The 6 Worst Mistakes Nutritionists See at Restaurants

From birthday dinners to Sunday brunch and every happy hour in between, there's no doubt that restaurants are a major part of everyday life. For many, they offer a place to spend quality time with friends, family and co-workers. They're also the highlight of visiting new places, whether you're traveling for vacation or work. But what happens when you're trying to practice healthy eating on the daily? Restaurants can suddenly pose significant hurdles, to say the least.

These days, we're eating out more than ever, thanks to busier lifestyles and online discoveries. In fact, The Journal of Nutrition states that 49 percent of meals in 2007 were eaten at restaurants. In 1929, that statistic was only 17 percent.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. "[Eating at restaurants] is a convenient, fun way to try new food," says Dr. Zubaida Qamar, a nutrition researcher and health educator in California. Plus, it doesn't hurt that you don't have to deal with a messy kitchen at the end of the evening.

There are downfalls, though. "[We have] no control over the ingredients used," Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D., nutrition expert and author of "The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook" explains. It's also easy to go overboard on calories, salt, sugar and preservatives—just to name a few.

But don't be so fast to take a raincheck on your dinner reservation. Instead, educate yourself on the worst mistakes nutritionists see at restaurants. By recognizing how (and why) people make these poor choices, you can master the art of dining out, once and for all.

Avoid These Common Mistakes

First, remember that health is about balance. "People—my former self, included—tend to look at diet and healthy eating as an 'all or nothing' approach," explains Fred Bollaci, food writer and author of "The Restaurant Diet: How to Eat Out Every Night and Still Lose Weight." "Yet, diets [that] are too restrictive or drastic typically lead to relapse."

For Bollaci, however, understanding the importance of balance was a game changer. Once 330 pounds, he managed to drop 150 pounds without skipping out on his favorite restaurants. The secret? Understanding how to navigate—and avoid—the sneaky traps in the restaurant scene, the same traps into which nutritionists often see their clients fall.

1. Ignoring Other Meals  

This one begins before you even leave the house. When you're excited for a restaurant meal, it's easy to put other food choices on the backburner. But when everything you eat before and after also contributes to the day's nutritional intake, this slip-up can do more harm than good.

The Solution:

Take a moment to mentally map out the day's eating plan. If necessary, jot it down.

Take a tip from Amidor, who checks the restaurant menu prior to heading out the door so she can appropriately plan other meals. "[For example], if I'm going to have a steak dinner, I will choose a lighter lunch like a green salad with an egg or salmon," she shares. This way, she can balance her caloric intake while fueling up on a variety of food.<pagebreak>
2. Arriving Hungry

Similarly, skipping meals and showing up hungry is another no-no. Oftentimes, people forego meals during the day to "save calories" for the extravagant meal they're anticipating later that night. A grumbling stomach, though, can easily hijack your order, pushing you toward higher-calorie fare that you wouldn't normally desire.

 "When [you don't eat regularly and] you're very hungry, you lose self-control over healthy choices," Amidor explains. Before you know it, you'll be trading lots of money for lots of calories.

The Solution:

Never underestimate the power of healthy snacks. "Before going to eat, munch on fruits or veggies," advises Lisa R. Young, Ph.D., R.D., a nutritionist, author of "The Portion Teller Plan" and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. This will help curb your appetite, especially when paired with a protein like hummus and yogurt, or healthy fats such as nuts and avocado.

Dr. Qamar adds that it can be difficult to distinguish between hunger and thirst, so don't forget to stay hydrated. Sip on H2O as soon you sit down, then gauge your hunger from there.

3. Ignoring Cooking Methods  

Another slip-up is paying no mind to the way meals are cooked. Unfortunately, the most popular method in Western countries is frying, a cheap and fast process that destroys nutrients. It's a major reason why foods like chicken nuggets and French fries lack substantial nutrition.

An article in the 2013 issue of Archivos Latinoamericanos De Nutricion also discovered that deep frying may potentially form toxic compounds, while the oil tacks on trans fats, cholesterol and sodium. It's a literal recipe for disaster.

The Solution:

"Ask the server if they can substitute fried items with baked or grilled versions," suggests Dr. Qamar. Eyeing a fried chicken sandwich? Request grilled chicken instead. She also recommends trading sides, like fries for a baked sweet potato. 

