Fifty-eight percent of Americans eat at least one restaurant meal each week, and many families are dining out more than once a week. Add to these sit-down restaurant meals take-out meals and food grabbed on the go from quick-stop markets and other businesses, and Americans are, on average, eating more than four meals a week that are prepared away from home. While meals out are a fun treat, and today’s busy schedules mean that we often opt for restaurant food over home-cooked meals, it is important to consider the impact on your health of dining out.

According to a recent study, a meal at a sit-down restaurant averages 1,128 calories (56 percent of the average daily 2,000-calorie recommendation), 151 percent of the amount of sodium an adult should consume in a single day, 89 percent of the daily value for fat, 83 percent of the daily value for saturated and trans fat and 60 percent of the daily value for cholesterol.3 As this particular study’s title notes, that’s almost a full day’s worth of calories, fats and sodium in one sitting!

Lauren Clanet, RD, LDN, Clinical Oncology Dietitian at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Philadelphia, PA, says that the high calories, fat and sodium are the result of a combination of factors.

“Restaurant meals are often prepared using more oils, fats and sodium than we may use when cooking at home and can be very rich.” And, she adds, “Portion sizes at restaurants are often much larger than we usually consume at home, and we are much more likely to consume more food when we have a large amount on our plates.”

Add to the preparation and portion size the sheer number of tasty sweet treats just an order away, Clanet says, and calories and fat skyrocket.

The end result: Meals out might taste great but can quickly derail healthy eating habits and leave us overserved and undernourished.

The good news: According to Clanet, with some planning and mindful choices we can still enjoy restaurant dining without throwing out all of our dietary good intentions. Here she offers her top tips for decoding a menu to find the selections that will be both delicious and nutritious, allowing you to make the most of time spent away from the kitchen.

  • Do Your Research
    “Prior to going to the restaurant, I recommend looking at their menu online,” Clanet says. “If you do not see any healthy options on the menu, or anything that sounds appealing, consider looking into another restaurant. Choose your meal ahead of time, too, as that way you’ll be more likely to stick to that choice once you have arrived at the restaurant.”
  • Search Out “Healthy” Selections
    Clanet says that many restaurants provide “healthy” or “light” menus alongside their regular offerings. “These menus generally present smaller portion sizes and lower-calorie options.”
  • Fill Up on the Good Stuff
    Items like salad, broth-based soup and sides of steamed vegetables can help you feel full more quickly, Clanet says. And they make you less likely to overeat. “These foods contain fiber and water, both of which help satiate your appetite and keep you feeling full for longer.”
  • Beware of Salad Sabotage
    Clanet notes that while salad is often touted as a healthy option, these offerings can present hidden hazards. “We often think salads are our best option; however, many restaurant salads contain calorically dense toppings such as dried fruit, tortilla chips, nuts, seeds and creamy dressings,” she says. Condiments and toppings can add many calories and grams of fats to sandwiches, as well.
  • Be Sauce Savvy
    Look carefully at the type of sauce you are choosing. “Cream sauces add a lot of calories to meats, pastas and other food items,” Clanet says.
  • Do Not Be Drawn In by Trends or Labels
    An increasing number of restaurants advertise both organic and gluten-free foods to draw in customers who may believe that these terms describe healthy options. But, Clanet says, just because something is organic does not mean it is necessarily the healthiest choice on the menu. Likewise, gluten-free can be interpreted as a healthy choice, but these options are really best for people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease.

This article is repurposed from Cancer Fighters Thrive®, CFThrive.com.

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Diana Price is Managing Editor at OMNI Health Media, where she writes and edits women’s health and oncology content for Women magazine and Cancer Fighters Thrive.