6 Ways Eating Out Causes Overeating (And How To Stop It)

by | Apr 22, 2013

Photo by Sebastian Fritzon

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.

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37 Responses to “6 Ways Eating Out Causes Overeating (And How To Stop It)”

  1. Ken Leebow says:

    It sounds counter-intuitive, however, frequently, I’ll eat a small snack prior to going to a restaurant or a party. So, I’m not “starving” when I order. No doubt, I eat less because of this.

    Also, since portion sizes are so large, try ordering your main meal from the appetizer section.

  2. How do I eat healthy while eating out? Easy: Don’t.

    Don’t eat out (often). And when I do, don’t worry about eating healthy.

    As long as I’m only eating out once a week or less, it’s a complete non-issue. I regularly gain 4-7 pounds over the weekend and drop it by Wednesday. I finish up down a pound or so for the week.

    If I ate out several times per week, I’d have a whole different set of problems.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Yeah, I’m talking about that whole different set of problems. It used to be easy for me to eat out rarely (I couldn’t afford it). But these days my social life often obligates 3-4 meals out per week, which is not uncommon among my friends.

  3. thomas says:

    actually the solution for #2 is a tasting menu.

  4. Laura says:

    When I order, I tell them I want a to-go box delivered with my meal. Then I immediately put half of the food in the box when it’s delivered. Then I start eating.

  5. Tuck says:

    My biggest issue when eating out is that everything in nearly all restaurants is cooked in the unhealthy vegetable oils. Even the most “foody” of restaurants do this, because nearly everyone thinks that veggie oils are good for you.

    You’ll occasionally find a place that doesn’t use them, usually using olive oil in place of canola or whatever; but it’s rare.

    And most place look at you like you’re insane if you ask them to sautee your vegetables in butter instead of canola oil.

    Such is life.

    • jacopo says:

      >>You’ll occasionally find a place that doesn’t use them, usually using olive oil in place of canola or whatever;

      I don’t understand – isn’t olive oil a vegetable oil as well?

      • Tuck says:

        Yes. Olive oil is low in linoleic acid, which seems to be the problematic component. If you’ve ever wondered why oil companies are marketing things like “high-oleic sunflower oil”, it is because they’re attempting to lower the linoleic acid content of their oils. Canola is being genetically-modified to reduce the linoleic acid content.

        See here for more info.

  6. Natalie says:

    I’ve been trying to lose weight, and I have benefited by giving myself a little pep-talk before even sitting down. There’s that moment when your stomach says, “I’m satisfied”, and I tell myself that I must pay attention to that signal no matter how flavorful the meal. It’s really easy to ignore it and go hog wild!

    I started my weight loss journey about 2 month’s ago, and have lost 10 lbs. I’ve also started walking during my lunch break. I’ve got to say, that I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed that much at all. I do tend to eat healthy meals, but before I was simply eating too much. It really feels great to make small lifestyle changes and see results instead of following those crazy restrictive and bizarre diets out there, and be continually worried that you might gain that weight back. I know I’ll never see those 10 lbs ever again.

    Packaging up the remainder of your meal also gives you a spectacular morsel to look forward to later!

    • Dee says:

      The lunch time workout is a savior! I do the same… As well as packing my own lunch for after the work out….

  7. Ryan says:

    I am lucky in regards to eating out in that I really don’t eat a lot of food to begin with, so a purchased meal at a restaurant will almost always make two, sometimes three take-home meals for me. With such a small appetite, I obviously don’t snack on the pre-meal bread or order that slice of chocolate cake afterwards.

    But hey, that’s me and obviously will not work for everyone. Although if you take my situation and try to create a similar situation for yourself that “fights” over eating, you might be onto something. Like someone mentioned above, ask the server to separate your food right from the start so that you have some take-home dinner. Drink a big glass of water, or two, before your meal to help fill you up a bit. And take it easy on the pre-meal snacks. They are almost always empty calories.

  8. Rony says:

    After hitting 30, i realized I needed to re-think my approach to eating food. Specially being in San Francisco, that got to be tough for me since every other day the reason became ‘trying out a new eatery a friend had suggested’. Soon i felt the effect and decided it was time for me moderate my calorie intakes… these tricks works for me… 🙂
    1) Be a Grazer!!! Eat Smaller meals throughout the day;
    2) Keep Fresh Fruit around me for snacking;
    3) Drink a tall glass, 16 oz, of water at least 30 minutes before a big meal;
    4) Choose either to drink or to eat dessert, but not both;
    5) Must add a salad to the meal and get a smaller plate for entree;
    6) YEP a LOT!!! When socializing over a meal, we tend to slow-down & pay less attention to consuming our food, which helps with the digestion and getting a timely warning from your body that it’s full.
    7) When I manage to cook & eat a few meals at home and still got cravings for sweets, then I usually find an ice cream place that’s a few miles away from home that i can walk to & back with my dog; Also remember to pick a kid-size serving (since there is no concept of ‘Potion Control’ here);

  9. Lisa says:

    Restaurant portions are INSANELY huge! And full of sodium. When I eat out I split an entree with my boyfriend and order one appetizer to share (or soup and salad). Then I know I’m eating the right portions.

