If you’re actively trying to lose weight—or just trying to maintain a healthy weight—you probably already know that fast-food restaurants are not your friends. Well, a new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that full-service restaurants may be an even more hostile environment for well-intentioned dieters.
Eating out pretty much means eating more.
The study, analyzing the eating habits of over 12,000 Americans over a period of seven years, found that people who eat in fast-food restaurants consume 194 extra calories per day, and those who eat in full-service restaurants consume an extra 205 calories per day. Given the rates at which people eat in restaurants, this means that the average American consumes an extra 24,000 calories per year while eating out, which results in 6 to 7 pounds of extra weight. The extra calories come primarily from eating larger portions than we would normally eat at home. And it turns out that this is an even bigger problem in full-service restaurants than it is in fast-food restaurants. Plus, restaurant food generally contains far higher levels of saturated fats and salt than food prepared at home.
So how can you enjoy eating out without packing on the pounds?
As a general strategy, diet experts suggest that you assume that all restaurant meals contain two to three times the number of calories that you need in a meal. This means that in most cases the most you should eat is half of the restaurant serving. One easy way to do this, even in a full-service restaurant, is to have the server box up half of it as “take away” before bringing it to the table, so you’re not tempted to eat the whole thing. There are many other great strategies for enjoying your restaurant experience without overdoing it, and we’ll list some of them here:
- If you’re on a diet, choose your restaurants accordingly. American, Mexican, and Italian restaurants are going to serve you twice as much protein, carbs, and calories as you really need. Japanese, Thai, Greek, or salad bar restaurants will be easier on your waistline.
- Learn to ask for low-calorie preparation methods. “Pan-fried,” “crispy,” and “alfredo” are code words for “dishes that are delicious but full of fat and calories.” You can often enjoy the same dishes without the extra calories by asking for them to be broiled or grilled instead of fried.
- Pick leaner cuts of meat, like flank steak or filet mignon in place of a rib-eye steak, or choose chicken breasts (preferably without the skin) instead of fattier chicken thighs. Or order fish, which is usually lower in calories, as long as it’s not fried.
- Start your meal with a low-cal soup (tomato- or broth-based, as opposed to a cream soup), or with a nice salad. Order your salad dressing on the side and don’t use more than two tablespoons of it (the “serving size” most restaurants give you is more like ten tablespoons).
- Consider ordering a couple of items from the appetizer menu rather than ordering a full entrée, or share large entrées with a friend.
- Try to avoid dishes with creamy sauces or gravies, since these can double the total calories in the entrée.
- Order a side of vegetables and ask the server to “Double or triple the amount, please.” You can offer to pay extra, but most restaurants will do this at no extra charge.
- For a beverage, stick to water or low-fat milk rather than sodas, sweetened teas or coffees, or beer and wine.
- Try to avoid “all you can eat” buffets and “special offers” that tempt you to eat more than you really want or need. Remember that the thing most often being “supersized” in these common restaurant promotions is your waist!
- Skip the bread basket. If you need before-meal snacks, order a side of raw vegetables. Obviously, skip the desserts at the end of the meal, too.
Try a few of these strategies next time you eat out. You’ll probably find that they help cut down on calories while you’re eating AND that they help you feel better about your restaurant meal afterwards!