparations that are roasted, baked or grilled. Avoid dishes described as “deep-fried”, “cheesy”, “creamy”, “breaded”, “crusted”, “batter-dipped”, “wrapped in bacon” or ones that are heavily sauced.


Ask your server questions (lots of them)

Is the poultry or meat from a local or organic farm? Is the fish wild-caught or farmed? When did the fish or shellfish arrive at the restaurant — that morning or a week ago? Fresh seafood is desirable. Ask the server to fully explain the ingredients in a dish and how it is prepared. If the server doesn’t know, ask to speak with a manager. (You’ll wait for the answers!) And alert your server to any food allergies or sensitivities you have.


Reduce morning-after bloat

Request that your dish be prepared with “no added salt”, “no added cheese” and “sauce on the side”.


Consider the source of your protein

Bottom line: if the choice is between farm-raised tilapia and a grass-fed steak, beef is the healthier choice.

Most people assume that fish is automatically “healthier” than beef. However, it’s important to ask: is the fish farm-raised or wild-caught? Where is the fish originally from —New England? Europe? Asia? Farm-raised fish, such as salmon, tilapia, sea bass and cod are dosed with antibiotics and organophosphate pesticides to prevent disease and infestation of sea lice. And, don’t be fooled by fancy-sounding “Scottish salmon”— it’s farm-raised. In fact, Scottish fish farms increased their use of organophosphate pesticides by 110 percent between 2008 and 2012 — in just four years!


Double your greens

Ask if you can substitute a salad or cooked greens for a starch. For example, if your pork chop comes comes with cabbage and mashed potatoes, ask for a side of spinach (or other greens) in lieu of the mashed potatoes.


Indulge mindfully

green tea

Instead of dessert, treat yourself to a soothing, non-alcoholic digestif, like a cup of chai, peppermint, chamomile or green tea. If you must have dessert, keep it simple: a dark chocolate mousse or an egg custard-based dessert with berries — sans whipped cream, glaze, sauce or ice cream.


Less is more at fast food and chain restaurants

Make protein, which helps stabilize blood sugar, your focus. Better fast food protein sources include an omelet, a burger (no bun!) or grilled chicken. Choose entrees or side dishes featuring at least one serving of vegetables (1 serving = 1/2 cup cooked vegetables or 1 cup raw vegetables). Avoid sauces, dressings, dairy (like cheese and sour cream), wheat (usually loaded with sugar, additives and preservatives), soft drinks and dessert.

More on healthy eating

Tips for healthy eating at a Mexican restaurant
Healthy eating tips to lose weight and get in shape
Healthy eating tips: Beyond the calorie count

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