  10. DanielSeo says:

    Great article!
    I’m training for half marathon this June and this is obstacle for me. Balancing out the diet and social life since most of eat-out is due to social life which I think is important.

    One thing I do sometimes when I go out to eat is, If it is available i order Kid’ meal and maybe add in some appetizer. It sounds kinds of silly but restaurants have surprisingly big portions!

  11. Chris says:

    When eating out (rare now due to the budget) I order only healthy choices (usually from the small plate section), don’t drink alcohol, and never have dessert. Eat til I’m full (doesn’t take much for me) and take home leftovers or something to give to Brandy (my chocolate Lab who has a sense when there’s something coming home for her).

  12. For people who don’t have any symptoms of an eating disorder, going to a restaurant won’t be a problem. In fact, if you tend to overeat at restaurants, it might be a sign of disordered eating.
    If you have trouble resisting temptation and have to eat everything that’s on your plate in a restaurant, you probably also have some dysfunctional eating habits at home.
    All addictions are driven by biological (differences in brain reward centers), psychological (drives & needs) and social (societal & peer pressure) factors, and need a multi-modal treatment approach.

    • Brian says:

      I suppose there are a small minority of cases in which pathology or neurosis causes one to “overeat at restaurants.” However, for the vast majority of people I believe that the explanation is far simpler: food is delicious and we enjoy eating it. There’s nothing wrong with that.

      If people want to lose fat, they make the choice to eat less. If not, they don’t. There’s no need to dig deeper in an attempt to find problems that don’t actually exist (such as addiction or “disordered eating”).

      • MsB says:

        “Food is delicious……”… yep.
        And food makers (restaurants and manufacturers) have figured out how to exploit this and the have us by the taste buds. They have subtly and not so subtly changed the culture so that we regularly consume more than what we need. Rich or poor, we are encouraged to eat ALL THE TIME. Tempting food is everywhere.
        Even the most stable and emotionally/psychologically regulated people I know have a hard time not eating too much.

    • MB says:

      Actually, why shouldn’t we consider “disordered eating” as a sign, a symptom of something else, like stress, or low-esteem or unhappiness, instead of speaking of it as an illness of itself with “multi-modal treatment approach”? …

      • MsB says:

        I agree. I encounter lots of young people and kids who eat to deal with stress or worry.
        I also see a wider acceptance of eating as sport- increasingly its considered “something to do,” a hobby, a pasttime, or a form of socializing. Something past generations did not do as frequently.

  13. bobcat says:

    I always just stop when I am full, because otherwise it hurts and it’s not comfortable. I guess some people’s bodies must be more wired for stopping than others? I get to a point where I say, “Wow, I’m full.” And at that point, I really just can’t eat anymore. Even if I have one small bite of a burger left, I just leave it, and give it a distasteful look. It could sit there for 30 min, and I wouldn’t be tempted. Just me?

    I guess if you don’t overeat when you eat at home, your stomach will be smaller, and then at restaurants, it would be difficult to finish everything on your plate? That is what happens for me. So it’s not even a matter of desire vs. willpower. It’s can vs. can’t eat anymore.

    I have noticed that everyone in my family is like that. Sometimes it’s funny, because we all tend to leave the same amount on our plates, because our “full level” is the same.

    • Actually the stomach is incredibly elastic. Feelings of fullness can be based on physical fullness of the stomach, but feelings of satiety are based on biochemical and hormonal signals triggered by the types of food you eat.

      That you “feel full” and can’t eat anything after that is great for you, but clearly not a common experience for most people.

  14. bobcat says:

    The other thing is, if you are observant and you know yourself, you already know how much food you can eat before you order from a menu (the only exception is when a restaurant has much smaller portions than usual….but you can usually estimate the portion size based on restaurant type, or ask).

    I know that if I order a filet (of beef), I can fit a single portion salad, and half of a small appetizer in my tummy. So if someone will split the appetizer, I’ll order it. If not, I don’t order it. But if I order a large steak, there is no way anything more than a salad will fit, or I’ll need a doggie bag. Anything with a lot of bulk, like fajitas with all those grilled veggies, needs no appetizer or salad.

    So just use your brain a little bit before you order, combined with the knowledge of historically, how much you eat until you feel fullness. After about 6 months of observation, you should have enough “material” to always know how much to order. So start observing yourself, people! 🙂 You can do it. Don’t just order from a menu without thinking. If you start the night with a drink, or are distracted by people talking, all your logic and thinking skills go out the window, and you’ll just order without thinking. Bad idea. So just focus for like 2 min when you sit down, and you will figure it out.

