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Ask the Diet Doctor: How to Use Weight Loss Apps While Dining Out

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Q: I use an app to track my meals. How do I estimate calories for a restaurant meal or something someone else cooked?

A: You're right to be concerned about your ability to log and track your meals away from home—according to the United States Departure of Agriculture (USDA), we now eat over 40 percent of our meals away from home. Most of my clients eat out a majority of the time, and many of them track their food intake on mobile apps (I usually recommend MyFitnessPal). Here's what I tell them about tracking the nutritional content of foods when they are on the go.

Use an App with a Robust Database
The good food diary apps have very robust nutritional databases that extend beyond the typical USDA database to include a lot more commercial offerings. Be wary of ‘user added content,’ as those items can contain unexpected errors and inaccuracies. (Find out more about The Right Way to Use Weight Loss Apps.)

You Aren’t Going to Be Perfect and That’s Fine
When you're eating out (at a restaurant, on the move, or at someone else’s home), there are many variables at play that you can't control (like, do they use a lot or a little oil when cooking? Or, what's in this sauce?). Do your best to estimate portions and break down a meal to its components. Many food diary apps have more tangible measurements for foods, such as 1 cup of cooked diced chicken breast instead of 4 ounces of chicken breast. These can be easier measurements to estimate. Use these to your advantage to piece together the meal you are eating one component at a time.

Aim Low
To account for residual and unaccounted calories, I recommend that you guess on the low side of your calorie and macronutrient intake. A majority of these calories will most likely come from fat, as oils are the easiest thing to add to meal and the hardest thing to try to determine when looking at a dish. On any given day, you will probably be plus or minus 10 percent of your benchmark, on days that you eat out a lot, aim to be minus 10 percent.

Do Your Homework 
Many restaurants provide online menus and some have nutritional content online. Do your homework online before you eat out. You'll be able to gather a lot of information about potential food options and their nutritional content with minimal effort, which will save you the hassle of worrying about tracking and figuring out the content of your meal in the moment. (Or try one these 15 Off-Menu Healthy Meals You Can Always Order.) Fortunately, it's going to get a lot easier to eat out smartly, as the FDA has new food labeling guidelines that will require restaurant chains with 20 or more establishments to provide you with written nutrition information upon request. For most places, online is the easiest way to disseminate the information. This is also the easiest for you when you are planning in advance.

The key is to do the best you can with the resources that you have. If you are off by a little, that's far better than throwing in the towel and just eating whatever you want with no regard for your nutrition plan or goal. Keep these four tips in mind, and strive to be as consistent as you can.

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