Family looking over menus at restaurant table
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Don't Abandon Your Diet

Americans love eating out -- and there's no reason why it can't be healthy eating. But you can't always find out the amount of calories, fat, or salt in a restaurant's menu items. So follow these ordering tips to make sure you stay within your healthy diet.

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fish on salad
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Some Fats Are Good for You

Monounsaturated fats: Substituted for saturated fats in your diet, they help lower bad LDL cholesterol and don't reduce good HDL cholesterol. Found in canola oil, olive oil, olives, avocados, nuts, and nut butters.

Polyunsaturated fats: Help lower cholesterol. Found in fatty fish, vegetable oils, and nuts and sunflower seeds.

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Grilled salmon in sauce with side salad
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Fish Is Good for Your Heart

Fish is a healthy choice when dining out. Ordering seafood such as salmon and tuna adds omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. They are a type of polyunsaturated fat that helps lower your heart disease risk. You’ll also find a different type of omega-3 in walnuts and edamame (soybeans).

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Fish & Chips
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Avoid Fried Foods and Added Cheese

Eating out often means getting too much saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories.

How can you spot the dangers? Saturated fats come mostly from meat and whole-fat dairy foods. Tropical oils like palm oil and coconut oil, and butter are also saturated fats. Cholesterol is found in animal fats. Primarily the saturated fat and the cholesterol in the foods you eat increase your cholesterol levels.

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Fried Monte Cristo Sandwich with Salsa and Chips
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Spotting High-Sodium Foods

Restaurant foods can be very high in sodium, or salt. If you are watching your sodium as many Americans need to, watch for:

  • Foods that are pickled, smoked, in broth or au jus
  • Cocktail sauce, soy, or teriyaki sauce
  • MSG

Look for low-sodium soy sauce. And ask that your food be prepared without added salt or MSG.

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Couple looking at menu in restaurant
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Have a Heart

Some restaurants have tuned into heart-healthy eating. They offer low-fat, low-salt, low-cholesterol menu items, designated with a heart icon.

Don't confuse this with the favorites icon. That can be a flag for popular, fatty choices. One delicious heart-healthy option: A grilled fish filet, a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids.

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Cook holding completed entree in kitchen
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Don't Be Afraid to Ask

In restaurants where food is cooked to order, you can make special requests for lighter fare.

If you're counting calories -- or keeping an eye on saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium -- tell your server.

Ask what's in a dish. Find out how it's cooked. A chef can often prepare food using less oil, no butter, or no added salt. If there is sauce, salad dressing, or gravy, get it on the side. Then you can dip -- or skip -- and use less.

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Fried Chicken Strips and Coleslaw
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Clues to Unhealthy Dishes

Concerned about high cholesterol, diabetes, or losing weight? Read menus carefully.

Thumbs Down:

  • Fried, au gratin, braised, buttered, creamed, escalloped
  • Hollandaise, cheese, or cream sauce
  • In gravy, pan-fried or -roasted, rich, in butter sauce.
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grilled chicken
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Clues to Healthy Nutrition

Grilled chicken vs. fried chicken. Broiled fish vs. fried fish. When dining out, look for possible code words to healthier food with less saturated fat.

Thumbs Up:

  • Baked, broiled, grilled
  • Poached, roasted, steamed
  • In its own juice, garden fresh
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watermelon
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Cutting Fat Can Help Weight Loss

Ask your server about healthy substitutions:

  • A vegetable or fruit instead of French fries
  • Skinless chicken that's broiled instead of fried
  • Low-fat milk for your coffee, instead of cream
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Hibiscus tea in glass cup with tea bag
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No Substitutions? No Problem

What if your server says, "Absolutely no substitutions"? Try these 4 tips:

  • Ask that fries be left off your plate.
  • Peel the skin off fried chicken.
  • Skip the butter.
  • Drink tea instead of coffee with cream.
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Three people sharing dessert in restaurant
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Don't Eat It All

Restaurants serve huge portions. If you're counting calories -- or monitoring blood glucose – don't eat it all yourself. Try this instead:

  • Restrain yourself, and take a box home.
  • Share with others at your table.
  • Ask your server to box up half before bringing the meal out.
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Filet mignon with asparagus and carrots
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Lean Choices

If you're counting calories and saturated fat, hamburgers, rib eye, porterhouse, or T-bone steaks don't score well.

Thumbs Up:

  • Barbeque or grilled chicken, lean pot roast, lean meat loaf
  • London broil, filet mignon, flank steak, sirloin tip, tenderloin
  • Seafood, boiled shrimp, oysters on the half shell

 

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jamalaya
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Spicing Up Your Diet

Crave Cajun food? It can be packed with saturated fat and salt. Here's how to order healthy:

Thumbs Down: Hush puppies, fried seafood, gumbos, etouffee sauces, blackened fish, and dirty rice.

Thumbs Up: Heart-healthy creoles and jambalayas, boiled crawfish or shrimp, and white rice.

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Bowl of healthy Chinese stir fry
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Healthy Chinese Food

Thumbs Down: Egg rolls, egg drop soup, fried wontons, Lo Mein, Moo Shu, General Tso's Chicken, Sweet and Sour Pork, and fried rice. They are prepared with lots of oil, sodium, and MSG.

Thumbs Up: Steamed or stir-fried seafood, chicken, bean curd, or vegetable dishes -- plus steamed rice -- for heart health. If possible, ask the cook to use less oil, soy sauce, and MSG.

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Family eating Greek salad in restaurant
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Greek Food to Savor

Thumbs Down: Moussaka, gyros, and baklava. If you're counting calories and saturated fat, get real about high-fat meats (like lamb and beef), cheese, and butter in these dishes.

Thumbs Up: Appetizers with chickpeas, eggplant, tomatoes, grains -- like hummus, baba ganouj, tabouli, dolmas. Also, shish kabob, chicken with pita, fish cooked in tomatoes.

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Close-up of a Paneer Tikka being prepared
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Healthy Choices for Indian Food

Thumbs Down: Samosas and creamy curries. Many Indian dishes are full of high-fat ghee (clarified butter), coconut oil and milk. When you're eating out on a diet, read the menu closely.

Thumbs Up: Tandoori meats, vegetable or dal curries, and shish kabobs. South Indian food offers spicy vegetarian dishes -- with cauliflower, peas, tomatoes, eggplant, lentils, rice, and chutney.

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Black Bean Tortillas
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Mexican Food Fiesta

At Mexican eateries, dining out is a party. But beware the lard and cheese.

Thumbs Down: Chips, fried tacos, refried beans, quesadillas, and chimichangas. They're loaded with saturated fat and sodium.

Thumbs Up: Start with black bean soup or grilled shrimp. Share chicken or shrimp fajitas. Try grilled shrimp or fish, with fresh salsa; chili verde (pork); or arroz con pollo (chicken).

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Ribbon pasta on green asparagus& gorgonzola
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Healthy Italian Food

Pasta is the essence of Italian dining. But it can be a saturated fat-and-calorie disaster!

Thumbs Down: Creamy, cheesy sauces (like Alfredo). Fried calamari, pastas stuffed with cheese.

Thumbs Up: Light sauces, like primavera (vegetables); marsala (wine, mushrooms, beef stock); marinara (tomatoes, onions, garlic); or clam sauce. Have minestrone for starters, plus a heart-healthy glass of red wine.

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Thin crust pizza topped with fresh vegetables
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How Pizza Can Be on Your Diet

Follow these healthy eating tips:

  • Order a thin crust.
  • Pile on vegetable toppings, and skip the meat.
  • Ask for extra sauce -- and half the cheese.
  • Start with a salad.
  • Stop after one or two slices, and take the rest home.
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Pad Thai (Thai noodle dish)
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Watch for Hidden Fat

Thai food offers heart-healthy sauces and fresh vegetables. But saturated fat hides in foods fried in lard and coconut oil.

Thumbs Down: Fried spring rolls, coconut chicken soup (tom ka gai), duck.

Thumbs Up: Steamed spring rolls, hot-and-sour soup, pad thai (stir-fried noodles), vegetable stir fries, sticky rice.

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Close-up of turkey & vegetable wrap sandwich
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Healthy Fast Food

Thumbs Up: Grilled chicken, chicken fajita pitas, turkey sandwiches, baked chips, or frozen yogurt.

Thumbs Down: Jumbo burgers, fried fish sandwiches, fried chicken, tacos, French fries, potato chips, milk shakes, cheese, mayonnaise, bacon.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 02/16/2016 Reviewed by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on February 16, 2016

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

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(6)    Jutta Klee / Taxi / Getty Images
(7)    Richard Ross / Photographer’s Choice / Getty Images
(8)    Fogstock RFE / Photolibrary
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(11)    FoodCollection / Photolibrary
(12)    Greg Ceo / Stone / Getty Images
(13)    Carlos Davila / Photographer's Choice / Photolibrary
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(18)    Sally Ullman / StockFood Creative / Getty Images
(19)    FoodCollection / Photolibrary
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(22)    Purestock / Photolibrary

REFERENCES:

The New York Times: "Calorie Data to be Posted at Most Chains."
American Diabetes Association: "Your Guide to Eating Out."
American Heart Association: "Eating Out."
American Heart Association: "Tips for Eating Out."
National Cholesterol Education Program: "High Blood Cholesterol: What You Need to Know."
USDA, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010."
CulturalIndia.net: "South Indian Food."
 

Reviewed by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on February 16, 2016

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.