Restaurant Reality Check
You've cut back on swanky restaurants to save cash, but a third of you aren't willing to give up casual dinners out, a recent study reveals. Asking for the sauce on the side and skipping the bread basket are old-school diet tricks. It's not just what you order but how long you wait and even how you pay that makes you overeat. Use our 5-step plan to enjoy your next dinner out — and still stick to your diet.
Step 1: Call ahead.
Watching everyone else chow down while you wait 45 minutes for a table isn't just annoying; it can also make you eat more. "The sight and smell of food stimulates the body to begin the digestive process," says Susan Roberts, PhD, author of The Instinct Diet. "Your stomach muscles relax and insulin is secreted, lowering blood-sugar levels to make you feel hungry." The fix: Book a reservation, and arrive on time to reduce your wait and the amount of food you see and smell before sitting down, suggests Joanne Lichten, PhD, RD. author of Dining Lean. Request a quiet table while you're at it. Diners who sit near a TV, a busy host's station, or the bar may consume more calories, because they have trouble focusing on their food, Lichten says. Dining alone? Don't bring a book; it'll just distract you from the meal and lead to overeating. Instead, pick a task that won't require your full attention (jot down a to-do list, for example).
Step 2: Take a bathroom break.
Meet a friend for dinner after a crazy day of back-to-back meetings and you'll be downing margaritas and mozzarella sticks before you even open the menu. "When you're anxious, your instincts tell you to reach for high-fat comfort foods to soothe yourself," says Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating in Boulder, Colorado. So if you're feeling frazzled when you get to the restaurant, make a beeline for the ladies' room and take five to 10 deep breaths. "A stressed state of mind has a corresponding breathing pattern — short, shallow, and irregular — and so does a peaceful one — regular, rhythmic, and deep," David explains. Deep breaths trick the brain into thinking you're relaxed, and when you're calm you're more likely to make informed, rational decisions.
Decoding the Menu
Step 3: Read between the lines.
Succulent herb-crusted pork chops. Velvety ricotta cheesecake. Is your mouth watering yet? Descriptive adjectives like luscious and juicy are all over restaurant menus and can actually make you order more, says Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindless Eating. In one of his studies, diners were 27 percent more likely to get dessert when it was called German Black Forest double-chocolate cake instead of plain old chocolate cake. Practice picking out these adjectives on a menu the next time you dine out (sizzling, creamy, and rich are a few of the most popular). The more easily you recognize them, the less they'll sway you. Avoid condiment catastrophes. "SOS" (sauce on the side) is one of the first rules you learn in Weight Loss 101, but it may actually up your calorie intake. "A 2-tablespoon serving of dressing looks pretty skimpy, so many restaurants triple or quadruple the amount they send out separately," says Edward Abramson, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University at Chico and author of Body Intelligence. Translation: You could be adding 200 to 300 extra calories to your meal. A smarter strategy? Order condiments on the side; when they arrive, measure one spoonful onto your plate. Then send that tempting little container of ranch dressing, mayo, or cheese sauce back to the kitchen with your waiter.
Step 4: Pay with cold, hard cash.
Walk into your favorite boutique with a purseful of plastic and you're likely to come out with shoes and jewelry to go along with that dress you'd planned on buying. Research shows that it works the same way with food: In a review of 100,000 restaurant purchases conducted by Visa, people who paid for their food with a credit card spent up to 30 percent more than those who used cash. "When you pay on credit, you lose sight of the cost of the meal, so you're more likely to splurge on extras such as appetizers and cocktails," David explains. Bad news, since both can add dollars to your bill and hundreds of calories to your meal. If you can't pay with cash, determine a reasonable amount to spend beforehand (one that won't allow you to order an entree and all the extras) and vigilantly stick to that number.
The Dos and Don'ts of Dining Out
If all else fails, remember these five rules when eating out:
Do stop...in the name of your diet. Take a few minutes to de-stress when you arrive at the restaurant.
Don't dine with a novel — you'll get sucked into the story and lose track of those bites.
Do scan the menu for tempting words like rich or velvety — and stay strong.
Do hit the ATM on your way to the restaurant so you don't pay with plastic.
Don't just request sauce on the side. Measure out an even spoonful to ensure skinny dipping.
Originally published in FITNESS Magazine, September 2009.