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Eating Out While on a Diet: How to Stay on Track

  • Ronak Patel
  • April 5, 2016

By Brandy D.

If you’re trying to improve your health by following a diet or meal plan, you already know how important it is to prepare and cook meals at home. However, dining at your favorite restaurant doesn’t have to sabotage a healthy diet.

Eating out on occasion won’t sway your weight loss goals if you pick your menu items carefully. A new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found 92 percent of the 364 restaurant meals reviewed from both chain and non-chain restaurants to have exceeded the recommended calorie requirements for a single meal. To stay on track, you must resist temptation.

It is possible to resist ‘bad’ foods in favor for more nutritious options. Follow these tips for success.

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Don’t Go Hungry

It makes sense. You’re starving and don’t feel like cooking, so you head to a local eatery. Your stomach is grumbling so you order the best-sounding thing on the menu. Triple Stacked Burger smothered in extra-sharp cheddar? Yum. A side of fries? Why not. Before you know it, only the greasy remnants of your dinner is left on the plate.

Many people choose to skip a meal and go hungry before eating out to ensure that they get their monies worth. Unfortunately, if you show up to the restaurant half-starved, you’re likely to overeat.

One easy way to prevent over-indulging on a heaping burger or hefty plate of chicken wings is to eat beforehand. Maintain your regular eating habits and avoid skipping meals if possible. If you’re hungry before arriving to the restaurant, consume a healthy snack before you go, like a low-calorie yogurt or piece of fresh fruit.

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Know Your Options

Sitting down in a restaurant without a game plan often results in rash decision-making. Make an informed choice by doing your research prior to ordering. Use your smartphone to look at online menus and pick what you’re going to eat before you go. Use your smartphone when you get hungry on-the-go to locate healthy food options.

There are numerous free apps available that can help you find menu items that meet your diet requirements. Whether you’re looking for organic, gluten-free, vegetarian, raw, paleo, or just low-calorie options, it’s easy to find delicious and nutritious restaurants and menu items that meet your needs. Here are a few excellent (and free) apps to try.

  • HealthyOut – This healthy restaurant nutrition guide connects you with healthy meals from local restaurants in your area. Use filters such as low fat, low calorie, heart healthy, or high protein. You can also search by popular diets like Atkins, Paleo, and South Beach.
  • Find Me Gluten Free – For individuals on a gluten-free diet, this app is a lifesaver. View local establishments who cater to the gluten-free community, read reviews, see gluten-free menus, and get directions directly to the business.
  • Zomato – Zomato is essentially a restaurant finder, allowing you to discover new places to eat in your city. There’s other perks too. The app also allows you to browse restaurant menus, user reviews, and photographs from various eateries.
  • Food Tripping – Trying to avoid fast food? The Food Tripping app is designed to locate the closest farmers’ markets, juice joints and healthy eateries.
  • MyFitnessPal – If you’re eating at a chain restaurant, there’s a good chance that the menu item you choose is already in the MyFitnessPal database. Simply choose the item to see its nutritional value, including its calorie content.

When choosing menu items, there’s a few other tips to remember. Avoid foods described as “crispy”, “au gratin” or “rich”. These typically include fried and sautéed items. Instead choose items that are broiled, steamed, grilled, or baked. These types of foods typically contain significantly lower fats and calories.

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Get More for Less

Who says you have to get an entrée? Instead of chowing down on a large main dish, order two small appetizers instead. By choosing this alternative, you’ll get to sample two different scrumptious dishes and eat less overall.

While ingredients differ from restaurant to restaurant, opt for appetizers that are generally low in fat, such as stuffed mushrooms, baked or broiled chicken wings, or shrimp cocktail without the crackers.

Really want to avoid wasted calories? Pass on the breadbasket. If the sight of buttery buns is too much for you, simply ask the waiter not to bring any bread to your table.

