Excess weight is a problem in our society, and our food environment seems to conspire against our weight management efforts. Those who eat out regularly are faced with a variety of challenges that makes it difficult to avoid excess calories.
For example, many restaurants serve large portions of tasty food, which are often higher in calories and fat than the food we eat at home. Researchers have found that we eat more food when it is available in larger portions, regardless of our hunger and fullness levels.
Another challenge is that we want to get our money’s worth, which is why value meals and buffets are so popular. If we add not wanting to waste food to wanting to get our money’s worth, we have a recipe for consuming more food that we need. How often are we already full, but keep eating because we don’t want to throw the food away?
Additionally, we generally don’t go out to restaurants to eat the steamed vegetables. When we go out to eat, we often like to feel that we are splurging; that eating out is a special occasion and so we make choices that reflect our celebratory mood. Unfortunately, we can’t splurge 3.5 times per week (the average number of times people tend to eat out) without consuming extra calories that lead to weight gain.
Despite these challenges, it is possible for you to eat out mindfully, manage your calorie intake and still enjoy yourself.
I would like to share with you my favorite tips for managing your calories and fat intake when eating out based on a recent pilot study. In the pilot study Mindful Restaurant Eating, the women completing the intervention lost significantly more weight and consumed fewer calories and fat than the control group.
Tip #1: Slow down while you eat!
It really does take 20 minutes to get a signal that you are full. As you eat, pay attention to the sight, smell, texture and taste of food (mindful eating). Also, think about your level of hunger and fullness on a 0–10 scale before and halfway through your meal. Stop before you get full.
Tip #2: Watch your portions.
Box up half of the meal at the restaurant BEFORE you start eating. You will avoid the temptation of eating too much and still get your money’s worth.
Tip #3: Plan ahead.
Visit restaurant websites for information on menus and calorie content. Plan which foods are worth the calories, based on your preferences. For example, whole pinto or black beans instead of refried beans can save you 160 calories per cup.
Tip #4: Avoid unloved calories.
For foods NOT eaten for nutrition, eat them only if you love them. This is not permission to avoid nutritious foods such as broccoli. But why eat the rice if you are rice neutral? Why eat the French fries after the first 20 minutes when they are cold and soggy?
Tip #5: Order items a la carte or on the side.
You can control the amounts better by ordering salad dressing, potato toppings, sauces and gravies on the side. You can also avoid “unloved” foods that come on platters that you may not really want (like rice).
It takes 45 minutes of walking briskly to burn up the calories from one small bag of French fries. So remember: To avoid gaining weight you have to be in a balance between calories consumed and calories burned.
—Gayle Timmerman, PhD, RN, CNS, associate dean for Academic Affairs and associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing