Published on October 12, 2017

Make healthy choices when dining out


Contact: Jeri Hughes
Marketing & Community Relations
Essentia Health
(218) 828-7583

By Bonnie Brost, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.

Americans enjoy eating out. It' convenient, and we like to have someone else do the cooking and cleanup.

We spend a lot of money eating meals away from home or bringing in carry-out.  It' estimated that half of our food dollars are now spent in restaurants or in grocery store delis, cafeterias, gas stations and vending machines. This is nine times higher than in 1975. In 2014, Consumer Reports magazine estimated that Americans were spending more than $680 billion each year in restaurants.

Eating out also has health costs. The more we eat out, the more calories and more unhealthy fats, sodium and sugar we consume. That can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and other health risks.

"It' no coincidence that the proliferation of fast-food restaurants and the super-sizing of meals at table-service chains paralleled soaring obesity rates in the 1980s and 1990s," Michael F. Jacobson, the former president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has said. "While restaurants weren't solely to blame, their triple cheeseburgers, 2,000-calorie appetizers and the bucket-sized sodas definitely contributed." 

The Food and Drug Administration is implementing a new menu labeling law that applies to chains of restaurants, movie theaters, amusement parks, convenience stores, take-out food (grocery delis) and ice cream shops. This law, part of the Affordable Care Act, has been delayed until May 2018. Jacobson credits part of the delay in part to pizza chains not wanting to reveal calories. Domino' has led the fight.  Many chain restaurants already post calories and information on at least 10 other nutrients including sodium, saturated fat and sugar.

I often use the "My Fitness Pal" smartphone app to access information from chain restaurants to help my patients make better choices.  A great website is the "Healthy Dining Finder," which is managed by registered dietitians who have reviewed menus of chain restaurants and highlight choices that are lower in calories, fat and sodium.

Too many times I see great efforts by my patients in making healthy choices with lower calories and lower sodium during the week, only to be sabotaged by eating out on the weekend. The choices they make in the restaurant result in a weight gain or no weight loss. They get frustrated and throw out their whole eating healthier effort.

Here are some tips to help you make healthier choices when dining out:

Remember you're the customer. Ask questions and make special request
Ask for what you want.  Restaurants can do a lot more than what is written on the menu, but they cannot do it if you do not ask.  Don't be intimidated by the menu and its wonderful descriptions. Ask how items are prepared. Ask for your meal to be made without adding salt.

Ask for healthy substitutions.
If the order comes with fries or chips, ask if a side salad, steamed vegetable or fruit is an option. Even if you asked before, ask again. A restaurant will not change unless it gets enough requests to do so. 

Right size your serving sizes.
Restaurant portions are often larger than we need. Instead of a large entrée, order an appetizer and a leafy green side salad. Split a menu item with a friends or family member. Ask for a to-go box as your meal is served and put half away before you start eating. We have a habit to keep eating if food is in front of us, even if we have had enough. See this as a great option for tomorrow' lunch.  

Order dressings and sauces on the side.
A lot of calories and sodium come from salad dressing and sauces.  Order them on side so you control how much goes on.  I recommend the "fork method" for salad dressing.  Dip your fork in the dressing or sauce first, then spear your lettuce or other food item. You'll get a little flavor in each bite and find you ate a lot less than if the restaurant added the sauce or dressing before serving.

Choose lean meats. Limit the cheese
To lower calories and saturated fat, choose lean cuts of beef, such as round or loin cuts. Choose grilled or broiled meats or poultry or fish instead of fried options.  Aim for smaller portions of meat, no more than six ounces.  Ask for the cheese to be left off. 

Order first.
If you know you are influenced by what others order, ask to order first. You may even have a positive influence on your table mates. 

Rethink your drink.
Calories from drinks often get overlooked, but can be significant.  A glass of wine is about 150 calories, and some mixed drinks can be double or triple that.  Water is a great option to help fill you up.

Be mindful of waffling willpower.
You can walk into a restaurant with the best intentions but often saboteurs lurk. Be mindful of situations that can destroy your plans. If you're starving, you're too hungry to make a healthy choice. If you have not eaten in more than five hours, have a small snack before you arrive. You also can fall victim sensory overload. The delicious smells and tempting sights are overwhelming. Know there are some powerful marketing techniques at work in most restaurants. If your willpower wanes, recite this mantra: "Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels."

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