That restaurant meal may be killing your health goals. That's the finding of a new study that links eating out and higher incidence of disease, including all major lifestyle conditions. In fact, the more you eat out, the worse your long-term health outcome is predicted to be, according to a review study that tracked 35,000 adults for 15 years. Those who ate out the most were also the most likely to suffer heart disease, cancer, and every other major killer. Not to take away the joys of eating out, right as restaurants are opening back up, there are ways to eat healthy anywhere, even at your local diner.

Published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics the study found that people who ate 2 meals or more per day away from home had a higher risk of "all-cause" of mortality–which includes heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and every other condition–compared to those who rarely ate away from home.

This should come as no surprise, since restaurants often serve overly-large portions, cook with extra fat, add sodium and other ingredients where they don't need to. This transforms seemingly healthy dishes into unhealthy ones, full o saturated fat, so when you're eating what appears to be a healthy dish, it's often got hidden ingredients that add calories.

As a dietician, one of the first things I tell people who want to lose weight and get healthy is to prepare their own food.

Let’s be honest, we are just now looking forward to getting back to the habit of going out for dinner! So instead of totally give up dining out, we’ve compiled 5 tips to have a healthier experience, wherever you eat.

5 tips on how to order at restaurants to avoid gaining weight from eating out

1. Choosing a salad isn’t always the healthy way to go

Raise your hand if you’ve ever told yourself, “I’ll be healthy and order a salad.” If you’re raising your hand, don’t worry, we are too. In fact, a recent study found that just by eating a leafy green salad with your meal, you can keep your blood sugar lower than if you ate the meal without the salad! The thing is, some restaurant salads can contain more calories and fat than the entrees. Take Cheesecake Factory’s Chinese chicken salad as an example. It contains:

  • Lettuce
  • Green onions
  • Almonds
  • Bean sprouts
  • Oranges
  • Rice noodles
  • Chicken breast
  • Crisp wontons
  • Sesame seeds
  • Chinese plum dressing

It sounds like a handful of healthy ingredients, right? According to Cheesecake Factory’s nutritional guide, this salad contains 1,740 calories, 106 grams of total fat, 2,840 milligrams of sodium, and 62 grams of sugar. That’s about the sugar equivalent of one 20-ounce soda and the fat equivalent of 10 bags of Cheetos, not exactly what you expect when ordering a salad.

If you’re choosing a salad because you actually want to eat a salad, find one that is full of veggies and lean protein. Fried foods, cheese, bacon, and crunchy toppings are all common salad items that amp up the calories and the fat. As for dressings, ask for them to be served on the side. That way you can moderate how much you want on your salad.

2. Ask for half portions or split the meal

Portion sizes at restaurants can be so large that even the common tip of boxing up half to-go still leaves you with too much food. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 92 percent of 364 restaurant meals from both chain and local restaurants exceeded the recommended calorie requirements for one meal. In fact, researchers found that 123 restaurants had single meals with more calories than what an individual would need in an entire day — which doesn’t include any beverages, appetizers, or desserts. The study claims that American, Chinese, and Italian cuisines had the most calories, with the average being 1,495 calories per meal.

Eating out usually involves the company of family and/or friends, which gives you the perfect opportunity to split a meal among each other. Maybe you want the pasta and nobody else does, and from there you could ask your waiter if you could get a half portion (which still may require some to-go). Get your money’s worth if the restaurant will charge you full price anyway and go with the “box up half” tip. Just try to be mindful while eating and notice your fullness cues so you don’t leave stuffed to the max.

3. One word: water!

Not only is water crucial for our hydration, but it may also keep us from overeating. A 2018 study published in Clinical Nutrition Research found that individuals who drank water before meals had a significant reduction in energy intake compared to those that didn’t drink water. The study also indicated that the participants didn’t feel less satisfied, even though they consumed less food than the other groups.

Another study published in Endocrinology & Metabolism International Journal claims that drinking 500 ml (16.9 ounces) of water may actually speed up our metabolism by 30 percent. This theory was tested in a group of overweight individuals who drink 500 ml of water before main meals for 12 weeks. The water group lost 2 kg (about 4.4 lbs) more than the non-water group.

Having a glass of water in front of you at a restaurant also gives you the opportunity to set your fork down, take a sip, and cue in to your hunger and fullness signals.

4. Limit fried foods

When foods are fried, they get dunked into a vat of hot peanut or canola oil until golden brown. It’s quick and inexpensive, but also harmful to our health. a 2019 study published in BMJ found that people who ate fried foods often had a higher risk of all-cause mortality, and especially high on that list of killers was cardiovascular disease. This was especially true when the fried food was chicken or fried fish/shellfish.

Beware the menu tricks: Foods that have been fried are usually titled “crispy” (e.g. crispy chicken sandwich). Instead, look for meals that have the word grilled, baked, or boiled. If items say “pan-fried” ask your waiter which kind of oil they are using. Coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado oil are a few examples of healthier cooking oils that can be beneficial for your heart instead of harmful.

It’s not only the meal that can come fried, many of the popular sides are too such as french fries and onion rings. Instead, ask about the seasonal vegetable, get a side of rice, or go with roasted potatoes.

5. Don’t show up starving

The last thing you want to do is show up to a restaurant ready to eat the entire menu in one sitting. A common thought before dining out is to eat “lighter” earlier in the day. That can actually wind up messing with your hunger hormones

Ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates your appetite, increases along with blood sugar when you eat one large meal per day compared to 3 meals, according to a study published in Metabolism. Another study published in Eating Behaviors claims that if you stick with your normal eating pattern, you have a decreased tendency of binge eating.

When you overeat it sabotages you several ways since it leaves you feeling uncomfortable at the end of the meal and dealing with nausea, bloating, and even sleepiness, so you're less likely to go for a walk or run or get exercise after you eat. And isn't that the primary point of fueling up? To have more energy? The more you cook at home the better.

Bottom Line: When you go out to eat, choose healthy foods that are made with a minimal amount of fat and oils, such as broiled or steamed dishes, plant-based menu items, and a side salad of greens without all the extras.

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