Mayo Clinic Health Library

Diabetes nutrition: Eating out when you have diabetes

Updated: 08-06-2013

For some people, eating out is an occasional indulgence. For others, it's a way of life. Either way, moderate portions and careful choices can help you make restaurant meals part of your overall plan for diabetes nutrition.

Research restaurant menus

Many restaurants include information about the nutrition values of their entrees at the restaurant itself or on their websites. Take advantage of this resource when it's available, and research food or meal options at those establishments to help you make healthy choices.

Keep portion sizes in check

Large portions are common at many restaurants — but diabetes nutrition and healthy eating in general is often based on moderate portions. To control your portions:

  • Choose the smallest meal size if the restaurant offers options, for example, a lunch-sized entree
  • Share meals with a dining partner
  • Request a take-home container
  • Make a meal out of a salad or soup and an appetizer

Consider avoiding "all you can eat" buffets. It can be difficult to resist overeating with so many options. Even a small amount of many foods on your plate can add up to a large number of calories.

Make substitutions

Don't settle for what comes with your sandwich or meal. For example:

  • Instead of french fries, choose a diabetes-friendly side salad or a double order of a vegetable.
  • Use fat-free or low-fat salad dressing, rather than the regular variety, or try a squeeze of lemon juice, flavored vinegar or salsa on your salad.
  • Ask for salsa or pico de gallo, an uncooked salsa, with your burrito instead of shredded cheese and sour cream.
  • On a sandwich, trade house dressings or creamy sauces for ketchup, mustard, fat-free mayonnaise or fresh tomato slices.

Watch the extras

Keep in mind that extras, such as bacon bits, croutons and cheeses, can sabotage diabetes nutrition goals by quickly increasing a meal's calorie and carbohydrate count.

Even healthier additions — including fat-free salad dressing, barbecue sauce and fat-free mayonnaise — have calories. But you can enjoy small servings of these without adjusting your meal plan. Ask for them on the side to further control how much of them you eat.

Speak with the chef

Food preparation is also something to consider. Avoid breaded and fried food. Instead request that your food be:

  • Broiled
  • Roasted
  • Grilled

Ask if the chef can use:

  • Egg whites or low-cholesterol egg substitutes
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Skinless chicken

If you're ordering pizza, request a thin crust and lots of vegetables. Avoid doubling up on cheese or meat.

If you're on a low-salt meal plan, ask that no salt or MSG be added to your food. Don't feel self-conscious about requesting healthier options or substitutions. You're simply doing what it takes to stay committed to your meal plan, and most restaurants want to make customers happy.

Watch what you drink

Avoid high-calorie drinks
Beware of the continuously refilled soda glass. Sugar-sweetened soda can add hundreds of calories to your meal. Shakes and ice-cream drinks may have even more calories, as well as saturated fat. Instead, order water, unsweetened iced tea, sparkling water, mineral water or diet soda.

When alcohol can worsen your diabetes
Alcohol has its own caveats. If your diabetes is under control and your doctor agrees, an occasional alcoholic drink with a meal is fine. But alcohol adds empty calories to your meal. It can also aggravate diabetes complications, such as nerve damage and eye disease.

If you decide to drink alcohol
If you choose to drink alcohol, choose options with fewer calories and carbohydrates, such as:

  • Light beer
  • Dry wines
  • Mixed drinks made with sugar-free mixers, such as diet soda, diet tonic, club soda or seltzer

Limit your alcohol to up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.

Eat on time

Eating at the same time every day can help you maintain steady blood sugar levels — especially if you take diabetes pills or insulin shots. If you're eating out with others, follow these tips:

  • Schedule the gathering at your usual mealtime.
  • To avoid waiting for a table, make a reservation or try to avoid times when the restaurant is busiest.
  • If you can't avoid eating later than usual, snack on a fruit or starch serving from the upcoming meal at your usual mealtime.

Save room for dessert

When you have diabetes, dessert isn't necessarily off-limits. Sweets count as carbohydrates in your meal plan. If you'd like dessert other than fruit, compensate by reducing the amount of other carbohydrates — such as bread, tortillas, rice, milk or potatoes — in your meal.

Remember the ground rules

Whether you're eating at home or eating out, remember the principles of diabetes nutrition:

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods.
  • Limit the amount of fat and salt in your diet.
  • Keep portion sizes in check.
  • Above all, follow the nutrition guidelines established by your doctor or registered dietitian.

Working together with your doctor or dietitian, you can feed your joy of eating out without jeopardizing your meal plan.

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