Dining out the healthy way

by Fiona Rae / 11 February, 2012
How to avoid packing on the pounds when you eat at a restaurant.

Restaurants can be a challenging environment for those with healthy eating aspirations – what with their bigger portions and calorie-laden dishes. And alas, research confirms people who frequently eat out consume more energy and fat and have higher levels of body fat. It’s enough to put you off your dessert.

But we needn’t avoid dining out, according to a recent study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. This US study aimed to help women maintain their body weight while regularly dining out, but the women were so successful at “mindful restaurant eating” that they lost 1-2 kilograms of weight while dining out.

So what exactly is mindful restaurant eating? Study participants attended six weekly education sessions on how to reduce energy and fat intake when dining out by: making better food choices; being more mindful when eating; and changing subconscious eating behaviours. Understanding where unwanted calories lurk on a restaurant menu is an important step. For example, at an Italian restaurant, a creamy pasta sauce will contain more fat and calories than a tomato-based sauce. At a Thai restaurant, a coconut-cream-based meat curry typically contains more calories than a stir-fried meat and vegetable dish.

Of course, if nutrition information was printed on restaurant menus, decisions would be far simpler, but it generally isn’t provided. The only option is to understand the energy density of different foods and ingredients in order to make healthier food choices. However, many consumers don’t understand the concept of energy density according to recent research, so next week’s nutrition column will unravel this topic.

The quantity of food we eat when dining out is important too. It seems obvious that we should eat when hungry and stop when full, yet many of us opt simply to finish everything on our plate. A US study found that children forced by parents to eat everything on their plate were more likely to overeat on other occasions, thus increasing their risk of weight gain and obesity. The study participants learnt how to recognise and focus on their hunger and fullness cues, while at the same time practising consciously eating more slowly and savouring each mouthful of their food.

Eating more slowly allows our body time to signal its fullness before we overeat. We’re so rushed nowadays and pay so little attention to what we eat that any strategy that slows down our eating is likely to help prevent overeating, according to Gayle Timmerman, co-creator of the “mindful restaurant” intervention. And by slowing down our eating and focusing on each mouthful, we are likely to maximise our satisfaction with our meal while eating smaller portions, says Timmerman.

Participants in the study also developed individualised plans that included choosing a weekly goal. The best mindful eating tips are personalised, according to Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating and Director of Cornell University’s Brand and Food Laboratory. Wansink recommends identifying your own “diet danger zone” and then using food trade-offs and food policies to fix them. Food trade-offs state “I can eat X if I do Y”, so an example for dining out might be “I can only have a dessert if I’ve exercised that day”. Food policies are simply personal rules, so someone who regularly over-indulges in garlic bread might choose a personal rule of “no garlic bread on weekdays” to limit their intake. Use your imagination to create personal changes that work for you – but limit yourself to three changes, try them for a month and adjust them if required.

Strategies for healthful restaurant eating

  • Eat bread without butter/oil

  • Remove the bread basket from the table

  • Share an entrée/main/dessert

  • Substitute an entrée for a main meal

  • Eat a salad for the main course

  • Order salad dressing on the side

  • Choose a vinaigrette rather than creamy salad dressing

  • Choose steamed vegetables

  • Choose broth-based (not creamy) soup

  • Choose foods made with whole grains

  • Choose baked, grilled, poached or steamed meals

  • Have half of the meal packaged to go before starting

  • Trim fat/skin from meat

  • Avoid alcohol, or only drink with the meal, not beforehand

  • Choose water, diet soft-drinks or unsweetened tea rather than sugar-sweetened drinks

  • Eat fresh-fruit-based dessert

Email: nutrition@listener.co.nz, or write to "Nutrition", c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142
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