Diabetes and Eating Out: Smart Food Swaps

November 28, 2017 Sarah Brewer, MD


Dining out: It’s fun, it’s easy, it’s fast. And for Americans, who spend fully half of their food dollars eating out, it’s a way of life. Whether it’s for social, business or economic reasons -- or people are just too busy to cook – eating outside the home is an increasingly common way Americans like to dine. While overdoing it in terms of quantity (and quality) is a danger to everyone’s health, for people with diabetes, eating out can present additional significant challenges.

“Having a healthy meal plan, and sticking to it, is central to managing diabetes,” says Sarah Brewer, MD, a family medicine physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group. “Whether you eat at home or at a restaurant, knowing what to eat and how it should be prepared is something that needs to be monitored closely."

"When someone else is doing the cooking, it can be easy to lose track of important details in your diet goals,” adds Dr. Brewer. “But with the help of your doctor, and thoughtful planning, eating out doesn’t have to undermine your diabetes diet.”

Not all people with diabetes have the same treatment plan or nutritional goals. For some, the top menu consideration is to limit sugar, fat or salt; others focus on cutting total calories. For any diabetic, it is important to work with your physician to establish a good meal plan. And, if that meal plan that is written out, it makes it that much simpler to find and order the right kinds of foods.

Start with Good Restaurant Choices
For a meal plan to work, there are some common sense steps to take in advance of eating out – starting with choosing the right restaurants. You can narrow down your list of restaurants by first looking at menus online. Your food requirements can be cross-checked against the menu, to see how many items match up to your diet plan. If a restaurant offers a wide variety of dishes, it can make it easier to order, and that restaurant can probably be added to the list of places to go.

Some other factors to consider: Does the restaurant allow substitutions, or permit customers to split dishes at no extra charge? Do they have specialty, vegetarian or sugar-free options? Are they willing to prepare sauces to order that don’t have butter or salt? A good restaurant accommodates requests cheerfully, and is worth visiting again and again.

Tips on What to Order
Once a restaurant has been decided on, here are some tips for ordering:

Instead of: French fries | Order: Double veggies
Ask for extra veggies instead of oily fries. Salad greens, broccoli and carrots – these offer color and variety to the plate, and they taste great. Alternatively, a plain baked potato is loaded with flavor even without toppings.

Instead of: Fried entrees| Order: Broiled fish or chicken
Fried foods can add major calories that nobody really needs – and broiled meats are just as delicious. If the restaurant can’t prepare an entrée without frying or breading, peel off the coating before eating.

Instead of: A whole entree| Order: Salad with an appetizer
Many restaurants serve portions that are just too big. A salad with a tasty appetizer can be just as filling for most people, and provide enough variety of ingredients to make it satisfying.

Instead of: Heavy salad dressing | Order: A squeeze of lemon with touch of olive oil
If low-calorie substitutes like vinegar or lemon aren’t available, just order dressings “on the side.” This goes for entrees and sides that come with sauces and gravies, too.

Instead of: White bread | Order: Whole-grain toast
Refined white-flour breads, rolls and bagels can cause insulin and sugar to spiral upward. Whole grains don’t cause these spikes and are healthier in general. If the temptation to dig into the bread basket is too much, ask the server not to bring one!

Restaurants are better-prepared to meet the needs of the diabetic if they are contacted ahead of time. Ask whether dishes can be prepared with lower-fat oils, no extra sauces, less salt or broiled instead of fried. And an internet search of diabetic-friendly restaurants in the area can bring up locations and menus that work well with many meal plans.

“Just remember, for a diet plan to work well, it needs a good foundation in light of the medical conditions being addressed, while trying to accommodate, to the extent possible, someone's preferences and tastes,” says Dr. Brewer. “Always consult with a physician with questions about what foods should be avoided or preferred, and before starting any diabetes-related diet.”

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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