Be a Menu Detective: Spot the Diet Killers When Eating Out

Dining out when you are watching your diet can be a challenge, and looking at menus can feel like a mystery when determining what’s the best choice nutritionally. The large portions, tempting dishes, and inability to control the ingredients can all wreak havoc on your healthy eating goals. Restaurant foods can often be loaded with added calories, fat, and sodium especially since most restaurants are concerned with only one thing…taste! However, there are many clues on the menu you can use to help you detect where sodium, fat and calories may be hiding. Oftentimes the lingo on the labels tempting you with delicious sounding food are the same words that can help you find healthier options. Use these descriptive terms to lead you to the culprit of poor diet choices when eating out. Let’s investigate…

Clues for High Sodium

Sodium can add up fast when you’re eating out. Since most restaurant meals don’t come with a full nutrition panel, spotting certain key words can be your guide for choosing lower sodium meals. It is best to avoid the following terms on the label as these words would be a clue that there is a lot of salt added to the dish.

Soy Sauce       Marinated        Teriyaki         Smoked       Barbecued       Brined

Broth        Cured        Pickled        Charcuterie        Creole Sauce

Deli Meat      Au Jus      Cocktail Sauce      Miso

In addition to avoiding these descriptive words on the menu, it is a good idea to get into the habit of tasting your food before adding any additional salt. Don’t be afraid to ask for herbs to be added to the dish or for your item to be prepared without added salt. Asking for a lemon wedge or vinegar to add to the dish can also help add flavor and limit the salt while eating out.

Clues for High Calories

According to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine, the average meal at an independent or small chain restaurant is 1,300 calories! Since most of us don’t want to consume a day’s worth of calories in one meal, the following menu descriptors could help guide you in the right direction. For many of the following food descriptions, the calories come from mostly fat. By avoiding these descriptive terms, you will save calories and limit total fat, in particular saturated fat.

Gravy     Mayonnaise     Rich      Sautéed     Crispy     Creamy      Marinated in Oil

Battered      Au Gratin      Fried      Hollandaise     Buttery    Scalloped

Prime   Cheesy    Béarnaise   Cream Sauce    Double crusted

Loaded Pastry     Breaded     Cheese Sauce      Béchamel

Aioli    Confit    Carbonara   Golden    Smothered  

Scampi   Tempura White Sauce   Fritters

Remember that no restaurant is the same so if you have any questions about how anything is prepared ask the waiter.

Making Healthier Choices

Just as there are clues to items to steer away from, there are certain words that indicate a better choice. Look for the following words on restaurant menus for lower sodium and lower calorie options:

Baked      Steamed       Stir-fried       Roasted       Lightly sautéed 

Broiled      Braised      Grilled      Poached       Fresh 

Cooked in its own juice, lemon juice, or wine

Other ideas to help control your calories, fat, and sodium when dinning out include:

Skip the bread basket or chips and salsa. Order a salad with dressing on the side instead if you want something before your meal.

Don’t skip meals before heading out to dinner. This may backfire and lead you to overindulge. Focus on healthy, balanced meals the remainder of the day.

Split the portion with a friend or take half of your meal home with you.

If you’re at a buffet, use a smaller plate and try to fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables. And sit so you are not facing the buffet.

Go easy on condiments and dressings. Ask for them on the side and opt for healthier condiments like salsa, mustard, hummus, tahini, or lemon juice.

Ask for smaller portions or order ala carte. By having smaller portions you eliminate some calories and sodium without giving up your favorite dishes.

It’s a good idea for all of us to cut back on dining out and try to eat healthier meals at home. When we eat at home we are in control of our portions and what is and is not added to our food. But, it’s a fact of life that eating out will happen from time to time. By getting familiar with clues on the menu and trying some simple swaps, you can dine out and keep your health goals in check.

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