"Dining out doesn’t need to sabotage your diabetes meal plan," says Vandana R. Sheth, RDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "The key is having an action plan, asking questions at the restaurant, making substitutions, watching your portions, being mindful, and enjoying the dining-out experience."
Learning how to decode restaurant menus can help you make the healthiest choices when you go out to eat.
Menu Words to Avoid
Because they contain high levels of fat, sodium, or sugar, many menu options can be a poor choice for a diabetes diet. Look for these warning words and avoid these menu choices:
Fried foods. The breading on fried foods means extra carbohydrates in your meal, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Fried foods are also rich in cholesterol, trans fats, and saturated fats — all of which can increase the risk of heart disease. Eating fried foods frequently can increase your chance of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to a study published in August 2014 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Because people with diabetes are already at higher risk for a heart attack or stroke, it's important to avoid fried foods. Don’t order anything on the menu described as “crispy,” “crunchy,” “battered,” “tempura,” or “breaded,” says Veronica Salsberg, RD, LDN, a dietitian at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
High-fat foods, high-calorie foods. Skip dishes that are labeled as “creamy,” “buttery,” “smothered,” “loaded,” “au gratin,” or “cheesy." These descriptions often mean extra fat and calories hiding in the food. "Fat is flavorful and is often added to enhance a food’s texture and provide a rich taste," she says. Watch out, too, for dressings, marinades, and sauces, Salsberg says. "The addition of a heavy, creamy sauce to a grilled chicken breast could double the fat and calories.”
High-sugar foods. You may already know desserts can be loaded with sugar, but also look out for options labeled “BBQ,” “glazed,” or “sticky.” These foods may be high in added sugars.
High-sodium foods. Salt is often liberally added to foods for more flavor, says Salsberg. Cutting back on salt intake can help lower blood pressure, which decreases the risk of heart attack and stroke, two common diabetes complications. To help decrease the amount of salt in your diet, avoid foods that are described as “pickled,” “smoked,” or “au jus.” Also watch out for “cocktail,” “soy,” or “teriyaki” sauces, as well as “MSG.”
Look for These Diabetes-Friendly Foods on the Menu
There are generally good food choices on restaurant menus — you just have to be creative (and a bit of a detective):
Foods cooked with a healthy technique. Scour the menu for dishes described as “baked,” “broiled,” “grilled,” “poached,” “steamed,” “boiled,” or “roasted,” Salsberg says. But your detective work doesn't stop there — ask your server for details. "These foods could still be cooked with added fats," she says. "Fish that is poached in water, broth, or wine will be lower in calories than fish poached in olive oil."
Veggie- and lean-protein-based dishes. Vegetables and lean proteins are the staples of healthy meals made at home, so follow that same concept when dining out with diabetes. "Good menu choices may include lean protein options such as chicken or fish that’s been grilled, poached, or baked," Salsberg says. Opt for vegetables described as “steamed” or salads without the unhealthy toppings (think croutons, cheese, and creamy dressings.)
Planning for Diabetes Dining Success
To help yourself stick to healthy choices, eat regularly throughout the day to prevent overeating and making poor choices when you go out to eat. "Check out the restaurant menu online before you go so you can have an idea of your options," Sheth says.
Skip alcohol and sugary drinks. Drink water instead. And ask servers not to bring tortilla chips or bread to your table, Sheth says. Be the first at your table to order so you're not tempted to order the same French fries that your friend did, Salsberg says.
Feel free to make special requests — like asking for your dish to be prepared with no added salt or to have any dressings and sauces served on the side, says the ADA.
To watch portion sizes, try ordering from the appetizer, soup, or salad menu. If you want an entrée, split it with a friend or immediately ask that half of it be put in a to-go box to eat later, the ADA suggests.
"If you do overindulge, don’t beat yourself up or feel guilty about it," Salsberg says. "Just put that meal behind you and move on."