Among my health conscious friends, we unanimously agree that eating out is the biggest barrier to weight loss.
San Francisco residents are fortunate that local, high-quality ingredients are the standard in almost every dining establishment (same is true for NYC, LA and other US foodie cities). We have gastropubs serving up grass-fed beef burgers, street carts offering sustainable fish tacos and small neighborhood spots dishing up heirloom vegetables and artisan ingredients.
I know, we’re spoiled rotten. But there’s a downside to all these wonderful options.
Ironically, the problem is that everything tastes amazing and is relatively healthy. Also, the menus tend to change regularly (often daily) depending on what is in season. So there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever be able to enjoy a particular dish more than once.
These things make it really easy to justify overeating.
There are many factors that cause us to overeat when we’re out. Here are the most common, and what to do about them.
6 Ways Eating Out Causes Overeating (And How To Stop It)
1. Huge portions
Problem: Even at the best SF restaurants, portions are still usually way too large for any one person (though few people realize this). Most of us could eat 75% of what we’re served and still have eaten more than we needed to be satisfied. That’s too much food even if you don’t fall victim to any of the pitfalls below.
- Share. It feels unnatural at first, but you’ll quickly realize that even men can share most dishes and still get plenty of food. If you really want your own entree, chances are you don’t need anything else on the menu.
- Stop. As one of my very slender friends recently explained to me, “People just need to get over the guilt of leaving food on their plate when they’re no longer hungry.” We are naturally wired to finish our plates, no matter how big. Training yourself to stop when full is the only way around this problem when you don’t control portion sizes. If you’re still riddled with guilt, make friends with the to-go box.
2. Multiple courses
Problem: Feel obligated to try everything? Variety may be the spice of life, but it’s also a great way to eat more than you should.
Solution: Order less. Ask your server how much food is appropriate for your party, and assume that’s at least 20% more than you need (i.e. drop a small plate). Make the tough decision and only order as much as you’re comfortable finishing. Otherwise, make sure you’ve mastered the “stop eating” rule above. (hint: it’s easier to have restraint briefly and order less than to try and hold yourself back once the food is in front of you).
Rarely do we regret ordering too little.
3. Free bread
Problem: Pre-meal bread is the worst. Not only is it some of the most useless calories in the human diet, it tortures and taunts you while you’re waiting for the food you’ve already decided is worth your time and calories.
Solution: Skip it all together. If you can’t handle the basket sitting on the table, explain to the server that you don’t need bread. If you’re trapped because everyone else at the table is having a dinner roll feeding frenzy, distract yourself by ordering a good drink and striking up conversation.
4. Dessert menus
Problem: Dessert is tasty and ubiquitous.
- Choose your battles. No one on earth should be eating dessert daily. Sugar accelerates aging, causes heart disease, diabetes and pretty much all the diseases of civilization. It doesn’t matter if you’re fat or thin, sugar is bad for you. So you should only welcome the dessert menu if this meal is a truly special occasion.
- Count your bites. Even if you do decide to indulge, you shouldn’t pretend that 10 bites is the same as 4. Desserts typically run 25-75 calories PER BITE (think about that), and extras really do matter.
5. Excessive alcohol
Problem: Drinking is fun and can lead to excess in many ways. Sugary drinks, beer and even wine can contribute significant sugar calories to your daily intake. Alcohol also puts you at greater risk of making poor decisions, like that late night burrito at El Farolito (yeah, I’ve been there).
- Water. Alternate between alcoholic drinks and water. This will both prolong your evening stamina as well as temper tomorrow’s hangover pain.
- Drink less. A good friend in the restaurant business recently introduced me to the “half cocktail,” which is basically half the size (and sugar/alcohol content) of a regular cocktail. The half cocktail is brilliant because you get to try more drinks without paying for it the next day. This might not be an official option at the bar, but it is certainly an option at home or if you’re out with a close friend.
- Go weak. If drinking less is really hard for you, start by ordering drinks with less alcohol and sugar. French wines tend to have less alcohol than big California wines. Likewise, there are plenty of amazing cocktails that don’t require added sugar. Talk to your bartender to find the best options for you.
6. Tasty dishes
Problem: Food is tasty and you want to keep eating it.
Solution: Stop thinking with your tongue and start using your brain. I know food is good, but the research has shown that people enjoy the first bite more than any other. Start with the best things on your plate and leave the worst for last. It’s easier to walk away if you’re sure you’ve already had your best bite.
How do you eat healthy while eating out?
Originally published April 4, 2011.