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Summer is officially underway, and with it come vacations and the need to eat away from home. Every week we talk about the challenges of an eating lifestyle that minimizes salt, sugar, starchy carbs and saturated fat. The dual conditions of diabetes and heart disease, which afflict millions of patients, require attention to all of these issues. So, when we eat at a restaurant, what are we looking for? How do we eat out at all with all these dietary concerns?

There’s no question that it’s far easier to eat healthy at home, where you can control what is in your food, especially the soups, sauces and salad dressings. First, consider whether your meal out is a routine convenience or a truly special occasion. If it’s a birthday, anniversary or other special occasion, perhaps an exception or splurge is in order, and you might just decide to eat what you want. But if it’s more of a convenience or a weekly night out, you’ll want to make it as healthy as possible.

As a diabetic heart patient, it might help to start with a focus on what you can have, not what you can’t. As we often say, vegetables, lean meats and healthy fats are the core ingredients of a meal that is least likely to violate our limitations. So, we want to focus on restaurants with a great choice of vegetable side dishes (not just potatoes, pasta and rice dishes). A seriously good restaurant doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does need to offer choices of green vegetables, salads that are fresh (bonus points for homemade salad dressings, especially a great vinaigrette) and the option to have your meal prepared without added sodium.

Depending on the sodium level your doctor recommends, it might be possible to make allowances for side dishes that might have some sodium, like baked beans, gravy topping, or greens. But watch out for soups. Just like those sold in grocery stores, many restaurant soups are extremely high in sodium. Unless it is made in the restaurant with minimal sodium, it might be best to avoid. You may want to go online and research the sodium and saturated fat content of the restaurant’s menu choices before choosing.

Some of the adaptations we have found fairly easily in restaurants are:

  • Hamburgers or other sandwich ingredients served without the bun, perhaps with sautéed onions (and sometimes mushrooms) on top, or wrapped in crisp lettuce;
  • Lean steak, chicken or fish prepared without added salt or sodium-laden sauces;
  • Vegetables (or a baked potato, if you must have a potato dish on the side) with a healthy margarine on the side (we  try to come prepared with salt-free seasonings we can add)
  • Fresh berries as a dessert option

What kinds of restaurants are mostly off our list now? Here are the deal breakers for us:

  • The entire menu is based on something we are trying to avoid, such as fried food, pasta, rice or bread;
  • The only “vegetables” offered are fries and cole slaw (and not a Crispy-healthy Cole Slaw!)
  • The menu offers no low-sodium options (some Asian restaurants do offer lower sodium vegetable and meat options, but in many, the sauces, including soy sauce, and the heavy reliance on rice make them more of an indulgence).
  • The menu is limited to dishes that rely heavily on the use of sauces, cheese and cream, and no flexibility is available for preparation style.

Sometimes you might not have a choice, such as with a business dinner (especially if someone else has already picked the restaurant and the menu), but even then it  might be possible to discuss special food needs in advance with the host or restaurant. In a worst-case scenario, the best option might be to at least avoid the bread, pasta and other refined carbs, and at least try to fill up on meats and vegetables.

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