Is Eating Out Sabotaging My Weight Loss?

Is Eating Out Sabotaging My Weight Loss?

Food at every corner mixed with our extremely busy and social lifestyles, has made eating at restaurants quite the norm.  It’s fast, tasty, and satisfies your hunger. Sure beats spending time to prepare your food at home, doesn’t it? There is, of course, one tiny caveat. Restaurants are in the business of making money, not in the business of caring about your health and weight loss. Although it's possible, this article will demonstrate why eating out frequently makes it a lot more difficult to be in a consistent caloric deficit and, in turn, lose weight.

portion size weight loss.jpg

Portion Control

We get to a restaurant hangry and want food fast. We order something that sounds bomb without paying much attention to nutrition. The plate arrives, and it's enough to feed a family of four.  We go "wow that's big", but then inhale it anyway. That's  what I do at least.

Without a doubt, one of the hardest parts of eating out while trying to lose weight is portion control. It doesn’t make it any easier that the portion sizes have grown exponentially over the years. Just take a look at this picture from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

weight loss portion size cdc.jpg

Source: Vox. “It’s easy to become obese in America. These 7 charts explain why.” (data from CDC). 2018

To no surprise, portion sizes are 4 times larger now than what they used to be in 1950. And, let’s be real, how often do we only eat a fourth, or half of the fries or burger? The crazy thing is, even if we did eat half, it's still more than what it used to be. Let's fast forward from 1950, and see how portion sizes have changed over the last 20 years.

weight loss portion distortion.jpg

Slowly but surely, our favorite foods have gotten much bigger and, in turn, provide us with a lot more calories. It is no wonder that the prevalence of obesity very closely parallels the rise of larger portion sizes. If a larger portion is in our face, we will most likely eat more than if a smaller portion was presented to us. I can cite a study to demonstrate that, but really? Do I need too? I think we can all agree that this is a well-known fact.

There isn't too much we can do about portion sizes when we eat out, because it's not like restaurants have different sizes of every single meal. The best we can do is be aware of what actual serving sizes of foods are and try to eat accordingly. Here is a practical illustration that uses your hands (normal size hands, not little Trump hands) and known objects as a guide to proper serving sizes.

hands weight loss portion.jpg

Source: University of Maryland. “A sampling of portion size guides from respected sources and aspirational peers.” Bart. 2016.

As you can see, serving sizes are a lot smaller than what we actually get at restaurants. "A tennis ball of pasta, really?" Pasta comes out more like the size of a football. And, I mean a fully inflated football, not the ones the Patriots use, just sayin'.

With these increases in portion sizes, inevitably comes the increase in calories. Next, we will explore the impact that eating at restaurants has on caloric intake.

spaghetti weight loss.jpg

Calories in Restaurants

Coinciding with the portion sizes are the high caloric content of meals at restaurants. Authors of a recent study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics examined the nutrition content of more than 360 dinner entrees at 123 non-chain restaurants. They found that on average, the restaurant dishes contained 1,200 calories.

Similar results were found in a different study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. In this study researchers analyzed 157 full meals (including side dishes) from 33 randomly selected restaurants. On average the meals contained a 1,327 calories. Italian meals were among the worse with 1,755 calories, American ones 1,494, and Chinese 1,474. Vietnamese meals were lowest with 922 calories and Japanese with 1,027 calories.

Keep in mind, that in both studies, it was just the entrée itself not including drinks, appetizers, desserts etc. To put this into perspective, if you are on a 1500 calorie diet, then that one meal is almost your entire day’s worth of calories, and more than half if you are on a 2000 calorie diet. And, I repeat in case you missed it, that is just the entrée alone. After appetizers, drinks, and/or dessert, you are looking at around 2000 calories for that one sitting.

With 1,200 and 1,327 calories being the averages of these two studies, I think you can see how eating out frequently is going to make it quite difficult to consistently stay within your caloric budget for weight loss.

Those of you who say "I just get salads" are not quite in the clear. The word "salad" doesn't automatically equate to healthy and/or low calorie. In fact, some salads can have even more calories than a big juicy double/triple cheeseburger. I'm not going to expose any specific restaurants, but if you don't believe me, just Google your favorite restaurant's nutrition facts and look at the caloric content of their salads.  

So, what do I do?

If eating out is the only option, do some research before you go out and choose a restaurant that has the calories on the menu. You are more likely to pick healthier options if the nutrition is labeled.

This was demonstrated by a study done by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that showed that consumers who reported that nutrition information affected their order consumed 400 fewer calories.  

We can potentially translate this as- seeing the calories you're about to consume may make you rethink if the meal is actually worth consuming that much of your caloric budget for the day and, subsequently, makes you pick a lower calorie option.

Another upside of the nutrition labeling is that Consumer Reports tested the accuracy of restaurants' nutrition facts, and found that they are, indeed, pretty accurate. Here is a picture of some of their findings.  

weight loss consumer reports.jpg

Source:  Consumer Reports. How accurate are chain restaurant calorie counts? 2013.

