What Are the Nutrition Basics for Eating Out?

Question: I see more and more about nutrition information on restaurant menus, but I’m not always sure what it all means. What are the nutrition basics I should know when eating out?

The focus on nutrition and what it all means is definitely growing!  With restaurant menu labeling rules on the horizon and growing research into how nutrition affects health, for better or worse, it’s good to understand some of the basics to help you make the best choices at restaurants and at beyond.  These are some of the big names in nutrition that you’ll want to get to know:

Calories – These little sources of energy are absolutely essential.  As much as we try to “cut” them, we still need an adequate amount of calories from food in order to function.  Each of us requires our own unique number of calories each day. This minimum amount depends upon gender, age, height and weight, and physical activity level.  Calories are becoming more and more common on restaurant menus and will be required on certain restaurant menus starting December 2016.

Carbohydrates (Carbs) – These macronutrients may get a bad rap, but they are also an essential part of your healthy diet.  When carbohydrates are consumed, they break down into glucose. Glucose is the preferred source of energy for the body and the only source of energy for the brain.  Most of your carbohydrates should be “complex” – from sources such as whole grains and legumes.

Fat – Fat, like so many other nutrients, is required for your body to function properly.  It is recommended that you aim for your dietary fat intake to be at least 20-35% of total calories.  The trick is to stick with primarily plant-based fats.  Olive oil and nuts are some good choices for unsaturated fats, which have been shown to have health benefits.  Saturated fats, mostly from animal sources such as meats and cheeses, should be limited whenever possible.  When making healthy choices at restaurants, check total fat, saturated fat and unsaturated fat when nutrition information is available.  

Sodium – In moderation, sodium is a must for your body to function properly.  This electrolyte helps to control blood pressure and blood volume as well as muscle and nerve function.  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend 2300 mg of sodium per day, which is equivalent to one teaspoon of table salt.  For some groups, the limit is lowered to 1500 mg per day.  Unfortunately, most of us far exceed this recommendation, increasing the risk of high blood pressure.  Opting for lower sodium choices, such as those designated as Sodium Savvy on HealthyDiningFinder, can help prevent you from exceeding the recommended daily limit.

Sugar – There is little doubt that sugar is fast becoming the ingredient to watch!  As with any nutrient or food, it’s good to know the facts rather than fall for the hype.  Sugar comes in various forms—sometimes naturally occurring and sometimes added to foods.  Both naturally occurring and added sugars are known by a variety of names.  In general, when you’re craving something sweet, opt for foods with natural sugars, such as fruit, and avoid those with added sugars, such as candy.

Make the best choices for your health at restaurants by carefully considering available nutrition information and ingredients for menu choices.  The new personalized search on HealthyDiningFinder.com takes the guesswork out by allowing you to search for menu choices near you that meet your specific nutrition criteria.