Eating in a restaurant can be challenging, especially when you are trying to lose weight or body fat or when you are simply trying to maintain your weight. Trying to stick to a vegetarian or vegan diet, or a lactose or gluten-free one can make your goal look like a tragedy. Before you faint dead away, however, realize this: whatever your goals, there are strategies that you can use to eat right while on the run or while having a relaxing meal with family or friends. Let’s make sure we’re on the same page and start by defining “diet”.
The word “diet” conjures up negative meanings for many people, because it often is used in the context of dietary restrictions. In this age of an overabundance of food, food as comfort, entertainment and art, self-deprivation as it relates to it strikes many people as unbearable and causes undue anxiety. In an effort to conjure up new images, largely because we do not have a better word, I’m going to try to help you associate “diet” with attributes you can more easily manage, ones that will help you manage your relationship with food by redefining your relationship.
I have had the best hamburgers, steaks, pizza and pasta in the free world. I’ve lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Atlanta. Have traveled overseas. At this point, giving up my old eating habits would not be an act of deprivation, because I’ve had it all. I cannot think of one food item that I’d still like to try, except for healthier options because I never have. Elements of my old diet have actually become boring. We’re becoming old friends, remembering things like when we were young and carefree, thinking we would live forever. Now I realize that my relationships with my old friends were not so good after all, that our relationships were based on the fact that no matter what two of my old buddies, Haagen-Dazs and Burger King, for instance, were there for me. I could summons them at will, and when I couldn’t, I felt lost and vulnerable. At some point, my having control of them turned into them having control of me. Like you, I too am much to independent for that. Continuing my old behaviors would have been comparable to running around a buffet table while reaching aimlessly for various food items.
I’m not saying that any of that has been your experience. What I am saying, however, is that has been mine, and it is what qualifies me to share my strategies with you for sticking with our diet goals, even when we have little control over the menu. I need to further qualify what I say by limiting what I say to my scope of practice. I am a personal trainer, not a registered dietitian, and telling you specifically what and how to eat would be a violation of my oath, not to mention that doing so is also against the law in a number of states. So I will limit what I say to my experiences as a personal trainer and what I’ve learned from various reputable resources, such as the USDA’s “Choose My Plate” Web site as well as from my dietitian.
The first thing I do is acknowledge that I am not in charge. It is not my restaurant, or house, or campsite, etc. I didn’t buy the food nor set the menu or decide how to prepare it. Life is often like that. We are often passengers, and sometimes being gracious can make a ride a lot less bumpy. If I cannot influence the choice of restaurants and I know far enough in advance which restaurant has been chosen, I search for the restaurant online to look at its menu so that I can decide what I will eat ahead of time. Many fast food restaurants post nutrition information online or in their restaurants. I have no choice but trust their counts, because I do not know better.
I’ve found that turning meal time into a “no-brainer” cuts down on the overall number of calories I eat, and allows me to choose foods that I can eat. That is the case, since I often will eat while deciding what to eat when I’m hungry.
Almost every menu has something, even if it is a broth-based soup and salad, and I have to say “hold the croutons” since I’m gluten intolerant. Salads can easily be made lactose-free, too. I just choose the salad dressing wisely. I can get really full eating a bean soup and a meatless salad (I am vegetarian.)
To some of us a salad might not seem like the most appetizing of foods, especially when we have so many choices and are really hungry, but it can be if we manage our hunger before we get to the restaurant. What I mean by that is this: I’ve found that the smartest thing I can do before going out to eat is eat. I now not only eat before going to restaurants with family and friends, but before going to family gatherings. Holiday gatherings, for instance. I’ve learned not to show up hungry. If I eat first, I’ll just graze a little after I arrive, which can be important when coming from a culture in which not eating would be seen as an insult (yes, there are cultures that are like that). Being hungry is surely the major ingredient for disaster, along with not knowing how to eat mindfully. By that, I mean, not knowing how to recognize when I am not hungry and realize that there will be other opportunities to eat, later in the day, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. I don’t have to have it all today when I have nowhere to put it anyway.
Luckily, I have reached a point at which I do not like that heavy, bloated feeling we usually get when we’ve overdone it. Not liking that stops me. It can stop you too, if you allow yourself the space to feel that you are full and that you can get a piece of chocolate cake any day. I keep some healthy foods, such as peanut butter, gluten-free fiber bars and crackers, protein powder, and tuna, in my backpack or purse. I have clients who have learned to keep healthy foods at work and in their cars.
I’ve also learned not to take food home with me. That’s right. I no longer take a plate of food or doggie bag home, especially if the food is a favorite. Regardless of how I feel, how full I am, if I love it I will eat it probably within a few hours after arriving home. So one of the smartest things to do if eating in a restaurant is split food. Sample a few items. Think tapas and appetizers. Lots of ice cold water. As a matter of fact, I often make an appetizer my main course. If not, I skip the appetizer. I’ve found that carbohydrates, high fiber carbohydrates, helps me to manage my appetite. So I would never completely remove them from my diet, but I limit my simple carbohydrate intake like breads, tortilla chips, pita. They add very little besides calories to a diet. Plus, rarely are carbohydrates that are served in restaurants gluten-free (high fiber, also known as complex carbohydrates, helps us to stay regular, too). Examples of complex carbohydrates are whole grain wheat bread and pasta. So I try to limit carbohydrates, especially when eating out. I make healthier carbohydrate choices at home and can usually still eat at home later.
Sometimes, however, despite our best efforts we may not be able to control our menu. If that is the case, and if I am not being expected to eat something that may actually harm me, then I just realize that it is time to be a gracious passenger and hand over control to a higher authority.