This is great news so that we can feel confident that we are planning our caloric intake properly in the cases we do go out.

Even better, there are restaurants that either have low calorie menus or clearly label  "low calorie options" throughout their menu. I highly recommend choosing restaurants that have one of these two options. Typically, they will help you remain under 550 calories, which isn't bad for eating out. But, remember that is only including the entrée itself. Any drinks, appetizers, or desserts will be additional calories.

If restaurants don't have low calorie options, follow these tips to reduce caloric intake:

·         Have a big glass of water when seated

·         Try not to go to a restaurant hangry (both for the sake of calories and being nice to your server)

·         Pass on alcohol or calorie-rich beverages. Check out my blog on alcohol and weight loss for tips on selecting alcoholic beverages.

·         Skip the complimentary bread, chips and salsa, etc.

·         Skip appetizers and desserts

·         If you order a salad, get the dressing on the side

·         Avoid anything with the words fried, battered,  breaded, and sauce/gravy.

·         Reach for entrees that use the words baked, steamed, grilled, or raw

·         Stick to lean cuts of meat or fish

·         Double up on side orders of veggies

·         If portions are big, put half of it in a to-go container from the beginning

Making it work for YOU

With all this being said, how can you eat out and still lose weight?

Clearly, there will have to be some pre-planning involved. First, you need to know your target calories, protein and fiber intake.


·         men- multiply weight by 11-13

·         woman- multiply weight by 9-11


·         men and woman 0.7-1/g/lb


·         men- 38g/d

·         woman- 25g/d

Why is knowing this information important? Because whether you eat out or not, these numbers are your number 1, 2, and 3 nutritional priorities for weight loss, respectively. Hitting these goals are not only optimal for weight loss, but they also ensure you are getting ample micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in your diet. What I am trying to say is that you can eat out at restaurants insofar that it doesn't negatively affect your ability to hit these above-mentioned numbers. Let's give an example.

 An imaginary client who is a female and 200 pounds has the following target goals per day:

·         calories- 1900

·         protein- 170g

·         fiber- 25g

Let's assume she ate a normal entree not on a low-calorie menu, and given the research mentioned prior, she most likely averaged around 1,200 calories for that meal. Now, another thing to consider is how much protein and fiber she is getting from that meal, because before and after that meal, she only would have 700 calories to hit her target protein and fiber intake.

In other words, if she ordered a 1200+ calorie meal that was  heavy on carbs and fat, and low on protein, then this will be putting her into a deep hole in terms of calories, but also to hit her protein intake. And, assuming it was either pasta or white rice based, probably didn't do much for her fiber intake either.


Lets break down choices she could have made into 4 categories if the restaurant had nutrition labels:

1.       Poor- A meal over 1,200 calories rich in carbs and fats, but low in protein

2.       Decent- A meal that doesn't go over the average of 1,200 calories and provides at least 30g of protein and some fiber

3.       Better- A meal under 1k calories that provides 30g+ of protein and some fiber

4.       Best- A meal under 550 calories that provides 30g+ and some fiber

If the restaurant didn't have nutrition labels, then she should make the following assumptions:

·         Food is going to be high in fat and carbs

·         More calories than she thinks

·         Less protein than she thinks (unless clearly stated i.e. 8oz steak)

·         Low fiber unless fruit and vegetables are on the plate

With that being said, there are certain ways she can prepare for this. Because weight loss ultimately comes to how many calories you consume in a full day period, she can make some changes before and after she eats out to lower the damage. For example,

·         Eat fewer carbs and fats throughout the day

·         Consume higher protein in your other meals

·         Eat more vegetables that day to consume more fiber and micronutrients

·         Estimate how many calories you think the restaurant meal is to your best ability, then add 30% more.

·         Don't skip exercise that day

·         Drink plenty of water throughout the day

Whether she is doing keto, intermittent fasting, Atkins, or any other of the million diets, what is going to matter is that she remains in a caloric deficit. As you most likely have realized, that is going to be really hard to do consistently if the eating out is frequent.


Bottom line

Eating at restaurants provides you with excessively large portion sizes. Along with these portion sizes, inevitably comes a high intake of calories averaging around 1200-1300 an entree. It is ideal to do some research beforehand and find restaurants that have nutrition labels so that you can be sure how many calories you are going to consume. Plan the rest of your day around that meal and adjust your calories and macronutrients accordingly so that you can still hit your daily calorie, protein, and fiber goals. Ultimately, eating out doesn't have to sabotage your weight loss efforts, but you do have to be mindful of how often you do so, and how many calories you are consuming each time you do.  

It is ok to eat out once in a while. Any sustainable diet should allow flexibility, and be realistic to your lifestyle. On the flip side, weight loss does take compromising on your part. Eating out every day makes it extremely harder to lose weight. Try to keep it to once or twice a week!

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