In my private practice none of my clients exclusively make their own meals, and some dine out as many as 10-15 times a week but they’re still able to lose weight, because they’ve honed their dining out skills.
Now a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior supports that going out to eat doesn’t have to derail weight loss progress. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin enrolled 35 healthy, perimenopausal women (aged 40 to 59) who eat away from home frequently in a six-week program designed to help them learn how to dine out more healthfully. While the scientists’ focus was on preventing weight gain nearly 70% of the women in the study lost weight (about 4 pounds), felt more confident about dining out, and kept it off. Overall, the ‘ladies who lunched’ reduced their daily caloric intakes by about 300, from a combination of eating less at restaurants as well as at home.
I don’t know the ins and outs of the program in the study, but in my experience there are four key strategies that can prevent restaurant regret:
Always decide where you’re going in advance so you won’t get stuck without healthy options. If you go out often with friends or co-workers take the lead—suggest places where you already know exactly what to order because you’ve identified a healthy go-to meal (check out my previous post about my fave Mexican fail-safe meals). And if you’re going some place new, hop online to look at the menu and decide what to order before you go. Pre-ordering in your mind means you won’t feel stressed or rushed while you’re there (which can lead to a spontaneous, less than healthy order). You’ll also be less likely to get pulled into what I call OUI – ordering under the influence, with the influence being hunger, or that throw-caution-to-the-wind feeling we sometimes get in a restaurant setting (you know, when you start to feel like you’re on vacation).
Strategize your splurge
If you’re going to splurge, plan it. Choose one splurge food and build your meal around it. Most splurges involve carbs and fat, like French fries (my splurge of choice) or a dessert. If you know that’s what you really want forego carbs and fat in the rest of your meal. When I have a major spuds craving I’ll order a veggie burger on lettuce leaves instead of a bun, with a side of steamed veggies and hand-cut fries. On more than one occasion a server has commented, “I don’t get it – you want a low-carb burger but you do want fries?” And when I explain that I don’t want the bun because I’d rather “spend” my carbs on fries they say, “Wow, that totally makes sense!” If dessert is your thing order it after an entrée salad topped with lean protein or order fish, chicken or tofu with steamed veggies (sans pasta, rice or potatoes). This trick allows you to strike a balance, so rather than all or nothing, you’ll feel satisfied, not stuffed.
Don’t double up
I’ve seen a lot of people fall into the trap of eating too much healthy food. That’s why one of my philosophies is to prevent excess by choosing just one food that fills a certain category. For example, if you choose to sprinkle sliced almonds on your salad to add heart healthy fat, skip the avocado and oil; if you’re eating soft corn tortillas forego the brown rice; if you order seared tuna as an appetizer your entrée doesn’t need to include more seafood or meat. Doubling up is like putting on a skirt over a pair of pants; it’s overkill, and any time you eat more of anything than your body can burn or use, even healthy stuff, the excess gets sent to your fat cells. Restaurant meals are notorious for including too much of a good thing, so don’t be afraid to order an appetizer and sides instead of an entrée, or make special requests—it’s your meal, so it should be constructed your way.
Savor every bite
One of the easiest ways to end up overeating is to be distracted while you eat. When you aren’t paying attention you can literally look down at an empty plate and not remember tasting or enjoying the food. So whether you’re at a fast food or four-star restaurant set a goal of slowing down and drawing your attention to the food itself. If you start to feel distracted set your fork down while you’re talking or listening to a friend’s story and when you resume eating try to notice the flavor, texture and aroma in every bite. If you tend to be the first one finished check out my previous post about how to train yourself to take it slower.
So what do you think? Do you tend to get derailed when you dine out, or do you have tips and tricks that help you dine out healthfully? Please share your thoughts or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.