9 Counterintuitive Tips to Help You Stay Lean While Eating at Restaurants

“No thank you.”

My mom looked at me with a mixture of frustration and pity.

“Armi, it’s your birthday.”

“I know, but I’m not going. I need to… work.”

I had just refused an invitation to my 13th birthday dinner.

This wasn’t the first time I’d declined free restaurant food. From age 12 to 17, I can count on one hand the number of times I ate at a restaurant.

When you’re a fitness nut, like me, eating at restaurants can be stressful.

Your head is spinning with two questions:

1. “What if I eat something that’s really bad for me?”

2. “What if I eat too much?”

Answer #1: If you’re eating a balanced diet, then occasionally eating restaurant food isn’t going to damage your health. Read this article to learn why.

Answer #2: That’s more complicated. Most of the advice you hear is for the average person who needs to lose a ton of weight.

“Eat slower.”

“Choose lower calorie options.”

“Eat lots of vegetables with your meal.”

You already knew that stuff, but you’re still nervous. 

Here are eight alternative methods to make sure you don’t eat too much while eating at restaurants.

1. Eat what you really want.

Most people recommend you always find a “healthier,” or lower-calorie substitute when dining out. 

Don’t eat pasta, eat the vegetable platter.

Don’t eat fried shrimp, eat sushi.

Don’t eat ribs, eat grilled chicken.

Hell with that.

When you dine out, buy what you really want. Otherwise you’ll feel bitter and deprived afterwards. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone “out to eat” and only bought a dry salad. It sucks.

Part of the fun of eating out is enjoying new foods, so don’t feel guilty for indulging.

Obviously, this is assuming you aren’t eating out very often, at most every 1-2 weeks.

If you’re trying to get extremely lean, or you’ve been indulging a lot recently, it’s sometimes smart to choose a lower calorie option. That doesn’t need to be the case every time, however.

2. Eat enough calories during the day.

You should be a little hungry before you eat, but not ravenous.

Many people cut back on their calorie intake during the day so they can eat more at night when they go out.

This can sometimes work, but often it causes you to eat more than you would have otherwise. I’ve done this several times, and I was so hungry when I arrived that I was ready to trample the old people in front of me to reach my table.

Instead, stick to your normal meal schedule and prioritize more filling foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.

3. Eat enough protein during the day.

Protein is more satiating than carbohydrate or fat, so it will help you stay more satisfied.(1)

Try to eat about 20-40 grams of protein at every meal before your restaurant meal.

4. Reduce your meal frequency.

Some data indicates that you’ll stay more satisfied eating 3-4 meals per day instead of more or less than that.(2,3)

If you generally get hungry before eating out, eat fewer meals with more calories beforehand.

If you normally eat 5-7 meals per day, eat 3-4 on the day you eat out. 

On the other hand, not all studies have found this to be the case,(4-6) so do what works best for you.

5. Exercise earlier in the day.

Exercise helps match your appetite to your true energy needs, so you’re less likely to overeat.(7)

One study found that high intensity exercise actually reduced people’s calorie intake later in the day.(8)

Exercise also increases your insulin sensitivity,(9) so more of the calories you eat are partitioned toward muscle instead of fat.

6. Decide how much you’re going to eat before you start eating.

Making a rough guess as to how much you need to eat gives you more peace of mind, even if you don’t follow the plan.

If you get a massive portion of mashed potatoes with gravy, and you know you probably don’t need all of it to be satisfied, decide to eat ¾ of it.

You can always eat more later if you’re still hungry and/or it’s really good.

When you’re not hungry anymore, put a napkin over your plate. I learned this trick from Yoni Freedhoff.

This “napkin technique” does two things:

1. It hides your food, so you’re less tempted to eat more.

2. It signals the server to take your plate.

This helps prevent you from overeating by default.

7. Only bring food home if you really enjoyed it.

Both of my parents are teachers, so we never had a lot of money.

As a result, we always brought our unfinished food home, even if we didn’t like it that much.

The next day, I’d stare into a pile of re-heated pasta that was only “okay” the night before. Now it was “blah.”

Saving your meals will save you a few bucks, but it’s only a good idea if you really love the meal.

Look at restaurant food the same way you would a potential girlfriend. As Mark Mason says, it’s “fuck yes or fuck no.” If you aren’t excited about your meal, it’s better to leave it at the restaurant.

You can always make something at home that you truly love, so don’t waste your calories on foods that are just “okay.”

8. Let your friends eat the breadsticks.

Yes, they taste good, but breadsticks are rarely worth the calories.

Eat the foods you really want, and let your friends devour the free breadsticks. 

Your friends will love you forever, and you’ll have a larger calorie budget for your main course.

9. Don’t worry about it too much.

It’s easy to get anxious about eating out if you’re trying to lose weight

You’ve stuck to your meal plan for weeks. Suddenly, you’re eating high calorie foods prepared by someone else.

Your first reactions is probably to say “no,” or have a “cheat day” and binge.

Relax. 

Eating out is supposed to be fun. If you use the tips in this article, you can eat restaurant meals while losing fat, without bingeing.

What are your tips for eating out on a diet? 

Do you have a favorite restaurant?

A favorite meal?

Let us know in the comments.

References

1. Halton TL, Hu FB. The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004;23(5):373–385. Available at: http://www.ysonut.fr/pdf/Ysodoc/C0302.pdf.

2. Leidy HJ, Armstrong CLH, Tang M, Mattes RD, Campbell WW. The influence of higher protein intake and greater eating frequency on appetite control in overweight and obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010;18(9):1725–1732. doi:10.1038/oby.2010.45.

3. Ohkawara K, Cornier M-A, Kohrt WM, Melanson EL. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013;21(2):336–343. doi:10.1002/oby.20032.

4. Stote KS, Baer DJ, Spears K, et al. A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(4):981–988.

5. Speechly DP, Buffenstein R. Greater appetite control associated with an increased frequency of eating in lean males. Appetite. 1999;33(3):285–297.

6. Speechly DP, Rogers GG, Buffenstein R. Acute appetite reduction associated with an increased frequency of eating in obese males. International Journal of Obesity (2005). 1999;23(11):1151–1159.

7. King NA, Caudwell PP, Hopkins M, Stubbs JR, Naslund E, Blundell JE. Dual-process action of exercise on appetite control: increase in orexigenic drive but improvement in meal-induced satiety. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(4):921–927. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27706.

8. Sim AY, Wallman KE, Fairchild TJ, Guelfi KJ. High-intensity intermittent exercise attenuates ad-libitum energy intake. International Journal of Obesity (2005). 2014;38(3):417–422. doi:10.1038/ijo.2013.102.

9. Borghouts LB, Keizer HA. Exercise and insulin sensitivity: a review. Int J Sports Med. 2000;21(1):1–12. doi:10.1055/s-2000-8847.

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Armi Legge

Armi Legge is a writer and fitness consultant who competed on the Youth and Junior USA Triathlon circuits for nearly a decade. He also trains as a powerlifter.

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