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The Perils and Pitfalls of Eating Out

Amy Campbell

February 25, 2008

Valentine’s Day was earlier this month. How many of you enjoyed a romantic dinner with a loved one, perhaps dining on shrimp scampi, filet mignon, or fettuccine Alfredo?

OK, so you probably consumed at least 2,000 calories, including that molten chocolate lava cake washed down with a chocolate martini. Hey, that’s what Valentine’s Day is all about, right? Nothing wrong with that.

But for many people, dining out isn’t just limited to special occasions and holidays. Eating out has become an everyday occurrence, often thanks to people’s busy schedules and lack of time (and desire) to prepare a healthy meal at home.

Eating out is big business, too. The National Restaurant Association has some interesting statistics on their Web site. For example, on a typical day in 2007, sales in restaurants averaged $1.5 billion. And the average household spent about $2,600 on meals away from home in 2005.

Eating out presents many challenges, especially for people who happen to have diabetes. Portions tend to be large, and food is often laden with fat and salt. And woe to the person who frequents fast-food restaurants: A study published in this month’s American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who live in areas with more fast-food restaurants compared to full-service restaurants were more likely to be obese. (A restaurant was considered to be a fast-food restaurant if you pay before you eat, whereas a full-service restaurant was one where you pay after eating.). This study looked at responses from more than 700,000 people over five years who participated in a telephone survey. What’s not known is if people consumed fewer calories at full-service restaurants or if they chose a full-service restaurant over a fast-food place because of the availability of healthier options.

Admittedly, some restaurants are making an effort to offer healthier, lower-fat choices. Others are offering smaller portions. And while fast-food restaurants do have their pitfalls, most chains provide nutrition information, if not in their restaurants, then on their Web sites. However, while it is nice to be waited on and not have to deal with the decision of what to prepare (and the cleanup afterwards), eating out can wreak havoc on your blood glucose and cholesterol levels, along with your waistline. One solution is, of course, to limit how often you eat out. If you’re not quite willing to do that, consider some of the options below:

  • Get off to a good start. There’s some evidence that eating a bowl of soup (broth-based, not creamy-style) can help you eat less of your entrée. Or order a salad (without cheese and bacon bits) to help fill you up.
  • Avoid portion distortion. A plate piled high with food is a recipe for disaster. (Not to mention that the plate itself is probably larger than the ones you have at home!) Eat half of your meal and take the other half home. Or check if the restaurant offers smaller or half-portions. Sharing your meal (or dessert) with your dining partner is another option.
  • Ask, ask, ask! To cut down on some of the carbohydrate at your meal, see if you can substitute a vegetable for the potato or rice. (This is an especially good thing to do if you’ve already eaten a roll or two.) Request that dressings, sauces, and gravies be served on the side. Ask if the chef can cook your entrée without butter and use olive oil instead.
  • Choose friendly fast foods. Opt for salads, plain hamburgers, grilled chicken, or wraps. Skip the fries or at least order a small serving. Check out the nutrition data for foods in places that you frequent to help you make better choices.
  • Let your glucose be your guide. Checking your blood glucose levels before and 2–3 hours after a meal can give you a good sense of how that meal balanced out with your insulin or diabetes pills. If your blood glucose is higher than your target after a restaurant meal, think about what you can do differently next time, such as making better choices, eating less, and/or taking more diabetes medicine.


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