Personalize It

Salad doesn’t have to be slathered with blue cheese. You can choose to drink plain water instead of soda. No one is forcing you to eat dessert. In short, don’t be afraid to customize your meals when eating out.

There are many ways you can personalize your order to better stay on track with your diet. Opt to have your sauce on the side, allowing you to choose how much you actually eat. Instead of white bread, rice or pasta, ask the restaurant if they serve a whole grain alternative. Of course, choosing a low fat option of any food is the wiser choice.

Here are a few tips to help you make healthier choices:

  • Stick with a single hamburger patty – just say no to double and triple stacked burgers.
  • Avoid calorie-rich toppings, such as extra cheese and bacon. To add extra interest to your meals, add ‘good’ toppings, such as tomatoes or pickles.
  • Go meatless. Most restaurants have meat-free burgers and sandwiches, such as a veggie burger or good old fashioned grilled cheese.
  • Choose from the kid’s menu. Kid-size portions are generally smaller and therefore have less calories.
  • Go easy on the ‘special sauces’, as most are loaded with sugars and fats. If you need sauce, put it on the side.
  • Be wise when choosing sides. Standard side dishes like mac n’ cheese, baked beans and mashed potatoes are high in calories. Instead, choose healthier sides like corn, green beans or steamed veggies.

Practice Portion Control

Portion control is essential when trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. To determine proper portion size, you must understand how much a serving size of food is, and how many calories each serving contains. When eating, sticking to healthy portion sizes is hard, as most restaurants serve up huge portions of food to satisfy hungry customers.

The good news is you can use portion control when eating out by exercising a few simple practices. Instead of trying to eat those colossal heaps of food on your own, share your meal with a friend or significant other. By splitting a meal, you can save on both calories and money.

Another easy tip? Save a portion of your meal to bring home. By taking home a doggy bag, you can avoid overeating and you’ll have a prepared meal available for when you get hungry later on.

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Rethink Your Salad

Salads are supposed to be good for you, right? Well, that’s not always the case. When kept basic, a green salad produces a punch of protein, magnesium, calcium, dietary fiber, and vitamins A, C, K and B6. Unfortunately, many restaurants create unhealthy salads covered in fattening dressings, croutons, bacon bits and cheese.

For a healthy salad, fill your plate with fresh veggies, greens, chickpeas, and other nutritional options. Skip the regular dressings in favor of a low-fat variety or just a squeeze of lemon juice for flavor.

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Avoid Temptation

Southern fried chicken. Grilled bacon and cheese. New York Style Cheesecake. Enticing isn’t it? Restaurants know how to draw people in by choose descriptive adjectives to name and describe their menu items. Terms like “juicy” and “creamy” make ordinary foods sound more delicious.

In a controlled survey conducted by the Food and Brand Lab, results showed that of the 140 diners surveyed, 27 percent were more likely to choose a descriptive menu item over a menu item with an ordinary label. For example, Black Forest German Chocolate Cake sounds better than just Chocolate Cake, and Farm Raised Chicken Breast Pita is typically chosen over Chicken Pitas.

Pay attention to these descriptive menu items the next time you eat out. When you’re able to recognize them, they be less like to sway your better judgement.

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Slow It Down

Did you know it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to send a message to your brain that you’re full? Eating fast doesn’t allow enough time for your brain to get the message that you’ve eaten enough. Give your brain time to catch up by eating slowly, fully chewing your food, and taking breaks to converse with your dinner mates.

Remember, digestion begins in the mouth. When chewing your food, allow it to fully liquefy before swallowing. If you find that you’re eating too fast, try putting your eating utensils down on the table after every bite of food. Also take frequent sips of water during your meals, as dehydration can mimic the signs of hunger.

Final Thoughts

While challenging, dining out while on a diet doesn’t have to be disastrous. Today, many restaurants offer mouthwatering menu items that are both low-fat and healthy. Don’t stress dining out – embrace it. You can have your cake and eat it too.

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