How to Eat Out on a Diet

What are the keys to eating out on a diet without derailing your meal regimen and health goals? Is there a best food to eat out on a diet? Are there effective strategies to eat out on a diet?

Group of happy friends having fun while waiter is serving them food in a pub.

(Getty Images)

“If you are following a specific style of eating, that doesn’t mean you have to give up eating out,” says Amanda Sauceda, a registered dietitian in Long Beach, California. “In fact, if you are unable to eat out because of a specific diet you’re following, that should be a red flag because that plan is lacking in flexibility, which is critical (to reaching your health goals in the long term).”

A healthy diet shouldn’t be derailed by an occasional restaurant meal, adds Dori Khakpour, a registered dietitian and the research director of the Diabetes Care Center, part of UW Medicine in Seattle.

Many sit-down restaurants – whether they are high-end or modestly priced – allow diners to swap out a dish for a healthier option at little or no cost, Sauceda says. If you’re eating out on a budget, say, at a fast food place, Sauceda recommends picking up part of your meal from the restaurant or drive-through window and combining it with your own sides, like a green salad or grilled vegetables. “This helps you save money while also fitting in foods that work for your diet,” she says.

She notes that many restaurants already have specialized menus with items like gluten-free pizza and low-sodium, heart-healthy options.

How to Eat Out on a Diet

With a little planning, it shouldn’t be a heavy lift to dine out while maintaining these three well-known and popular diets: 

Eating Out on a Low FODMAP Diet

The low FODMAP diet is followed by some people with particular bowel diseases and conditions who are particularly sensitive to foods that contain FODMAPs, which stands for fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols. These are sugars and carbs found in certain foods, including many nutritious ones, such as:

Individuals who are sensitive to FODMAPS are prone to suffering from an array of symptoms, including:

There are three phases to the low FODMAP diet, which aims to help you determine which foods you can consume and which ones cause gastric problems. Working with a registered dietitian can be helpful. In the first phase, all high-FODMAP foods are eliminated. This will help you determine if you’re sensitive to FODMAPs. In the second phase, you reintroduce FODMAP foods one at a time, to figure out which ones are OK to keep in your eating regimen. In the third and final phase, you can work with your registered dietitian to determine which foods trigger symptoms and which ones you tolerate, eliminating the ones that cause symptoms.
The good news is that many restaurants are aware of and cater to special dietary needs, says Anthony DiMarino, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. Some restaurants offer plant-based food options or low-gluten menu items. “Employees are sometimes trained to ask about special dietary needs,” he says.

Tips for Eating Out on a Low FODMAP Diet

To eat out on the FODMAP diet, DiMarino recommends these tips:

1. “Be your own advocate,” DiMarino says. “Work with your physician and your registered dietitian to understand your specific needs and meal plan.”

Some doctor’s offices provide documentation that explains your dietary needs. If you’re on the FODMAP diet and need to avoid certain foods, like whole-wheat products, peas or products with dairy, “be proactive and communicate these needs to your server.

2. Most restaurants post their menus, including nutritional information, on their websites. “Research the establishment you are going to and determine what you will order ahead of time,” he says. If a dish includes a food that’s not part of your FODMAP diet regimen, ask for a substitute.

3. Be sure to order a dish or dishes that include foods from several food groups that don’t cause symptoms. “Your meal should include at least a lean protein, a source of carbohydrates and a vegetable, based on your specific needs,” he says.

The Keto Diet

The keto diet emphasizes weight loss through fat-burning. The goal of the eating regimen is to quickly lose weight and feel more satiated with fewer cravings. At the same time, the diet boosts your mood and enhances your mental focus and energy, proponents say.

Keto proponents say that by slashing carbs and instead filling up on fats, your body safely enters a state of ketosis. This is when the body breaks down both dietary and stored body fat into substances called ketones. At this point, your fat-burning system relies primarily on fat instead of sugar for energy. The keto diet calls for extreme carb restrictions – about 20 net carbs a day or less, depending on the version. There are a variety of keto diets, including modified keto and dirty-keto.