  15. julie says:

    Yes, the BF and I split a breakfast, maybe split an app or two, or an app and an entree. Waitpeople seem startled by it, but that’s how it has to be. Sometimes if I know I’ll have leftovers, I’ll bring along a container, sometimes I just leave it over. #6 was the last one I just conquered, managed to knock me off an almost year long plateau. Yes, it tastes good, but it’ll still taste good next time I eat it, and if I want to lose weight while still eating pizza, burritos, whatever, I REALLY have to control portions, no matter how good it tastes. Tough lesson to learn, but makes life much easier.

  16. What’s funny for me is that my portions at home are BIGGER than portions at restaurants so I wind up eating less when I go out to eat – I don’t eat dessert or bread.

  17. Dee says:

    Well on the topic of restaurant eating… I avoid it … Call me anti social..but here’s what I do.

    1. I hate dinner… I just hate to eat food at night … Normally my night meal is my lightest… Makes me feel uncomfortable … But you know social pressures
    2. When I go out to eat these days I may share the dinner and still have left overs! I take home and freeze the left overs (usually a rack of ribs, or Lamb or beef) but I don’t have it the very next day… I wait until I feel like eating meat- like in a week or 2 to use from it.
    3. Most times, when I know I’m going to be socializing in the night at a restaurant , I try to skip 2 meals, so tht my intake does not exceed my expenditure … I still dont eat all tht food
    4. When I go out with my partner, he’ll order an entree of hs choice and I’ll order a side of veg e.g. Broccoli, I would then pair a small amount of starch and meat from his plate to have with my veg, both of us are satisfed from this.

  18. Elaine says:

    Wow! we must live on another planet.
    Weeks go by without us eating out. I work from home, so even lunches out are a rare thing. I sometimes joke that I should burn dinner more often. The main time we eat out is when we travel, which is a fair amount. This is where it gets akward, because you can’t really do anything with the leftovers. My husband and I will usually split an entree and order sides of salad or veg. On my own, I often just get a couple appetizers or sides. I’ve actually found that portion sizes have gone down, at least compared to what they were 15 years ago. The more old fashioned places still pile it on though. It helps to eye the other tables as you’re being seated to get an idea of the portion sizes.

  19. I’ve been watching what I’ve been eating closely since the beginning of the year in preparation to run my first 5k. I never really noticed how much I was eating out until I started paying attention.

    Then when I started paying attention I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

    Skipping the free handouts, ignoring the desserts, choosing a decent drink, and a great meal a few times a week when out with friends (usually 2-3 times a week) has helped tremendously. It’s allowed me to still have fun and still lose weight. I’ve lost 18 pounds since the beginning of the year and have never felt better.

    The best part? I didn’t have to change my lifestyle, I just had to change how I was ordering.

    Great post, Darya!

  20. Kari says:

    If I go to a place that serves humongous portions, I intentionally order things that will travel well. In that case I am very reluctant to eat more than half of my meal because I know that next day’s lunch will be identical to tonight’s dinner, which is surely a plus if tonight’s dinner is good.

    I don’t see a lot of people thinking like this, but if I’m in a new place and not sure how much food will be served, I will sometimes order one item, and if I’m still hungry, order more later. What’s wrong with getting a second appetizer instead of dessert? Not a single waiter has ever looked at me funny for this.

    I was a vegetarian before it was cool, so a lot of restaurants just didn’t have a main course for me. I still have the habit of ordering soup and salad or a couple of appetizers as a meal. As an added bonus, it often costs significantly less.

    Coffee and tea. I’m obsessed with both, and so if a restaurant has a rosebud green or a good house blend, I’m sure to order it. This cuts down on the alcohol, and friends who think you need to drink if they’re drinking tend to lay off if it’s clear you’re enjoying your sencha as much as they are enjoying their beer. (Especially if you have a reputation that precedes you, and your friends wouldn’t dream of interfering with your, arguably humorous, love affair with caffeine.)

    Actually, if I overeat at a restaurant it’s not the end of the world, but I’m not a huge fan of the “OK you have to roll me home now” feeling, so there you go.

  21. Luca Samson says:

    These are some great tips and tricks that I am going to be using in the next hour! haha I’m eating out for lunch with my family!

  22. Liz says:

    I think a lot of people clean the plate partially out of a desire not to “miss out.” Aside from fries, souffles, or other items that will go bad…if you get it to go, it’s breakfast too and you can enjoy it all over again!
    Speaking as someone who had her gallbladder removed and had to learn how to love small portions.

  23. Lyn says:

    I would definitely have to agree that eating out makes most people more likely to eat unhealthy food. It’s so difficult to know what you’re really eating when you go out and oftentimes you really don’t even think about it. Of course I completely agree with your reasons as well. I know that when I look at that huge plate of food that tastes good I just keep eating even after I’m full because it’s there and it tastes good. I’m sure a lot of other people feel the same way.

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