By Rachel Fiske
For those who consider themselves health conscious (or on the road to becoming more aware of healthy choices), one of the biggest challenges is learning how to adopt and maintain a healthy diet while also enjoying a meal out. If you are following a low carb diet, specifically, this might feel even tougher, as many options on a standard menu are loaded with carbohydrates.
For some, this challenge might only arise occasionally during a lunch or dinner out with friends, but for others, the challenge includes weekly or daily lunches out, regular work meetings that provide food, or companies that bring in lunch (and sometimes breakfast and dinner, too).
The good news is, eating out does not have to derail your low carb diet, as there are plenty of healthy choices to choose from. The first step is forming new habits when eating out, until they become second nature. Of course, eating as many homemade meals as possible is ideal, as this generally ensures we are making healthier choices, but sticking to your diet model is very much possible in restaurants, too.
Top tips on how to eat out on a low-carb diet:
Read the menu beforehand
This might sound obsessive, but studies show that when we are hungry and/or distracted, we consistently make poor(er) food choices. If we familiarize ourselves with the menu online before arriving to the restaurant, we’ve already chosen the option we know to be healthiest, and therefore can relax and know we are not ordering impulsively.
Eat a healthy snack before you arrive
For the same reason that it’s a bad idea to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, try to not arrive to a restaurant starving, as this will make self control significantly harder. Opt for a low-calorie, high protein snack such as whole, plain yogurt or organic, nitrate free deli meat with a couple of avocado slices, as this can greatly prevent overeating.
Substitute Side Dishes
Many people feel uncomfortable asking for substitutions, but it’s okay to be a little bit annoying. As long as you are polite about it, it is completely acceptable to ask how dishes are prepared, and to request substitutes. For example, if a dish is served over rice, ask that it be served over steamed vegetables. Ask for your salad dressing on the side. Instead of bread, ask for a side of fruit or veggies. Most all restaurants can easily provide these alternatives.
Order a cup of coffee instead of dessert
It can be tough to skip dessert if you’re surrounded by dessert-eaters, but this can truly derail a low carb diet if you are eating out regularly. If this is the case, order a coffee (regular or decaf) and add a touch of honey or stevia as a sweetener. This will help quench your sweet tooth, and seriously cut high-carbohydrate calories. Plus, coffee alone can boost weight loss, if that is your goal.
Stick to Meat and Veggie Options
Stick to orders that are made up of real foods, such as meat and vegetables, whenever possible. Depending on where you live, the restaurant might boast organic and grass-fed meats. If this is the case, don’t be afraid to order red meats such as beef or pork. However, if the meat quality is questionable, it is best to stick for leaner options (all animals store toxins in our fat cells), such as fish, chicken, and turkey. The veggie option might be a salad, roasted, steamed or stir-fried vegetables.
Order Two Appetizers
Especially if portions are big, order two appetizers. This might be a salad or veggie dish, along with a meat option such as chicken skewers. If ordering soup, inquire as to what ingredients have been used, as many soups that sound healthy are actually loaded with flour and other high carbohydrate ingredients.
Avoid the Bread Basket
Certainly one of the hardest parts to resist is the bread basket that comes before the meal is served. You could easily eat an entire meal’s worth of empty calories in bread before the actual food even arrives. Empty calories mean that you the calories consumed offer little to no nutrient benefit. Bread is a carbohydrate, and high-carb diets are top contributors to weight gain and an array of other health problems over time.
Order half of your meal to go
This is a great habit to get into, as it will save you both calories and money. Especially if you know that a particular restaurant serves big portions, ask that half of your meal be put in a to-go box from the get-go. This will eliminate the temptation to over eat, and you’ll have tomorrow’s lunch ready to go.
What to order at specific restaurants:
THAI: Thai food is actually one of the easiest in terms of ordering low carb, as the majority of the menu consists of meat and veggie options.Try a papaya salad with chicken skewers, fresh (not fried) spring rolls with coconut-milk based Tom Khao soup, or one of the many sautéed veggie/meat dishes. Noodle dishes (gluten free or not) are high in carbs, and be aware that Thai food uses a surprising amount of sugar, so inquire into which dishes might use less (a meat/veggie option will use less than a curry, for example).
MEXICAN: While not the lowest-carbohydrate option, if there is no avoiding Mexican, opt for the “bowls” instead of the more caloric burrito or quesadilla. Stick with meat, beans, avocado and salsa, and request corn tortillas instead of flour (or skip the tortillas altogether).
JAPANESE: This Asian cuisine offers some great healthy options. Seaweed salad, miso soup, and sashimi are at the top of the list and contain the lowest carb count. If you are avoiding rice, stick to the sashimi, which is simply raw fish. This is also an excellent way to get a big boost of heart healthy omega 3 fatty acids, which are generally lacking in the SAD (standard American diet).
ITALIAN: If you are avoiding pasta this might seem tricky, but Italian restaurants often have a surprising amount of healthy options. Most Italian restaurants offer some excellent salad choices, along with grilled meats and veggies.
In conclusion, remember that adopting a healthy, low carb diet model is absolutely possible if you want to (or have to) eat out in restaurants. Practicing these strategies and allowing yourself some time to develop new habits is key, and educating yourself on which types of foods in general are healthy and contain fewer carbs, and which to avoid. Best case scenario, you’ve had time to research healthy restaurant options in your area, and offer to pick the location.
Carb Manager is the easiest and most powerful way to count carbs and live the low carb life. In this blog, we've invited experts on LCHF to contribute their views on everything low carb.