The choices you make when eating out will of course be governed by the reason for the event, the venue, and your dietary preferences and requirements. Is it a party? Is it a shopping trip? May be it is a routine work commitment. Certainly when attending celebrations, you might decide to just go with what you fancy (with exceptions for allergies and intolerances of course!). Once in a while this is fine, although doing this regularly or many times close together may mean those choices begin to affect your gut. And, upsetting your gut can have a knock-on effect for your physical and mental health.
So, here are five easy things you can do to better support your health when eating out:
1 – Think About How Many Courses You Actually Want to Eat
If you are not presented with a set menu, think about how many courses you actually want. Even with a set menu, how much do you actually want to eat?
It is said that we should only eat until we are 80% full to avoid those uncomfortable ate-too-much feelings that could spoil your evening. You may also eat more slowly in a social environment making you feel full with less food. Therefore consider whether you actually want a starter and/or dessert, or even a side option (or how high you want to pile your plate each time you visit the buffet table).
- How much do you normally eat? Do you still feel hungry?
- Do the choices for all the different courses actually look like something you’d like, or are you choosing multiple courses because you feel you have to?
- Are you choosing those courses because “it’s what you do when you eat out”, or because you actually want to eat that much?
2 – Aim for colour on your plate
Choose a range of colourful food – and I don’t mean pretty icing or buttercream! “Eating the Rainbow” through choosing a selection of fruit and vegetables is a great way to get a range of important nutrients and fibre to support your gut. If you need more persuasion – eating in this way can support your energy levels, which could help you enjoy the night for longer.
Selecting a range of colourful whole foods can also brighten up your plate. And, as we know our enjoyment of food is partly determined by how it looks. If you are choosing from a table menu, consider adding colour with a side choice.
I know this will be difficult when choosing desserts especially, but look out for an option that includes fruit.
3 – Be label and ingredients aware
I’ll try not to get on my soap-box here, but I really don’t like the law that requires food outlets of a particular size to tell people the calorie content of food! There is so much more to making healthful choices than these numbers. Foods containing ‘healthy fats’ will naturally have higher calories than a food containing the same weight of sugar (fat is higher in calories than carbohydrate, per gram). However, while the calorie count will be higher the nutritional benefits might be too.
Instead, consider the actual content of the option:
- Are there fruit and/or vegetables included?
- Does the meal include a protein source? Vegetarian and vegan meals options are often terrible for not including protein through the simple addition of pulses, for example. Protein is not only an important nutrient, it can also help you feel full for longer.
- What type of fat is in the food? Look out for ‘healthy fats’ such as those in oily fish and try to reduce fats from fried food and pastries. If you have a choice, consider butter instead of margarine/spread.
- What is the carbohydrate level? Look out for sugars and meals that offer large amount of carbohydrate (bread, pasta, potatoes etc) in relation to the rest of the meal. Carbohydrates affect our sugar balance, and eating a lot without fibre or protein may mean you feel hungry again quite quickly.
- Does the meal contain ultra-processed foods (UPFs)? I’ve noticed on vegetarian options particularly well-known brand names appearing on menu listing of veggie burgers, for instance. This indicates that the food is not ‘homemade’ and likely to be UPF and are probably best avoided.
And, not to forget the marketing: claims such as “low fat” and “gluten-free” does not make a food healthier. Gluten-free is certainly important to protect the health of those with coeliac disease or who are otherwise sensitive to gluten, but those foods are still likely to contain sugar and other not-so-good ingredients. Low fat foods are often higher in sugar which, as you know, is not a healthful choice.
4 – Don’t forget to consider what you drink
When making your food choices, don’t forget your drink choices. Try to include some water to help you digest your food and keep hydrated (especially when alcohol and/or high caffeine choices are likely).
If you need to keep your iron intake in-check, consider choosing fruit juice for vitamin C (remember 150ml is a portion, and drinking more juice does not add fruit portions!), and avoid tea and coffee close to the meal.
When deciding on a caffeinated drink, think about how it affects you. Would you normally have such a drink at this time of night or does it affect your sleep?
5 – Consider adding in some physical activity
If you can, walk to and from the venue. While alcohol will certainly be a factor in the decision about driving, walking is great for our health and supports digestion. It is believed that it can help to:
- move food through the digestive tract
- regulate blood pressure
- prevent spikes in blood sugar (particularly helpful for those with diabetes).
When making your decision to walk, please consider your personal safety and take any appropriate precautions. This website provides some safety tips: https://www.saferwatchapp.com/blog/safety-tips-when-walking-alone-at-night/
Of course, dancing is a great form of exercise. If you are at an appropriate event, get up and dance after your meal. This post that I published a couple of years ago discusses some of the benefits of dance: https://alible.diet/dancing/
A note about planning
Most of the time we know we will be going for a meal. If you do and you know your choices are not likely to be the best for your health (take a look at the menu online in advance if possible), think about what else you eat and do that day. Managing your dietary intake over the whole day can help support your health whatever you choose when you are out.
Wherever you eat, and whatever you choose, I hope you have a great time.