Keeping Diabetes on Track at Restaurants

A Healthier You

Keeping Diabetes on Track at Restaurants

Staci NormanContributor: Dr. Staci-Marie Norman, PharmD, CDE

Eating out is something that we Americans do quite a bit of, some times eating out more than we eat at home! I’m sure you can think of a week that has been hectic, and it’s just easier to stop and get a quick bite or stop for carry out on the way home. According to a Stanford study in 2014, 20% of all our meals are eaten in the car! And a CBS news investigative report found 1 in 4 people eat some type of fast food daily. Although this can be convenient and helpful timewise, it can really impact diabetes and our overall health negatively if we aren’t careful.

Here are some things to think about when you do eat out to keep on track with diabetes.

  1. Portion size! Most restaurants serve much larger portion sizes than we would typically serve ourselves at home. The portion size can be at least double, but sometimes triple the amount that should be consumed at the meal. Think never-ending pasta bowls or supersized fries. One very easy way to combat this potential dietary disaster is to ask for a doggie bag. Get two meals for the price of one by splitting the meal, even before you start eating.
  2. Higher calorie content! Many times, when food is prepared at a restaurant, higher calorie ingredients are used that you might substitute for at home. That piece of fish you might bake, broil or grill at home might be pan-fried with butter to ensure it tastes fantastic. Sauces using butter or heavy cream are also common additions to meals when we eat out. Not only higher in calories, but also in saturated fats. Fast food is also typically fried, but even the grilled options can be loaded with calories from the condiments that top them. Salads can have just as many calories, sometimes more, than a hamburger with all the extras and dressing that come with them. Thankfully many restaurants are now putting calories next to the foods they serve so you are better informed when choosing. Just remember to add the calories from additional topping or sides you might order.
  3. Sodium overload! The typical daily recommendation for sodium is 2400mg. This is approximately a half teaspoon of table salt. This might seem like a lot but if you get a cheeseburger and large fries at McDonald’s you will have had almost half of your daily sodium (and only 280mg of that sodium is coming from the fries!) This is just an example of not only the quantity but also the fact that the sodium may be in foods you wouldn’t necessarily expect it. Sodium is used liberally to make food taste good, and in processed foods to help with preservation, but it can cause water retention and can elevate blood pressure.

So, what can you do to make sure you stay healthy while continuing to eat out? First and foremost, become an informed consumer. Most restaurants have nutrition information posted, at least calories on the menu, and online there is typically further information such as carbohydrate and sodium. If you know where you are headed for that fast lunch or even that nice night out on the town, take a few minutes to look up the nutrition information. This step can help you plan how you are going to fit this meal into your food plan. There are also apps that you can download on your smartphone that can make this easy. My Fitness Pal is an app that many of my patients and myself use. I especially like it because it has nutritional information for most chain restaurants. But there are plenty of app choices out there, so find the one that works best for you.

Other suggestions to help you stay on track? Watch how food is prepared. If you have the choice between fried or grilled, pick grilled. Avoid heavy sauces, especially cream based. A lighter alternative might be a chutney, pico de gallo or salsa. If you are getting a salad, ask for the dressing on the side, so you control the amount that is used, and a vinaigrette or oil/vinegar type dressing will always be lighter in calories than a cream-based dressing. If you have options for sides, try the steamed or grilled veggie vs. creamed veggies or potato.

Eating out is a part of life and should be enjoyed. By doing a little planning and making a few substitutions, it can be a very enjoyable part of a healthy lifestyle.


Dr. Staci-Marie Norman, PharmD, CDE received her bachelors from Purdue University (’94) and her Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of Oklahoma (’96). In 2000 Dr. Norman added to her credentials by becoming a Certified Diabetes Educator. She is currently the Clinical Coordinator and staff pharmacist for Martin’s Pharmacy. Dr. Norman is a national faculty member for the American Pharmacist Association, teaching certificate programs in both diabetes and cardiovascular disease. She serves on the advisory board that oversees development and revision of these programs. Along with teaching and development responsibilities for APhA, Dr. Norman serves as a peer reviewer for research grants and publication submission. Dr. Norman has also spoken for Abbott, Bayer, Lilly, Mannkind, and Lifescan as a diabetes specialist.