Diabetes nutrition: Eating out when you have diabetes
Medically reviewed on Oct 15, 2018
If you have diabetes, eating out while sticking to your nutrition plan has gotten easier. Many restaurants offer healthy alternatives. And you can plan what you want to order by looking at menus online, some of which provide nutrition information.
Using this resource, minding portion sizes and choosing food carefully can help you make restaurant meals part of your overall plan for diabetes nutrition.
Keep portion sizes in check
Restaurants tend to serve large portions, possibly double or more what you normally eat. 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
Avoid "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 lot of calories.
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.
Watch the extras
Bacon bits, croutons, cheeses and other add-ons can sabotage diabetes nutrition goals by quickly increasing a meal's calories and carbohydrates.
Even lighter 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.
Ask for what you want
At some restaurants, the best way to get what you want is to phone ahead and ask if foods can be made with less salt, fat or sugar. Looking at the menu on the restaurant's website, if it's available, is a good way to prepare for ordering.
Consider how the food is prepared. Instead of breaded and fried, ask that your food be:
Ask your waiter not to bring bread or tortilla chips to the table if they don't fit into your meal plan.
Ask if the chef can use:
- Egg whites or low-cholesterol egg substitutes
- Whole-grain bread
- Skinless chicken
- Less oil, butter or cheese
If you're ordering pizza, request a thin crust covered with vegetables. 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 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
Sugar-sweetened soda can add hundreds of calories to your meal, especially if the restaurant offers free refills. Shakes and ice-cream drinks can have even more calories, as well as saturated fat. Instead order water, unsweetened iced tea, sparkling water, mineral water or diet soda.
Alcohol and diabetes
If your diabetes is under control and your doctor agrees, an occasional alcoholic drink with a meal is fine. But keep in mind that alcohol adds empty calories.
If you decide to drink alcohol
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 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, 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.
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 with your doctor or dietitian, you can enjoy eating out without jeopardizing your meal plan.