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Tips for Making Healthy Choices at Restaurants

Going out to eat can make it harder to stick to a balanced diet and avoid gaining weight. But that doesn’t mean you have to cook at home all the time.

Many people do not feel that their busy schedules allow them to prepare nutritious meals. Others become bored with their own cooking and crave something different. Restaurants offer a break from routine and provide social opportunities.

The problem is that eating out often involves consuming fattening food that contains harmful ingredients. Strategies for dealing with the challenge involve restaurant selection, menu choices and other factors. Learning what to eat, and being disciplined about it, makes it possible to enjoy a tasty meal without abandoning health and fitness goals.

Hazards of Eating Out

To stay in business, restaurants must serve food that people really like. Too often, they do this by using additives like salt and sugar. Many menus feature high-calorie items cooked with saturated fats.

Such foods sometimes upset the stomach and cause heartburn. Much bigger concerns are that salt elevates blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes; sugar intake often results in obesity, increasing the risk of illness and premature death; and saturated fats raise the bad kind of cholesterol and promote cardiovascular disease.

Selecting a Restaurant

The negative aspects of eating out can be minimized by staying away from places that fry all their food, season it with excess salt and add sugar. Among the worst offenders are fast-food joints.

A growing number of restaurants are expanding their fare to feature healthier items. Some menus provide guidance by labeling certain entries with a heart symbol or other notation. The best eateries are those that serve meals with plenty of vegetables. Nutritionists recommend filling a plate with more veggies than meat.

Deciding What to Order

When perusing a menu, the first priorities are to skip calorie-laden appetizers and ignore entries that are deep fried in saturated fat. Order foods that are baked, grilled, boiled or steamed.

Try a baked potato instead of French fries, and substitute no-fat sour cream for butter. If bread or toast comes with the meal, whole wheat is the wisest option. Limit the cheese, mayonnaise, gravy and sauces.

Don’t be afraid to make special requests. There is nothing wrong with asking about the ingredients. Most restaurants agree to cook meals without butter or salt, and some are willing to use monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils rather than the saturated or transfat varieties.

Experts advise ordering a smaller serving, like a child’s portion; or sharing a regular-size meal with someone. Many people discover that by eating slowly, they are able to feel full without consuming a lot of calories.  Smaller meals also are less expensive. Another way to save money is to take some of the food home for a later meal.

Soda pop and alcoholic beverages have a lot of calories. Water is the best alternative, though milk and unsugared tea are also acceptable.

Hit the Salad Bar

At some restaurants, the salad bar provides everything necessary for a satisfying meal. You can always order a small meat entrie to go with the vegetables and fruits. Beware of salad dressings with butter or unhealthy oils, salt and sugar. If nothing better is available, put the dressing on the side and apply it sparingly.

Other questionable salad-bar items include pastas and desserts. Whole-wheat pasta is not so bad, and some desserts are preferable to others. Portion size is critical when it comes to sweets because they are typically packed with unhealthy ingredients like chocolate, sugar, cream and unsaturated fats. Consider fresh fruit for dessert.