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Can you eat out and still eat a healthy diet?

This is an excerpt from Healthy Eating Every Day-2nd Edition by Ruth Ann Carpenter & Carrie E. Finley.

We know that, for most people, eating out is here to stay. But can you maintain your busy lifestyle, eat out often, and still eat a healthy diet? The answer is yes. One of the goals of HEED is to help you make healthier dietary choices no matter where you eat. Whether you’re at a fast-food establishment or a sit-down restaurant, defensive dining strategies will help you stick to your healthy eating goals.


Did You Know?


Eating out trends have been shifting in America. Since 1970, the total amount of money spent on foods eaten away from home has generally increased, except for a slight dip that occurred during the Great Recession in 2008 to 2009. As shown in figure 6.1, 43% of the money Americans spent on food was spent eating out in 2012, up from 26% in 1970. Almost 80% of adults ate at least one meal away from home each week, while almost 10% ate out eight or more times in 2009 - 2010.1 The trends are similar to those in many Western countries, though the United Kingdom, where eating-out expenditures have dropped 5.6% between 2009 and 2012,2 is an exception.


What’s the problem with eating out? That people tend to eat more calories, saturated fat and sodium, and fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains when they eat out. In fact, on average, nearly one-third of American adults’ daily calories comes from foods eaten away from home.3


But there’s good news. Recent data show that people in the United States are making healthier choices when eating away from home.4 Similar trends seem to be occurring in the United Kingdom as well. These findings might mean that people are paying more attention to eating better, and that restaurants are responding by making healthier options more available, or vice versa. Regardless of what’s driving the changes, you’ll still need to be on your guard to find healthy foods when you eat out. All it takes is awareness and a little practice.


Food away from home as a share of household food expenditures has risen steadily since 1970, reaching its highest level of 43.1 percent in 2012.



Weighty Matters


An analysis of Americans’ eating-out habits published in 2010 showed that eating just one meal away from home per week for a year could increase body weight by two pounds.5


Nutrition Note


Defensive Dining

Chances are you eat out - and you might eat out a lot. To help you identify strategies to stay on track with your healthy eating goals, take this quiz.


For the questions below, "eating out" refers to any time you acquire and eat any food away from your home. Don’t count foods that you prepare at home and eat elsewhere (such as food you take on picnics, in lunches, or to parties). Select either "a" or "b" for each question.



Planning Leads to Success


One way to ensure that you’re prepared to make the right food choices is to plan ahead. Ask yourself these questions to help you start thinking about healthy ways to eat out:


What restaurants or food sources offer healthy options?

  • Ask friends if they know of restaurants that offer healthy options. Try new places yourself. Most restaurants post their menus on the Internet, and many also provide nutrition information about their menu items online.
  • If you live in the United States, check out healthydiningfinder.com for a way to find dietitian-recommended restaurants with healthy menu items near you. Also, in collaboration with the National Restaurant Association, the site has a special "Kids Live Well" page that lists restaurants with healthy meals for children.


What healthy options are available at each place?

  • One restaurant might simply have a salad bar as one part of a wide-ranging and not-so-healthy menu. But another restaurant might be entirely devoted to healthy foods. The more healthy options a menu has, the more likely you’ll find something that will agree with your taste buds and your healthy eating goals. Explore sites such as urbanspoon.com or yelp.com to find ratings and comments that other diners have given for healthy meals and restaurants.


What will I choose when I get there?

  • Before you walk into a food establishment, decide what you’re going to choose. You don’t have to know the exact item. But try to have a general idea, such as, "I’m going to order a salad and grilled fish and share a dessert." Or, "I am going to buy a bottle of tomato juice and a small bag of peanuts." Or, "I am going to eat a total of 750 calories or less." If you wait until you get inside, you might be tempted by menu items or store displays that aren’t the healthiest options.


Science Update

How calorie clueless are diners when it comes to knowing what they’re eating? A recent study shows that, when eating at fast-food restaurants, adults underestimated their calorie intake by 20% and teens by 34%. That was a real-to-estimate gap of 175 calories for adults and a whopping 259 calories for teenagers.6 This study shows the need for nutrition information to be readily available when people are deciding what to order when dining out. Other research indicates that people want to have this information on the menus and menu boards at restaurants.7


Help is on the way. In the United States, regulations to put calorie information on menus, menu boards, and vending machines were finalized in 2014. The regulations supersede any existing state or local rules. Here are the requirements:

  • The new rules apply to retail food chains (restaurants, coffee shops, take-out and delivery foods, etc.) with 20 or more locations and vending companies that operate 20 or more vending machines.
  • Calorie information must be clearly posted next to individual food items listed on a menu or on signs next to displayed food or self-selected foods such as from a salad bar.
  • Combination meals must list the total calories for all items included in the combo meal.
  • Alcoholic drinks that are listed on a menu.
  • Other nutrition information (e.g., fat grams, sodium, etc.) is available via print materials, kiosk, or computer for each food item. You just have to ask for it.
  • Restaurants and other food establishments with fewer than 20 locations can choose to voluntarily comply with the new rules.


Balancing calories is a major HEED goal. The new menu and vending machine label regulations make it much easier to choose foods that meet your calorie goals when eating out.

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Learn more about Healthy Eating Every Day, Second Edition.