I have spent the past several months carefully researching restaurant menus for an upcoming book about managing diet-related chronic disease, including diabetes. And, after evaluating thousands of menu options, my co-author and I have developed an amazingly simple way you can be certain eating out won’t sabotage your diabetes management progress – don’t ever eat out.
OK, that is, of course, unrealistic. But, it’s also true. Eating healthy in restaurants is incredibly challenging, and I could write my next 10,000 words explaining the many reasons why. Instead, I’ll give you the short version of “why”, and spend my remaining words giving you my best tips on how you can make the best restaurant choices.
Eating healthy in restaurants is challenging because:
- Most restaurant food is unhealthy – studies show this, my research shows this, and it’s obvious to anyone who looks at the nutrition information. If you make a random choice, even choosing something which “sounds” healthy, your odds of choosing healthy are still slim.
- There’s a huge conflict between what the eating out experience is intended to be – relaxing, social, celebratory, romantic, convenient – and doing analytical thinking about nutrition. Getting a healthy meal is never your main reason for eating out.
- The restaurant environment is designed to encourage you to eat without thinking. The sight of food, aroma of food, pictures of food, descriptions of food, and even the tempting bargains trigger cravings and impulses. Even if you’re usually comfortable evaluating carbohydrate grams and calories – and many people are not – this environment makes it very difficult to focus.
What are my best tips for choosing a healthy meal at a restaurant?
- First, understand that you should make your eating decisions before you are in the restaurant gazing at the menu, and surrounded by powerful distractions. That means accessing the nutrition information from the restaurant’s website, or from another reputable source.
- Second, set a reasonable carbohydrate “budget” for the meal. Your daily carbohydrate budget may be 150 grams, for example, but those should be spread throughout the day for better blood glucose control.
- Third, scan the restaurant nutrition information carbohydrate column to assemble a meal to fit your single-meal carbohydrate budget – 60 grams, for example. Don’t forget to include your decision about drinks and finger foods like bread or chips.
- Fourth, consider the sodium. The recommended daily maximum intake of sodium is 2,300 milligrams (mg), and 1,500 mg for many of us. Finding a restaurant meal with less than 1,000 mg is difficult – finding a meal with 4,000 mg is, unfortunately, very easy. If you eat out frequently sodium could be a very important consideration for your health.
Finally, get over the notion that you shouldn’t have to think about what you eat. Sure, it would be great if we didn’t need a calculator to plan a meal, but planning meals preserves our health – it’s worth the trouble. And, by the way, taking a few minutes to plan ahead let’s you enjoy your restaurant meal without the stress. And, that’s pretty valuable too.