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How to Eat Healthy at Any Restaurant

My clients often tell me that they’re good at eating healthy when they’re at home, but struggle when they go out to eat. It sometimes feels like restaurants are made to derail healthy habits.

Now, it’s not that all restaurant food is bad for you…but between the butter based sauces, the mammoth portion sizes, and free extras like chips and salsa it’s easy to overeat.

You shouldn’t have to give up things you enjoy just to slim down, so I’ve got some easy tips to make eating out a little healthier.

Tip 1: Portions Matter. The biggest problem with restaurants isn’t what they serve, but how much.

If you go to Olive garden for fettucine alfredo, you’ll get approximately 410 grams of food in a lunch serving of alfredo, or about 1 3/4 cups. That means you’re getting almost 3 servings, and you’re eating 850 calories – in one meal!

How much of that Fettucine Alfredo should you eat? 150 grams, or around half a cup – that’s about the size of half a tennis ball.It’s no wonder so many Americans struggle with their weights…we’re being fed over-inflated portions. Here’s a visual guide to the portions you should be eating.

Tip 2: Box it up. What should you do when you order food and are given a giant portion? Look at it as a bonus – you went out to dinner and got tomorrow’s lunch for free. I advise my clients to ask for a to-go box with their entree and pack up half (or more, if needed) right away.

Why not wait until the end of the meal? If you’ve got a plate half full of food in front of you, you’re likely to pick at it.  If you box it up and put it away before eating, you instantly eliminate the temptation.

Tip 3: Location, Location, Location. Where you sit at the table can actually make a difference, especially when you’re at a long table. You could actually cut 100-400 calories from your meal based on where you sit.

Think about it…when a waiter puts down free bread, chips and salsa or peanuts before your meal, he puts it in the center of the table. By sitting further from center, the food isn’t right in front of you. That makes it harder to eat mindlessly.

Basically, picking a seat close to the head or foot of a table means you may actually end up eating less.

Tip 4: Read The Menu Carefully. By giving the menu a careful read, you’ll be able to avoid unhealthy items pretty easily. Avoid these menu watch words, and you’ll avoid many unhealthy things on the menu.

Menu Watch Words:

Creamy Crispy Crunch
Confit Breaded Golden
Fried Loaded Country

Instead, look for the following 9 Healthy Menu Keywords. These mean that your dish is cooked using a lighter method.
Healthy Menu Keywords:

Grilled Steamed Poached
Roast Baked Broiled
Rubbed Wood-Fired Marinated

Tip 5: Skip The Entree. As I mentioned in tip 1, restaurant entrees are HUGE. By picking an appetizer instead of an entree, you get a more reasonable portion. Consider ordering a salad and an appetizer, a soup and an appetizer, or even two appetizers instead of the traditional appetizer and entree. It’s a great way to enjoy a variety of flavors without eating huge portions.

Tip 6: Order Smart Starters. Order more and lose weight? It’s possible. Studies have shown that ordering the right appetizer will help you lose weight – even if it feels like you’re ordering more. A Penn State University study found eating a low-calorie soup or salad before a meal cut the overall calories that participants ate during their meal by 20%.

I know it seems illogical, but soups and salads are volumetric foods, meaning they take up a lot of room and fill you up without adding a ton of calories to your meal. So what makes a soup or salad low-calorie? I find any broth-based soup works really well, as does a salad with simple oil and vinegar dressing…just make sure your salad or soup don’t have a lot of calorie-dense add-ons like cheese, nuts, or croutons.

I suggest avoiding bisques, chowders and cream-based soups. Also, avoid high calorie dressings like caesar, ranch and dressings with lots of added sugar.

Tip 7: Double the vegetables. Many restaurant meals come with a protein, a starchy carb side dish and a vegetable side dish. If you ask nicely, most places will let you swap out that starchy carb for more vegetables.

I’m not telling you never to eat carbs…If you read my email about carb myths you know I’m a carbohydrate fan. But this is a good time to skip the starchy carbs. Here’s why:

Restaurant foods are prepared with more fat and sodium than home cooking, and starchy side dishes are especially calorically dense. Swapping starches for vegetables is a good way to lighten your meal without feeling like you’re eating less food.

I hope this helps you get the most out of your restaurant experiences. I truly believe that you don’t have to make huge sacrifices to reach optimal health…just making little lifestyle tweaks make a huge impact.

About the Author

Dr. Amy Lee

Dr. Amy Lee has board certifications in internal medicine, physician nutrition and obesity medicine specialty. She practices internal medicine with a heavy emphasis on nutrition, wellness and weight management. Her Clinical nutrition fellowship training at UCLA has allowed her to incorporate realistic lifestyle modification in all her medicine patients.