How To Eat Healthy While Eating Out?

Eating healthy while eating out can be challenging. Restaurant menu items average 1000+ calories and have limited options for fruits and vegetables. It is no wonder that we all struggle to find a healthy option. 

If you are wondering how to eat healthy while eating out, you’re in the right place. 

We are going to lay the foundation for a healthy diet briefly. Then, we will look at the current research for the average nutrient content in restaurants and fast food restaurants. Finally, we will look at five strategies to help make a healthier food choice when dining out. 

What is a healthy diet?

A healthy diet provides all the essential nutrients, including calories, macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), fiber, and antioxidants. Including foods from the five food groups would help ensure your diet meets all the nutrients listed above. 

In addition, to be considered a healthy diet, we want to limit the overall calories, sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar. These recommendations are from the Dietary Guidelines For Americans (DGA).

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The average restaurant’s menu item’s content of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar. 

On average, restaurant menu items are too high in calories, sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar. They also lack servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, leading to nutrient deficiencies. 

Calories: 1200 calories

1200 calories was the average number of calories per meal. One study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed that, “92% of the meals gave a typical eater more energy than they need at a single meal (570 calories, which the researchers used as a benchmark for typical energy requirements.)” Quoted from Time

Sodium: 1751 mg

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that fast food meals averaged 1751 mg of sodium, and 20% had greater than 2300 mg. (2300 mg is the upper limit for sodium intake.).

Saturated Fat: 16 grams

That same study published in JAMA showed that the average saturated content of restaurants and fast food was 16 grams, 83% of the daily value. Remember that the recommended daily allowance for saturated fat is 10% of your daily calories.

Sugar: 25 grams of added sugar

The average added sugar is harder to find because of the high added sugar in soft drinks. The total sugar content would be greatly impacted depending on what drink was served with the meal. One study showed that an average kids’ meal has 25 grams of added sugar, which exceeds the WHO’s recommended intake.

How can you eat healthy while eating out?

Based on the research, eating away from home means you are likely to eat too many calories, grams of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar. 

To eat healthy while eating out, you must plan to lower your intake of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar. While also finding ways to increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. I’ve compiled a list of macro friendly fast food restaurant orders to help you find a few different options.

Six strategies to eat healthy while eating out.

  1. Have a plan
  2. Watch your portions
  3. Lower the fats in your meals
  4. Add more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  5. Pick your drinks wisely 
  6. Ask for modifications

Have a plan. 

  • Plan your meals before dining out, considering the venue and your order. 
  • Avoid being overly hungry to make healthier choices easier. 
  • Utilize a calorie-tracking app to strategize your meal or daily intake. 

Watch your portions.

  • Manage your portions by requesting half or lunch-sized portions, choosing the smallest meal option at fast-food chains, and boxing half your meal immediately. 
  • Consider sharing your meal.
  • Avoiding all-you-can-eat venues to prevent overeating.

Lower the fats in your meals.

  • Opt for meals prepared through broiling, poaching, grilling, baking, or steaming to reduce fat. 
  • Limit breaded foods or those with cream sauces. 
  • Request condiments and dressings on the side for better control. 
  • Order sandwiches without high-fat extras, and choose lean deli meats.
  •  For dessert, select low-fat options like frozen yogurt or sorbet.

Add more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

  • Opt for extra veggies on pizzas and sandwiches, and substitute fries with vegetables, a baked potato, salad, or fruit. 
  • Explore vegetarian dishes, especially at ethnic restaurants. 
  • Choose brown rice, whole-grain pasta, bread, and tortillas over white varieties.

Pick your drinks wisely. 

  • Opt for water over sugary drinks, and consider sugar-free or low-calorie options like flavored sparkling water or unsweetened iced tea. 
  • Be mindful of the high-calorie content in alcoholic beverages, as some cocktails can equal a main course in calories.

Ask for modifications 

  • Ask for dressing and sauces on the side
  • Ask for your items to be unsalted. 
  • Ask for smaller portions and a heart-healthy menu. 

Final thoughts

Dining out can be very challenging. On average, menu items at fast food and regular restaurants are too high in calories, sodium, and saturated fat and add sugar while not providing enough fruit, vegetables, or whole grains.  

I do not blame the restaurants; they are trying to provide the best possible experience. They want you to enjoy yourself and are often more than happy to accommodate your dietary preferences.

The key to eating out and staying healthy is to become a wise consumer and ask for what you need when you go out to eat. 

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Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.