Healthy Restaurant Meals: Choose Well to Avoid Pitfalls!


Healthy eating can be one of the best choices you can make if you are trying to lower your risk for type 2 diabetes. Home-cooked food gives you advantages such as controlling what goes into your food and how much you serve yourself, but eating out is indispensable for most people for reasons such as relaxing, socializing, taking a break from the kitchen, celebrating, and working - in short, we need restaurants!

As the Lark DPP check-in mentioned, some restaurant choices are way better than others. It is possible to get a healthy meal that supports weight loss at almost any restaurant, but it is also possible to end up with a meal that is higher in calories, carbohydrates, sodium, and fat, and lower in fiber and other beneficial nutrients, than you had hoped. You are already doing yourself a favor by thinking about getting a healthy meal. Now, here are some pitfalls to watch out for so you can get exactly what you bargained for.


1 . Oversized Portions.

These are common among restaurant meals, as restaurants naturally want you to feel satisfied with your visit. The result can be a plateful of food with enough for 2 to 5 (or more) servings, and 1,000 or 1,500 calories. This can apply to pasta, burgers, chicken and fish dishes, sandwiches, stacks of pancakes, and pretty much anything you could order. To protect yourself, try checking the nutritional info first so you know how much you are getting. If you are a card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club, ask the server to bring a doggie bag with your food and pack up everything but a single (small) portion. That way, you can clean your plate and stick to a reasonable meal size.

2. Non-Diet “Diet” Menus and Items.

Menus or dishes may be called “Skinny,” “Diet,” or “Under 600 Calories,” for example, but they may not be the best choice for weight loss, let alone health. That 600-calorie count may be more than you need anyway, and it may not include condiments, sides, and beverages, much less appetizers. Your server should be able to tell you what those calorie counts include so you can make smart choices.

3. Misguided Salads.

A salad may be the obvious choice for weight loss, but restaurant salads can range from great to disastrous. Many have over 1,000 calories due to ingredients such as bacon, breaded chicken strips, cheese, crispy noodles, croutons, dried cherries or raisins, and large amounts of dressing. You may be able to build a more reasonable salad by asking for ingredients such as lettuce, other vegetables, grilled chicken or tuna, and dressing on the side.

4. Restaurant Versions.

A home-made grilled cheese or turkey sandwich might have 300 calories, while a restaurant sandwich might have 600 or more. Assuming that a restaurant-made dish will be similar in nutritional content to a home-made one can be a big mistake. The extra calories may come not only from larger portions, but also from sauces or spreads, and fat used in cooking.

5. Healthy Foods Outweighed by Unhealthy Ones.

Menu items with vegetables, fruit, or other healthy foods in their names can sound virtuous, but they are not always. For example, eggplant parmigiana can have more cheese and breadcrumbs than eggplant, spinach artichoke dip can be higher in fat and calories than queso dip, pumpkin pancakes can have more sugar than regular buttermilk pancakes, and a blueberry muffin is just as high in calories and sugar - up to 600 calories and 40 grams of sugar! - as a chocolate chocolate chip muffin. Veggie burgers and fruit smoothies are other tricky choices that can be downfalls. When ordering, the best choices are the ones with the healthy ingredient as the dominant one (think about a beef and broccoli stir fry with more broccoli than broccoli cheese soup) and without much added fat, sugar, or starch (think about fresh strawberries as a topping instead of sugary strawberry syrup).

6. The “Extras.”

The beverage(s), appetizer, and dessert can add up to enough calories for an entire meal (or 2 or 3), while providing very little in good nutrition. Though it may seem reasonable, the calories in a glass of wine (120), chicken wings (2) with ranch dip (300), coffee with cream and sugar (150), and ½ of a brownie a la mode (250) add up to 820 before talking about the main course and sides. Ice water and hot and cold tea or coffee without cream or sugar are the best beverage bets for during and after the meal, raw veggies, salads, and broth-based soup are best for appetizers, and fresh fruit is the lowest-calorie dessert choice.

7. Distractions.

Restaurants may tempt you with descriptors such as “gluten-free,” “locally-sourced,” and “made in house,” but none of those mean, “low-calorie” or “healthy.” They may be fine to choose, but only if they also meet your other criteria, such as being based on lean proteins and vegetables.

8. Great bargains.

Restaurants try to make you think you are getting a better value by charging very little extra for bigger portions or for extras such as another side or a fountain beverage. These add-ons certainly increase the calories per dollar that you are paying, but they may not be truly increasing the value according to the person who matters most - you - if you are not looking for those extra calories. Buffets, casual restaurants, and fast food joints have the highest value when they give you a meal that is delicious and good for you.

9. Foods You Would Not Eat at Home.

The “special occasion” or “my friend is eating it” mentality can lead common sense to fly out the window while at a restaurant, leading you to order dishes or extras that you would never have at home. Whether the item in question is butter or syrup on toast or pancakes, bacon on a sandwich or salad, fried instead of baked or steamed foods, or mashed potatoes on the side, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you would eat that way at home. If not, you might want to think twice about whether you truly want to order it at the restaurant.

It is great to try to order healthily when you eat out, but there are quite a few sneaky pitfalls on menus. Still, it is usually possible to get away with a healthy, filling meal that works with your dietary goals!


Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Assistant Professor of Public Health

Sources of Support for Healthy Living


A support network can be an important part of the overall strategy to lose weight and make other healthy choices to lower diabetes risk if you have prediabetes. Family members and close friends who are willing to be in your corner are obvious choices for support, and so are health professionals such as your doctor or nurse.

There are many more sources of support to include to strengthen your system and make it as multi-dimensional as possible. With some effort, at least portions of a good support system can be present anytime you need help, and the help can range from social and logistical to professional. Here are some components of a system to consider, and how to go about finding them.


Social Circles and Your Health

Exactly how important are social circles to your health? They are quite important. What may first come to mind is the potential for friends, family members, and others to be part of your support network, as Lark DPP addressed earlier. They can encourage, educate, monitor, and sympathize with you, and offer tangible support such as helping you cook and working out with you.

But, social circles have a great deal more influence than that on your weight and, likely, along with that, on your risk for diabetes.[1] Not surprisingly, people whose spouses become obese are more likely themselves to become obese - in fact, 37% more likely. The relationship with siblings is even stronger, with a 40% chance of becoming obese if a sibling does. Strongest of all are friends: if one close friend becomes obese, the chances of becoming obese are 57% higher! 

There may be several explanations.

  • Genetics may play a role in the association between siblings and their weight status.

  • Common beliefs may mean that you choose a spouse or friends who have similar beliefs and values about health behaviors as you. That is, if taking a walk at lunchtime seemed silly to you when you made a friend, that friend may have also felt that way.

  • Time you spend together is usually spent doing the same thing. You are likely to eat if your friends want to meet at a restaurant, and you are likely to

  • Peer pressure to eat similarly can mean that you order wings with dip and ribs with potatoes if your friends do, or a grilled chicken salad if they do. At home, you may be influenced by your spouse’s food preferences, healthy or otherwise.

That is a big deal when you consider that a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of weight gain can increase diabetes risk by 49% over 10 years, while losing a kilogram of weight can lower risk by 33% over 10 years. [2]

Given the importance of making healthy friends, these are some ways to do so.


Exercise Buddies

Exercising with other people can give you physical benefits by making you more consistent and driving up the intensity, and they can also provide social benefits. The Lark DPP check-in mentioned exercise classes, such as group fitness classes at a local gym, park, or community or recreation center. They can vary from aerobics and dancing to light weights and athletic drills. Walking groups and sports leagues also offer opportunities to get social and active. 


Healthy Cooking Classes

Getting physically active is not the only way to combine socializing with healthy living. What about joining a healthy cooking class where you can meet people, make healthy food, and eat together? You may be able to find some in your area by searching online (always be careful when judging the credibility of online resources), asking your healthcare provider, or checking a local park brochure. 

If nothing exists in your immediate community, it is easy enough to start small by recruiting a neighbor or two, or a couple of friends, to cook with you once a weekend as you experiment together with new healthy recipes. If that is too much to commit to, you can try swapping healthy recipes every so often and discussing how they turned out.


Healthy Hobbies

Other healthy hobbies to consider are gardening, furniture making, and line dancing. There are groups for all of these to give you a chance to chit-chat as you get active and have fun.

Volunteering can also do as much for your mind and body as it does for the recipient. Food banks, first responder organizations, pet shelters, and more are all eager for a helping hand. For a great workout, not to mention a warm fuzzy feeling, try distributing bags of food to needy families, helping at an animal shelter, or building homes for deserving individuals! 


Health Education Classes

Health education classes may sound boring, but they can be anything but. Far from being like your least favorite subject in high school, they are more like classes that are designed completely for your benefit. Everything you learn can be super important in your life, literally. You may learn about healthy eating, stress reduction, getting your family on board, and different ways to lower disease risk. Gyms, parks, and healthcare providers may be good leads to find such classes.


Online Resources

The internet makes it much easier to find groups of all types. There are forums for any subject, such as weight loss, prediabetes management, and exercise tips. Support can range from chatting with everyone to choosing weight loss or similar-goal-oriented buddies to seeking in-person friends for exercise or cooking. 

The Lark DPP Facebook group is an excellent resource if you are looking for people in the Lark DPP. They may have plenty in common with you, including prediabetes and goals of losing weight and increasing physical activity to be healthier. There is no tolerance for rudeness - like Lark, the group is nothing but encouraging, welcoming, and positive.

Just be careful as you search the internet and join forums. They are anonymous, and it is not wise to give out personal information or arrange to meet people unless you have a safety net. Use common sense and an abundance of caution when online.


Where Are These Healthy People?

Though they may be hard to locate at first, support is everywhere. Local parks and their recreation guides, library bulletin boards, and community centers can be good local places to start looking. Online forums and support groups, such as Lark DPP’s Facebook group, can generate ideas.

Word of mouth often yields good results. Personal trainers at a gym are typically well-connected and willing to share their ideas, even if you are not planning to spend the money to use their services. Group fitness instructors may also be in-the-know. In addition, just keep talking to everyone you meet. You may be surprised at how many health-focused groups are out there, quietly being healthy and happy.


Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Assistant Professor of Public Health