A healthy plan for dining out

by Sally Scroggs, RD

About 130 million Americans will eat out on any given day this year. While dining out shouldn’t mean “pigging out,” picking a salad over cheese fries can sometimes be difficult.

According to the American Cancer Society, making healthy food choices is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your cancer risks. But nutritional experts say many of us don’t make good dining choices aimed at preventing cancer and other costly, life-shortening diseases.

Low-cost food can create high-cost problems

Even people who prepare healthy food at home often seem shy — or bewildered — about ordering low-fat meals in a restaurant or the drive-through.

With more restaurants and fast-food chains offering super-sized meals, many people are overeating. This is especially true of foods high in fat, sugar and salt. These habits can prove more expensive in the long-run because they can actually cause costly health problems, including cancer.

Here are several strategies for eating out that will help you steer clear of diet-sabotaging menu items:

1. Balance your daily calorie budget

Think about what, and how much, food you eat during an entire day. If you’re heading to your favorite flatbread pizza place in the evening, eat a low-calorie breakfast and lunch packed with fruits and vegetables. This way, you won’t blow your calorie budget if you eat a heavier meal in the evening.

You also don’t want to get to the restaurant starving. Eat a piece of fruit before you go out. It will help you control your portion size. Include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your order, especially if you need to lose weight. Just remember, a veggie side dish does not make a fatty entrée less unhealthy.

2. Ask for nutritional details

Don’t be afraid to seek out nutritional information about menu items. Restaurants know they need satisfied customers. Just remember not all restaurants share accurate information on each dish. Be smart and ask yourself, “Does this number really match the dish?”

3. Don’t be fooled by attractive menus

Don’t decide what to eat based on the mouthwatering photo highlighted on the menu. They never look as good on the table as they do in the picture. Be strong and stick to the menu item you know is best for you.

Watch out for tempting menu items with names such as “Triple Chocolate Volcano.” The word “triple” should instantly tell you that this dish probably has three times the average number of calories.

4. Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets

Indulging in unlimited amounts of food at all-you-can-eat buffets is no bargain! But if you do find yourself staring at an unlimited buffet feast, select modest portions of healthy foods to fill one plate. Resist the temptation to return for seconds.

Use this plan-of-attack when filling your plate:

  • Load up your plate with extra veggies and fruit first
  • Choose chicken or fish entrees instead of beef or pork
  • Steer clear of anything fried or battered

5. Share entrees or get to-go boxes

Most restaurants today serve menu items two to three times as big as they should be. If you’re confronted with huge portions at any restaurant, share an entrée with your fellow diner or request a to-go box.

6. Beware of Liquid Calories

Go easy on sodas and specialty drinks. They provide no nutritional benefits — but often have upwards of 150 calories for a single 12-ounce serving. Even worse: they’re easy to drink in large quantities, but they don’t make you feel full.

Your best bet is to order water. Not only does it help keep you hydrated, it helps fill you up so you eat less.

No matter where you go or what you order, being prepared is a must when dining out. With a little planning, you can make healthy food choices at any restaurant.

Sally Scroggs is health education manager at The University of Texas MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center.

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