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Diabetes nutrition: Eating out when you have diabetes

Medically reviewed by Last updated on May 5, 2021.

Eating out is fun and convenient, but if you have diabetes, sticking to your nutrition plan while eating out can be a challenge. Fortunately, many restaurants now offer healthy choices. Plus, menus and nutrition information are often available online, allowing you to plan what you want before you even get to the restaurant.

Following are some suggestions to help keep restaurant meals from derailing your diabetes management plan.

Plan ahead

Check the restaurant's website to see if the menu and nutrition information are available online. These are good tools to prepare what you'll order. If this information isn't online, try calling the restaurant to ask if foods can be made with less salt, fat or sugar.

Food can often be prepared using healthier methods. Instead of having something breaded and fried, ask if your food can be:

  • Broiled
  • Roasted
  • Grilled
  • Steamed

Other substitutions you might want to ask if the chef can use include:

  • Whole-grain bread or pasta instead of white varieties
  • Brown rice instead of white rice
  • Skinless chicken
  • Less oil, butter or cheese
  • Veggies on a thin crust pizza

You don't need to feel self-conscious about requesting healthier options or substitutions. You're doing what it takes to stay committed to your treatment goals. And, most restaurants want to make customers happy.

Keep portion sizes in check

Restaurants tend to serve large portions, possibly double what you normally eat or more. Try to eat the same size portions you would if you were eating at home by:

  • Choosing the smallest meal size if the restaurant offers options: for example, a lunch-sized entree
  • Sharing meals with a dining partner or two
  • Requesting a take-home container
  • Making a meal out of a salad or soup and an appetizer
  • Eating slowly so that you'll feel full before you've eaten too much

If you're at an "all you can eat" buffet, it can be difficult to resist overeating. Even a small amount of many foods can add up to lots of calories. When you're at a buffet, the "plate" method can help. Fill up half your plate with nonstarchy vegetables, a quarter with a protein and the final quarter with a starch.

Make substitutions

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

  • 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, horseradish or fresh tomato slices.

Extras add up

Bacon bits, croutons, cheeses and other add-ons can sabotage diabetes nutrition goals by quickly increasing a meal's calories and carbohydrates.

If you're eating somewhere that offers free bread or tortilla chips on the table and they just don't fit into your meal plan, ask the waiter not to bring them.

Drinks matter, too

Sugar-sweetened soda, juice or milkshakes can add lots of calories to your meal, especially if the restaurant offers free refills. Instead of high-calorie drinks, good drink options include:

  • Water
  • Unsweetened iced tea
  • Unsweetened tea or coffee
  • Sparkling water
  • Mineral water
  • Diet soda

It's a good idea to drink a glass of water before you eat to make you feel full sooner.

Alcohol and diabetes

If your diabetes is well managed and your doctor agrees, an occasional alcoholic drink with a meal is usually fine. But keep in mind that alcohol adds empty calories.

If you use insulin or other medications that lower blood sugar, alcohol can cause a potentially dangerous low blood sugar level. If you use these medications and drink alcohol, be sure to eat something while drinking.

If you 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 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.

Staying on schedule

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:

  • Ask to 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, be sure to have a snack on hand in case you develop symptoms of low blood sugar.

Save room for dessert

Dessert isn't necessarily off-limits because you have diabetes. Fruit can be a good choice, but if you'd like a sweet other than fruit, make it part of your meal plan and compensate by reducing the amount of other carbohydrates — such as bread, tortillas, rice, milk or potatoes — in your meal. Or consider sharing a dessert with someone.

Don't forget nutrition ground rules

Whether you're eating at home or eating out, follow the nutrition guidelines established by your doctor or registered dietitian, such as:

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods, such as vegetables and fruits and high-fiber foods
  • Limit the amount of unhealthy fat in your diet, especially trans fats
  • Limit the amount of salt you eat
  • Keep sweets, such as baked goods, candy and ice cream, to a minimum

Movement helps, too

Don't search for the parking spot closest to the restaurant. Get a little extra activity by parking farther away. Better yet, leave the car at home and walk to the restaurant and home again. All that extra activity can help you avoid an after-meal blood sugar spike.

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