March is National Nutrition Month—a great time to focus on improving our diet! Many of us are pretty careful about what we eat. We read food labels, learn about creating menus that meet our nutritional needs, and try to follow our doctor’s recommendation about a balanced diet.

But all this planning can go right out the window when we dine out often. Here in the Chicago area, we are blessed with fabulous eateries of every kind, with delicious specialties that are hard to resist. No wonder many of us have been trying to lose weight since the beginning of the new year!

For older adults, the challenge is greater. On average, Americans gain a pound a year in the two decades after the age of 45—even though our recommended healthy weight remains the same. Ongoing research increasingly confirms that maintaining the right body weight is one of the key factors in healthy aging. Carrying extra pounds increases the risk and severity of many health conditions, such as heart disease, arthritis, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. Staying active is an important part of keeping at a healthy weight…but no matter how active you are, if you take in more calories than you use up, you will gain weight.

Here are some things to consider next time you visit your favorite restaurant:

  • Nutritional information can be a mystery. Even if you are a confirmed label-reader at the grocery store, it’s easy to be in denial when dining out. Restaurant fare can be less healthy than meals you prepare at home: fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other healthful ingredients cost more than prepared foods, and restaurants know that fat and sodium make food taste better to most diners.
  • Portions are much larger…and you can’t control the serving size. Unfortunately, many diners consider gigantic servings a sign of value, and restaurants want to please their customers. It’s a vicious cycle. But keep in mind that the average restaurant meal contains close to a full day’s calorie allowance for most older adults! So if you dine out often and clean your plate, you can lose sight of your body’s natural signals that you have eaten enough.
  • Social pressure. Joining friends for a meal out can be a wonderful way to keep in touch. But there isn’t necessarily safety in numbers! How many times have you heard comments like: “You’re only ordering a salad?” “Aren’t you going to finish your fries?” “The desserts are delicious here!”

According to the USDA, “Ounce for ounce, foods eaten away from home are more calorie-dense than foods prepared at home, and thus could be a factor in the obesity surge. Health economists have linked higher restaurant density with greater obesity rates over time and across geographical areas.”

Bottom line: the Food Pyramid doesn’t change shape just because you’re in a Mexican-style cantina or a romantic French bistro rather than your own kitchen. If you dine out more than once a week, start now to rethink your attitude about restaurant eating.

Here are some tips for dining out the healthy way:

Be an informed diner. Ask if the restaurant offers nutrition information. More and more eateries are offering this service, and many post the information on their websites. In addition, as of 2013, chain restaurants with over 20 locations are required to post this information on their menu. With this information, once you’ve chosen a restaurant, you can even decide on healthy choices that you will order before you leave home.

Look for healthy choices on the menu. There is also a trend for restaurants, even many fast food chains, to offer a selection of “heart smart” and other healthy offerings. If your favorite little cafe doesn’t have a specific “healthy section” on the menu, speak with your server, the owner or chef to find out which menu choices are prepared with little fat and sodium.

Avoid fried foods; choose broiled, baked or poached instead. This can cut the calories of poultry and fish by half. And a large serving of french fries has 500 calories and 25 grams of fat, compared to a plain a baked potato at 200 calories and 0 grams of fat. Ask for salad dressing, butter, sour cream and other fat-rich condiments to be served on the side or not at all.

Don’t go to a restaurant when you are ravenous. Eat a little something beforehand, so you will be able to resist the mouthwatering descriptions on the menu that could tempt you to order that cream-rich pasta sauce … and then to empty the bread basket while you wait for your food to arrive.

Become portion-size savvy. The average-sized restaurant portion is over twice the recommended serving size. For example, according to the American Dietetic Association, one serving of meat is three ounces—about the size of a pack of cards. But at a family restaurant, the average steak is nine ounces. That’s three servings!

Resign from the “Clean Plate Club.” You don’t have to own a dog to ask for a doggy bag. Most restaurants will happily furnish you with a take-away carton. Get in the habit of asking for it at the beginning of the meal, and splitting everything in half. That way you won’t be tempted to eat too much and you’ll have a nice leftover meal for later. Another option is to split a meal with another weight-conscious diner. Or, order an appetizer-sized version of the entre, and a side salad. Some restaurants offer senior meals with smaller portion sizes, or allow people of any age to order a “kids meal.”

Avoid buffets. No matter what good intentions you walk through the door with, you will probably leave them behind. It’s just human nature to want to eat all you can when it’s “all you can eat”! But if you do frequent buffets, remember it’s not “a good deal” to overeat if your health is paying the price. And practice caution at salad bars. Remember that cheese, croutons, salad dressings, bacon bits, potato salad, etc. can quickly boost your “virtuous” salad’s fat content higher than that of a cheeseburger! Choose mostly veggies instead, with low-fat dressing.

Skip desserts. Order a cup of herb tea if your dining companions are having an after dinner sweet. Or choose a low-fat sorbet or fruit. If you must have dessert, order one portion and split it with the other diners. One taste is just as delicious as the entire thing would be.

Choose your beverage wisely. Did you know that a 32-ounce sugared soft drink has almost 500 calories? That’s almost one-fourth of the daily 2,000-calorie allowance for an active woman over 50! Stick with water, ice tea, low-fat milk or diet soda. If you consume alcoholic beverages, avoid those with sugary mixers. And remember: a milkshake doesn’t count as a beverage, weighing in at 1000 calories for a large chocolate malted.

The good news is: the food service industry is responding to increased consumer concern about nutritional health by offering more and more healthy choices, and more nutritional information. Take advantage of the healthier offerings … and the information you can use to make those choices.

The information in this blog post is not intended to take the place of the advice of your doctor. Talk to your healthcare provider with questions about a healthy diet that meets your needs and health status.