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10 Rules for Eating Healthy When Dining Out

Updated on March 6, 2017
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Andrew is a freelance writer and substitute teacher from Redwood City. He has a B.A. in Literature from San Francisco State.

Do you like to eat out? If you're like most people, you probably do. Unfortunately, there is one huge downside to eating out: it's usually not very healthy. Most of us are aware of this problem; it can make going out to eat a guilt-ridden experience. But, it doesn't have to be that way. Contrary to popular opinion, eating nutritiously at a restaurant is perfectly possible. Here are ten practical tips that will help you stay on track with your diet and nutritional goals when eating out.

1. Plan Ahead

If you know you are going to be having a large meal, it makes sense to minimize eating in the hours preceding. Researching ordering options before you head out is also smart. Luckily, most restaurants now post their menus online. Deciding beforehand what to order can make it easier to resist the urge to order something unhealthy. You can also choose what restaurant to attend based on the healthiness of their menu.

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2. Ask Questions

The health value of a particular menu item may not be initially obvious, even if a description is provided. That's when asking for additional information is a good idea. While circumstances vary widely, in many restaurants your server will be able to explain how a dish is prepared, what exactly goes into it, and how healthy it might be.

Did you know that since 2011, restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets have been required to disclose calorie counts on their food items? Keep that in mind next time you go to Buca di Beppo or the Olive Garden.

3. Look Out for 'Danger' Words

Certain terms, when used to describe a dish, almost always indicate that it is bad for you. The most prominent of these are 'crispy,' 'fried,' 'creamy,' 'buttery,' 'au gratin,' 'rich,' and 'breaded.' Keeping a watchful eye out for these 'bad' words is one of the best and simplest ways to eat better when dining out. On the positive side, terms such as 'baked,' 'steamed,' and 'grilled' often indicate a relatively healthy option.

4. Substitute

You don't necessarily have to order a particular entree exactly as it is presented on the menu. Most restaurants will allow you to make modifications, substituting an unhealthy ingredient with something better. For example, you might replace the fries that come with your order with a salad. You might also ask for an extra serving of vegetables, or request that the kitchen leave the rich sauce off of a dish. At the very least, there is no harm in asking if requests are possible.

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5. Spice Is Nice

Did you know that spicy foods provide several health benefits that many people are not aware of? Research has shown that when eating spicy cuisine, people enjoy the following benefits:

  • Lower Cholesterol. Diets with higher levels of capsaicinoids (basically spicy foods) have been associated with lower levels of cholesterol, particularly LDL or "bad" cholesterol.
  • Higher Metabolism. Those beads of sweat on your forehead when chowing down on a spicy chili dish may actually help burn more calories. Studies show that eating spicy food can temporarily boost one's metabolism by as much as 8%!
  • Better Sleep. A study done in Australia found that individuals who ate spicy foods on a regular basis tended to fall asleep more quickly, wake up less during the night, and have less difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.

6. Avoid Alcohol and Soda

If you really want to be healthy, skipping the soda or alcoholic drink is a good idea. That's because both alcohol and soda pop are empty calories, totally devoid of any significant nutrients. Opting for water instead will make your meal healthier without affecting the taste of your food. If you do really want a drink, go for a glass of wine over a sugary, high-calorie mixed drink.

7. Say No to the Freebies.

Many restaurants will provide a basket of bread or tortilla chips as a free appetizer when you first sit down at your table. If you aren't careful, you can easily consume hundreds of calories before you've even ordered your actual meal -- especially if you are already very hungry when you arrive. Limit yourself to a small portion -- or, if you know you'll have trouble controlling yourself, ask for the food to be removed from the table entirely.

8. Don't Eat Everything

All too often, restaurants serve their food in excessively large portion sizes. Worse, many diners automatically eat everything they are served, even if it's way more than they need or want. Just remember, the urge to clean your plate should usually be resisted. Stop once you are full -- or even before, if you are eating something that isn't particularly healthy. There's nothing wrong with taking leftovers home in a to-go box.

9. Eat Slowly

You'll get more enjoyment out of your meal if you take longer to finish it. Savoring every bite helps to extend and enhance the experience, without requiring you to actually eat more. Just as importantly, eating at a slower pace can help you resist the urge to overeat since it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to fully register that you are no longer hungry.

10. Ask for Extra... Vegetables

Often in restaurants, vegetables are barely more than a garnish for the main meal. A few carrots or pieces of broccoli, but hardly a significant portion of the main dish. Therefore, ask your server for a double or triple service of vegetables with your meal. Most diners report that they are rarely, if ever, charged for such a request. Additionally, loading up on vegetables is a great way to ensure that you feel full, not fat, when you complete your meal when dining out.

Dining out is a fun, pleasurable experience that is unfortunately also usually unhealthy. But, enjoying yourself at a restaurant doesn't actually mean you have to give up on eating nutritiously. If you simply keep the ten practical rules described here in mind, you will be able to dine out while still making healthy choices.

© 2017 Andrew Armstrong

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