Essentially, any method is better than frying. Educating yourself on menu watch words before you set foot in the restaurant can save you from ending up with a meal that takes care of your daily calories in less than 20 bites. "If done properly, sautéing, simmering, roasting, baking, grilling and steaming are all healthy," shares Amidor. "Look for these options on the menu or make a request."

4. Ordering Drinkable Calories

According to Dr. Qamar, many people forget that calories, sugar and preservatives aren't limited to solid food. In turn, they order "drinkable" versions without thinking about what is in them.

This goes beyond milkshakes and soda, too. A sweetened beverage like Ocean Spray Cran-Apple "fruit" juice boasts 308 calories in 16 ounces, almost one and a half times more than the 220 calories in a 20-ounce soda.

As for booze? Aside from adding extra calories and sugar, Amidor warns that drinking on an empty stomach further encourages poor food choices. A 2010 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association also found that diet quality tends to worsen with overall alcohol intake. There's a reason that pizza or fast food place always looks so tasty after a night at the bars.

The Solution:

When possible, stick to water. Craving more flavor? Request a lemon or lime to add to water or unsweetened iced tea. If you choose to drink alcohol, order after you start eating to avoid drinking while hungry. While you're at it, go for something light like a mixed drink with tonic water.
5. Disregarding Portions

Whether you're at home or eating out, overlooking portions isn't a smart move. Amidor finds that many people make the mistake of feeling obligated to finish every last bite, even though the average entrée can typically last two to three meals.

It doesn't help that portions have become larger since the 1970s. According to Dr. Young, they have grown by two to five times, a trend that has changed the way we view "normal" portions. Experts call this concept "portion distortion."

Interestingly, a 2002 article featured in the American Journal of Public Health and co-written by Young discovered that increasing portion sizes is linked to the obesity epidemic, which also started in the 1970s.

The Solution:

Luckily, there are several ways to handle super-sized portions. Dr. Young recommends eating an appetizer as a meal, which often provides just enough food. Bollaci opts for a pre-meal strategy to avoid feeling tempted to overeat beyond your fullness level. "I like to ask if a half portion is available, especially when ordering [something like] pasta," he says. "By being pro-active and communicating to the folks serving you, [you can] stay focused and save hundreds of calories." Plus, the hack doubles as tomorrow's lunch prep.

6. Slathering Meals in Sauce

Condiments like sauces and dressings will make or break a meal. For example, a waterfall of creamy Ranch dressing can turn an otherwise-healthy salad into an energy-dense dish. As Dr. Young points out, a common mistake is ordering a salad and thinking it's healthy while its ingredients actually add up to a lot of calories.

Many sauces are also full of salt, sugar and preservatives. Ketchup and barbecue sauce are often rich in high-fructose corn syrup, while some hot sauces are teeming with sodium, states the American Heart Association. Unsurprisingly, a heavy hand can easily negate a meal's nutrition.

The Solution:

Request sauce on the side, whether it's the mayonnaise in a sandwich or dressing on a salad. By ordering condiments separately, you can control how much is used.

A vinegar-based dressing is also a lighter option. When you are in doubt, Bollaci suggests plugging ingredients into an app or software program to ensure that you are making smart choices. 

Are You Worried About Sounding Picky? 

When you're asking for half portions and separate sauces, it's normal to feel like a bother. No one likes to be "that" person! Yet, Bollaci reminds us that you are doing what is right for you.

"It took practice, but the more I went out to eat and had success, the easier it became," recalls Bollaci, when asked about making requests amidst guilty feelings. "I didn't want to come across as 'that picky diner,' but I had a long history of overeating and making unhealthy choices. Why should I allow [the restaurant] to tempt me?"

Eventually, he discovered that it came down to learning how to communicate your needs without being rude. Through honing this social skill, Bollaci found that most restaurants are happy to accommodate reasonable requests when you are polite yet firm.

Controlling guilty feelings also extends to "cheat" meals. "I call it a 'treat' instead, so it removes that insinuated element of guilt," he shares. "Learning to eat a balance of foods is the approach that worked for me."

At a restaurant, the field is planted before you get there. You do, however, have control over how you play the game. "You need to be accountable," encourages Bollaci. "Make a plan, have a calorie budget and use software like SparkPeople to make reasonable estimates, whether you're dining out or cooking at home."

Ultimately, enjoying restaurants is another part of the overall health journey, and as you practice mindfulness and re-shape the way you order food, you'll be that much more likely to score a goal.