The key to eating healthy when you eat out is to plan properly. The easiest way to do that is by knowing what you're getting yourself into. Before you head to a restaurant, check its website for a menu with nutrition information. Ideally, the menu will provide a breakdown of calories and nutrients provided by each item they offer. If the information isn't available online, don't be afraid to ask for it at the restaurant. (Read Avoid These Common Weekend Eating Mistakes.)
Once you have the nutrition info, make sure your meal follows these five guidelines for eating healthy in a restaurant.
- Look for options that provide about 500 to 700 calories. Although that may not sound like a huge amount, it's roughly equal to what you should eat in a single sitting if you're on an 1,800- to 2,500-calorie-per-day diet, which most people are. Many restaurant serving sizes deliver more than this, typically coming in at 1,000 or 1,200 calories per plate. When you're eating out, let your body (not your plate size) be your guide. When you're hungry, eat. When you're full, stop. Don't just keep eating because there's more food on your plate.
- When looking at the fat content of a meal, look at the type of fat rather than the amount. You want your total trans fat intake to be zero grams at all times. That stuff is just nasty. Try to keep your saturated fat intake at 5 to 10 grams or less. (See Made-to-Order Restaurant Eating: Hold the Fat.)
- Choose foods that are low in sugar (fewer than 10 grams per serving) and high in fiber (more than 3 grams per serving). Whole grain, low glycemic carbohydrates are your best option. Opt for sweet potatoes and brown rice over white potatoes and white rice.
- Total sodium per serving should be 600-800 mg or less. A low sodium food item ideally contains less than 300 mg, but that can be hard to find when eating out. (What's more full of sodium than Chinese take out? See How to Eat Healthy at a Chinese Restaurant (Dining In or Taking Out).
- Go for lean proteins like fish, chicken or turkey. An adequate amount of protein for a meal is 20-30 grams. Higher-fat meats like pork, beef and steak can provide this amount of protein, but fish, chicken or turkey will get you there with fewer calories and less fat.
Finally, don't forget to have fun. Try something new when you eat out. You always want to make sure you enjoy what you're eating, so experiment with new ingredients and flavors while being aware of your portions and nutrition information. Don't feel compelled to order plain chicken and dry salad unless that's what you're really in the mood for.
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