Tips for Eating Out on the Keto Diet

1. . If you’re on the keto diet, chances are the restaurant will have plenty of dishes that fit your eating pattern.

Foods you can eat on the keto diet include:

  • Beef.
  • Cheese.
  • Eggs.
  • Dairy.
  • Pork.
  • Poultry.
  • Seafood.

2. . Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how various dishes are cooked – most chefs are happy to answer your questions. If you’re looking for foods that are lower in fat, ask if your dishes are grilled or steamed, which are lower-fat cooking methods. If, on the other hand, you’re on the keto diet, foods that are sauteed or fried signals those dishes are higher in fat, and may fit your eating regimen.

The Mediterranean Diet

Many health experts recommend the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes eating fresh, whole foods, including:

  • Beans.
  • Cheese (in moderation).
  • Eggs (in moderation).
  • Fruits.
  • Herbs and spices.
  • Legumes.
  • Nuts.
  • Olive oil.
  • Red meat (on special occasions).
  • Sweets (on special occasions).
  • Yogurt (in moderation).

The Mediterranean diet is rated No. 1 on the U.S. News 2022 Best Diets Overall list. The eating regimen is associated with an array of health benefits, including a reduced risk of:

Tips for Eating Out on the Mediterranean Diet

Fortunately, the Mediterranean diet offers a wide variety of foods, many of which are available at most restaurants. You’ll want to pay attention to how these foods are prepared.

To eat out on the Mediterranean diet, Sauceda recommends these strategies:

1. Looking at the menu ahead of time can help you figure out what to order to stay within your Mediterranean eating regimen, Sauceda says. “For example, if someone is following the Mediterranean diet they might choose a grain bowl that uses grains they wouldn’t normally make themselves,” she says.

2. As with the keto diet, you’ll want to know not just what food is on the menu, but how it’s prepared. While followers of the keto diet would likely prefer dishes that are sautéed or fried, you’ll favor dishes that are grilled or steamed.

3. This is the combination of nutrients you need for optimal health, Sauceda says. On the Mediterranean diet, you might choose a dish with a lean protein, like grilled chicken or fish, and steamed vegetables. To maintain your gut health and stay regular, order a high-fiber dish like steamed broccoli or a serving of whole grains.

4. Some sauces and salad dressings are high in sugar, fat and calories. “Most sauces are made with various fats and sugars,” Khakpour says. Added sugars don’t fit into any diet, especially not keto, since sugar is also a carb.

Tips for Eating Out on a Diet

Here are five general tips for eating out on a diet:

1. Don’t go out to eat when you’re feeling too hungry.

“Make sure to eat out when you’re ‘meal hungry’ but not starving,” Sauceda says. “Sometimes we get excited about eating out and try to save up our calories for that meal, and this can backfire because you are more likely to overeat and feel bleh.”

Try a modest snack – like some berries, a cup of yogurt or crackers with cheese or peanut butter – an hour or two before your restaurant meal.

2. Eat the most nutritious part of the meal first.

If you begin by eating the most nutritious food on your plate – say, a side of grilled veggies or a salad – you’ll start to feel satiated by the part of your meal that’s most packed with nutrients. “This way you don’t feel like you are forced to stuff down your carrots at the end of the meal,” Sauceda says.

3. Think about your beverage.

Don’t forget to consider what you’re drinking. “Your drink can be a source of added sugars or other ingredients that may not be part of your diet,” Sauceda says. For example, fruit juices, sweetened tea and lemonade may contain more sugar and calories than you want. “Water and plain iced tea usually works for most people.”

4. Don’t eat everything on your plate.

Many restaurants provide large servings which could bust your diet for the day. “Not finishing is OK, your mom will forgive you,” Khakpour says. “Take home leftovers for another meal, which can be economical and help you avoid overeating. Or split a meal and a dessert with a friend.”

5. For dessert, try the “three bite” method.

If you do decide to indulge in dessert, Khakpour suggests trying the “three bite” approach. “The first bite gives great pleasure, the second bite convinces the taste buds to be happy but after the third bite the taste buds are overwhelmed and you’re eating out of habit more than tasting.”

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