Eating Out Mindfully
You’re on a diet/lifestyle plan, you try your best to eat well, but often times, you get invited to social or work events and don’t know how you can possibly stick to your goals at a steak house or over Italian. You want to get a salad, but with everyone else ordering red meats, tortillas and margaritas… you give in and indulge a little. One indulgent meal a week won’t set you off track right? One meal, definitely not. Two meals or three meals, well it depends. Over four, probably. It really just depends on the quality and quantity of food you’re eating. Most restaurant servings are too big as is, and secondly, you don’t know what goes into the food. Is there any hope? Absolutely, let’s demystify going out to eat.
Let’s look at some of the common genres of restaurants you may be eating at and work through their menus for mindful options.
I’ll start with the steaks. Are steaks bad for you? Not at all. In fact, they can be had mindfully once or twice a week. They contain lots of animal fat and protein and for those of us on a low carb diet, fat is our best friend. The issue with steak houses is usually the serving size of the steaks. A regular serving of protein is typically about 4 ozs, whereas steaks at a restaurant are going to be anywhere from 8 to 24 ozs. That means you’ll be eating anywhere between 2 to 4 times the amount of meat you would normally eat otherwise. That’s a lot of protein and fat and if you haven’t factored that into your day then you’re probably going to eat more calories than you normally do. You’ll also go over your protein and fat goals for the day. Then there’s the sides… I know the mac and cheese is delicious, but you’re already indulging on a steak so why add processed carbs? The best sides you can get are going to be fibrous foods that will help you pass the large amounts of meat through your digestive track. Sauteed/baked greens or other veggies. As for the drinks, there is no real good option outside of water but who actually drinks water with steak? A glass of wine or two (max) is a good option. If not, then straight alcohol of a higher quality will be your best bet as they are the lowest in sugars.
Be mindfully aware of serving sizes. If you’re going to be eating a 16-24 oz steak, then account for it and have less fat and protein throughout the day.
Choose fibrous sides to help digest your meal. Avoid the processed carbs and the starchy veggies (potatoes).
Drink moderately. Two glasses of wine or alcohol is okay but limit yourself.
Limit your red meat intake to a couple of times a week.
Salads are also great. Just be aware of the added sugars in most dressings. Olive oil is by far the best dressing.
One of my personal favorites. Whether its a taco stand or a full scale restaurant, there are steps you can take to align the meal with your goals or restrictions. It all depends on the choices you make and mindfulness towards your food. The more you know and pay attention to what you eat, the better off you’ll be. For instance, flour or corn tortillas? Flour tortillas are tasty (I know all too well), but they’re also full of processed grains and sugar. They also have virtually no nutritional value outside of a little protein and fat. Corn tortillas on the other hand are a third of the calories and less than half the carbs. If its a meal, the same rules as steak houses apply. Look at the serving size and try to avoid consuming too much of the carbohydrates (especially white rice, which has a sky high glycemic index). Beans can be had in moderation. Your best options are going to be vegetables and leans meats such as fish or chicken.
Avoid sugar and processed carbs where you can. Eat corn over flour tortillas and go easy on the rice. If you’re on a low carb diet, you’re better off avoiding the rice and tortillas altogether.
Choose the grilled options (chicken, fish or red meats) with a side of vegetables or salad.
Queso is fair game as it’s most just fat and protein, but be mindful of how many tortilla chips you have with it. It’s probably better to pour queso over your meal.
Margaritas are loaded with sugars, if you want to drink, limit yourself to one or have a neat drink or an iced drink. Straight tequila isn’t so bad, is it?
Ah the diner. Most breakfast and brunch items will be had a diner. This one can get messy quickly. I personally find it hard to resist the pancakes and french toast, and don’t get me started on all the syrups. There is an endless amount of tasty but heavily processed items you can choose from. The best way to eat cleanly at a diner is to stick to the proteins. Try to avoid the carbs entirely. You could also order a small side of toast or one pancake. Moderation is key here. Be wary of the mimosas and bloody mary’s as the sugar can add up quickly.
Stick to proteins like eggs and other meats like chicken and bacon.
Have some fresh fruit or vegetables.
Limit or avoid the breads and carbs like potatoes and grits.
The syrup is all sugar, steer clear!
Order avocado on whole grain bread.
Eat the carbs in moderation by sharing them or ordering them from the sides menu.
Watch out for the drinks as orange juice is predominately sugar, especially mimosas.
The good news is that seafood is generally really good for you! Shellfish, fresh water, or deep water fish are all loaded with lean protein and good fats (specifically polyunsaturated fats and omega 3 fatty acids which can are prevalent in fatty fish). Seafood should be in everyone’s diet/lifestyle plans and consumed at least twice a week. The downside is that some fish, usually the larger predatory fish, have higher levels of mercury and other environmental contaminants. The best way to avoid risks is to eat a large variety of fish as opposed to eating the same kinds all the time. If possible, have cooked fish versus fried fish and if you’re eating sushi, I suggest sashimi to keep the carb intake down.
Eat a variety of fish at least a couple of times a week but know where your fish comes from. If possible, avoid the fish from fish farms as they are much higher in contaminants.
Avoid large predatory fish like sharks, swordfish, and king mackerel as they have high levels of mercury.
