Stick With Your Heart Healthy Diet While Dining Out

Health Topics

You don’t have to let dining out ruin your healthy diet. By planning ahead and following some simple steps, you can eat heart healthy almost anywhere.

Most restaurants offer healthy options, and knowing what to look for and ask for is the first step to staying heart healthy. “Your diet is one of the most powerful tools you have to combat heart disease,” says family nurse practitioner Trisha Strayer, FNP. She reminds her patients that heart disease develops over a long period of time. Consistently making good food choices can make a difference. 

Here are a few steps to take before you go out to eat:

  • Consider all your options. Choose a restaurant that you know has a wide range of options, including heart healthy ones. Check online menus and nutrition information before making your choice.
  • Decide when to eat light. If you know ahead of time that you will be going out to a restaurant, cut back on calories consumed the rest of the day. Or, if you just decided to go out to eat and already ate a big meal for breakfast or lunch, choose a smaller, low-calorie portion when you head out for dinner.

Once you choose a restaurant, don’t be shy about finding a heart healthy menu option and asking for your food the way you’d like it. The American Heart Association (AHA) offers the following tips for eating a heart healthy meal out:

  • Ask if your food can be made to order. For example, ask if the chef can use very little or no butter or oil.
  • Ask if visible fat can be trimmed from meat. Also, if skin can be removed from poultry before it is cooked.
  • Avoid foods that are fried, au gratin, crispy, scalloped, sautéed, or stuffed. These are high in fat and calories.
  • Be selective about dessert. Avoid pastries and ice creams that are high in fat, and look or ask for other options, such as fresh fruits, fruit ice, or angel food cake.
  • Check to see if a smaller portion size is available. If not, ask for a to-go box when you order, and box up half your meal to eat another day.
  • Know what you are eating. If the menu doesn’t specify, ask your server how it was prepared and the ingredients it contains.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol. Much of it is high in carbohydrates and sugar, says Strayer. 
  • Remember – just because it is on a salad bar does not make it healthy. Stick with fresh greens, raw vegetables, fresh fruits, beans, and dressings labeled as reduced-fat, low-fat, or fat-free. Avoid cheeses, whipped cream, creamy dressings, and pre-made salads, including marinated salads, pasta salads, and fruit salads.
  • Request butter, cream cheese, dressings, sauces, and gravies on the side. That way you can be in control of how much you use.
  • Seek out foods that are baked, broiled, grilled, roasted, steamed or poached.
  • Skip before-the-meal extras. Such as appetizers, bread, and cocktails.
  • Substitute an unhealthy option, when possible. For example, instead of french fries or onion rings, go for a plain baked potato, a side salad, or a steamed vegetable. Even if it costs a little extra, the health benefits are worth the exchange.

“Everything in moderation” is Strayer’s mantra when coaching her patients. You won’t develop heart disease because you ate poorly one night for dinner. Instead, developing healthy habits and then consistently sticking to those habits — even when you eat out — can make a difference, she advises.  

Also, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends not rushing through your meal. Eating slowly can help you avoid overeating because it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to realize that your stomach is full.

What we put in our bodies determines what and how much we get out of our bodies in return. Making heart healthy choices doesn’t mean giving up on fun or socializing by skipping out on eating a meal out with friends or family. Instead, it means continuing to make your heart healthy choices in all possible situations.

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