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Yes, you can enjoy restaurant meals without putting on pounds. Here’s how to find the best bets on any menu. When it comes to eating healthy...




Yes, you can enjoy restaurant meals without putting on pounds. Here’s how to find the best bets on any menu.

When it comes to eating healthy, it’s much easier when you’re in your own kitchen. Baked chicken instead of fried? Check. Whole grains instead of refined pasta? Deal. But so many of our best eating intentions get sabotaged when we step into a typical restaurant. Behind the scenes, simple appetizers plunge into deep fryers, panseared fillets of fish are basted with butter, and sugar sneaks in where you least expect it.

In 2017, the American Heart Association unveiled a yearlong study that confirmed what most of us have suspected for years: Diets go off the rails when people eat out. The study followed 150 overweight people who were already on weight-loss plans. Study participants checked in on a smartphone app multiple times a day and reported whether they had strayed from the plan, noting where they were as well as who they were with. Not surprisingly, participants reported the most temptations when they were at a bar or restaurant and around other people eating. “You might think that everybody knows they’re at higher risk when they go into a restaurant, but people go out into these environments and they forget,” the study’s lead author, Lora Burke, a professor of nursing at the University of Pittsburgh, told TIME magazine in 2017. “It’s OK if they want to go out Friday  night and eat wings, but then they need to cut back on Thursday and Saturday.”

The temptations of a restaurant begin when you walk in the door. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found evidence that merely smelling food could lead to weight gain. In the 2017 study, mice were split into three groups: one group had their usual sense of smell, one had their sense of smell shut off, and a third set was given a heightened sense of smell. These mice all ate the same high-fat diet, and while they all gained weight, the greater the sense of smell, the more weight they gained. Once the heavier mice in the third group had their scent superpowers shut off, they dropped the weight.

That’s not to suggest that any of us should wear nose plugs when sitting down to a meal out. Instead, just be aware of how heavenly smells can affect appetite . A 30-minute wait standing near the kitchen, with the aroma of a freshly cooked steak and garlicky French fries wafting through the air, could trigger you to eat more than you would have if you sat right down at your table. Making a reservation in advance can help minimize the aroma effect.

Once you get to your table, there’s a way to make choices that align with your goals. If you know the restaurant ahead of time, preparation is your friend. Take a look at the menu online so that you don’t get caught up in how it’s designed to make you order more. According to restaurant consultant Aaron Allen’s 2015 infographic “The Psychology of Menu Design,” restaurants can persuade us to buy more or different meal options through the menu’s design. Certain colors can affect what we order; orange stimulates the appetite, while red encourages action and can signal a diner to buy a more expensive or calorie-laden option. Allen also noted that menu writers can also carefully craft descriptions to load a dish with emotional resonance and nostalgia. Who can resist “Grandma’s apple pie”? 

A 2015 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also backs up how unhealthy restaurant meals can be. According to the study, a staggering 92 percent of meals from largechain and local restaurants had more than the recommended calories for the average person for a single meal. “Some meals exceeded the calories recommended for a whole day,” Susan Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, told TIME magazine in 2016. “Our biology is designed to make us eat when there’s food there. I don’t think anybody should feel bad that they [overeat] when there’s an excessive portion in front of them, because the problem is the excessive portion, not them.”

There are strategies to help you avoid polishing off a steak as big as your head or an omelet fit for three. Consider splitting an entrée with your partner or friend; you can even add a healthy appetizer or a veggie-rich salad to your shared meal to bulk up its nutritional content.

Another way around the portion distortion is to ask the server to box up half of your meal to go and bring you only the remaining half. Ordering two appetizers instead of an entrée is a favorite trick of dietitians. If you go with tuna tartare and a side salad, for instance, you get a balanced mix of protein, healthy fats, and healthy carbs without a lot of calories. As a general rule, avoid fried appetizers like jalapeño poppers and anything covered in cheese. According to Mike Moreno, the author of The 17 Day Diet, some fried apps pack the amount of fat that four people should have in a whole day.

Salads may seem like the ultimate healthy order, but they can add unwanted calories and absurd amounts of saturated fat. In chain restaurants in particular, meal salads tend to come in an oversize bowl, packed with extras like bacon, croutons, and fried strips of chicken. Taco salads are especially likely to derail healthy-eating intentions. Often served in a fried tortilla shell with a bed of iceberg lettuce rather than mixed greens, they are loaded with saturated fat (from sour cream, cheese, ground beef, etc.) without giving you much in the way of vegetables. Look for a salad that contains a lean  protein such as chicken, salmon, edamame, or chickpeas; ideally, one source of fat (think avocado or cheese); and nutritious extras such as mushrooms or plain (that is, not candied) nuts.

Salad dressing can be a source of healthy fats—or a creamy, calorie-laden disaster. Going with olive oil and balsamic vinegar or a squeeze of lemon rather than prepared dressings gives you flavor without too many excess calories. You’re best off staying away from low-fat dressings, though. Although they may seem like a diet-friendly sub, these options aren’t as healthy as you might think. A 2012 Purdue University study examined salads dressed with various types of fat and found that different levels of fat in the dressing limited the benefits of the salad. “In order to get more from eating fruits and vegetables, they need to be paired correctly with fat-based dressings,” said Mario Ferruzzi, the study’s lead author. “While a salad with fat-free dressing is lower in calories, the absence of fat causes the loss of some of the benefits of eating vegetables.”

And did you know that your anxiety level when eating out also impacts your ability to stick to your goals? Navigating a stressful meal out like a first date or business lunch prompts many of us to order things that we normally wouldn’t have. Instead of anxious ordering, if you find yourself stressed at the table , excuse yourself and take five to 10 deep breaths. Mindful breathing can move your body into a more relaxed state, which will allow you to make thoughtful food choices.

Finally, keep in mind that how you talk about food—to others and to yourself—can help you stick with healthy-eating goals. In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, dieters who said “I don’t eat that” instead of “I can’t eat that” when faced with temptations were more successful at resisting treats and more likely to choose a healthy snack. The researchers theorized that saying the words “I don’t” lends a feeling of self-control rather than the forced deprivation implied by “I can’t.” So when your friend is asking you to split an order of fried onion rings, try saying “I don’t eat that.” You may find that those four simple words help you stick with your goal—and feel happy about it.