Have baked or cooked fish vs fried fish whenever possible.
If eating Sushi, eat sashimi to keep the carb intake down.
Have your fish with fibrous vegetables and limit highly starchy veggies (potatoes, yams, squash) and refined carbs (breads, crackers, rice, pastas).
By now you should start seeing the patterns: Be aware of portion sizes, avoid processed carbs and sugars, limit your drinking (especially mixed drinks), eat fibrous veggies, and choose lean meats. Chinese food, real Chinese food, is actually already very healthy. Most dishes are protein-based and often include an assortment of veggies. You’re also handed a bowl of rice, which you should generally avoid, especially if you have any blood sugar issues or are following a low carb diet. The same goes for noodles. If you must have them, share them with someone or plan accordingly and have less carbs throughout the day.
Order lean meats with sauteed veggies.
Limit or avoid the rice and noodles.
Dumplings are delicious but the bun is all carbs, indulge in one if you must but know your limits.
Drink all the tea you like! Don’t add any sugar though.
Other Asian foods
I know this is a rather broad category but the basic principles apply. Try and avoid any processed carbs such as noodles or rice and shoot for veggies in their place. Most Asian food has an assortment of vegetable dishes made with different sauces or simply sauteed in oil with garlic (YUM!). Indian food in particular has a large variety of vegetarian options, but be mindful of all the naan bread. Add a lean meat and you’re all set. If you must have noodles (looking at you Pad Thai!), then limit it to once a week and account for it throughout the day. Eat fewer carbs than you normally would so that you can mindfully indulge on a heavy carb meal later.
Limit the carbs (noodles, naan bread, rice) or avoid entirely. Choose vegetables instead.
Order dishes with lean meats and veggies.
Soups are all great as the broth is full of fats.
If you must indulge in the noodle dishes, plan for it accordingly.
As much as we all love Italian food, a good portion of this type of food is carb heavy which is a big no-no for diabetics like me and others on low carb diets. Anyone eating Italian should be mindful of dishes with processed carbs and their potential negative impact on your health. As with most other categories, go for the fish and meats, which Italian food is full of. Vegetables soups are a great choice as well, and there are plenty of unique dishes that utilize fats and meats. If you must, I suggest you split one of the pasta dishes or pizzas.
Lean meat of choice and assorted vegetables.
Limit the pasta, garlic bread, pizza, and risotto.
Salads and soups are great options, but use olive oil.
Red wine is your drink of choice, limit of two.
Mediterranean food is some of the healthiest food you can eat. This diet is a large reason as to why Spain was voted the Healthiest nation in the world. It consists of lots of vegetables and fruit, whole grains, lean meats (legumes, chicken, fish), nuts and seeds and even limits dairy and red meat. Its hard to eat wrong at a Mediterranean restaurant unless you go all out on the bread, typically pita.
Portion sizes are key here to prevent over eating.
Limit the bread.
Fast food should typically be avoided. There is very little nutritional value in most items, and it is generally very high in calories. Lately, fast food joints have started to improve variety with more healthier options on their menus, but you should still follow these guidelines when you dining at such establishments:
Eat fast food as a last resort. Keep snacks like nuts and seeds at your office or car in your car instead.
Avoid ALL fries. They’re just empty calories.
Avoid soft drinks. A single 12oz Coca-Cola has nearly 40g of sugar!
Ketchup is full of sugar, use it sparingly.
Consider taking one of the buns off on a burger or use a lettuce wrap.
Choose grilled over fried if its an option.
Choose the salad or wrap over the burger.
Look through the whole menu, choose the lower calorie options. Typically, it will be a lean meat and salad.
A few popular options:
Get a bowl and go easy on the rice or avoid it altogether.
Add the guacamole.
Get plenty of veggies and salsas.
Skip the chips.
Drink water and avoid soft drinks.
Salad with grilled chicken.
Chicken wraps or salads with veggies.
Bunless burgers (e.g., In-N-Out’s Protein Style Burger)
General Rules For Eating Out
If you have the option, choose a lean meat and a side of fibrous veggies (all leafy greens, peppers, zucchini, brussels, asparagus, etc.)
Drink moderately. Two glasses of wine or alcohol is okay but limit yourself.
Be mindful of serving sizes and don’t be afraid to pack things up and take them home.
If you know you’re going to indulge in a big meal that’s heavy in protein, fat, or carbs, plan for it by having less of that throughout the day.
Limit or avoid extra sugar or processed carbs where you can (bread, rice pasta, refined grains, and flours).
Eat wholesome ingredients. The more a food item is changed and altered, the less likely its good for you.
Don’t be afraid to ask for substitutions such as veggies instead of mashed potatoes.
Try to eat out less and eat home cooked meals more often. If you’re looking for ideas, check out some of the recipes we’ve posted here on our blog. At the very least, bring snacks such as fresh fruit, nuts and seeds with you to keep yourself fed.
It’s not about where you go but the choices you make at the restaurant that ultimately dictate whether you can stay on track with your goals and lifestyle. You can tweak any meal at a restaurant to fit your needs. Ask the server for options outside of the menu. Most places will try and accommodate requests if they’re within reason. Veggies are usually an easy substitute and don’t get carried away with the drinks!