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Dining Out on a Diet
How to Eat Out Responsibly

Enjoy a night out without ruining a diet.
Enjoy a night out without ruining a diet.

Fast food has been portrayed as one of the primary drivers of obesity in America. Their meals are often packed with calories, fat and sodium while offering little redeeming nutritional value. But small, local restaurants aren't doing our waistlines any favors. In a study published in 2016, researchers found that "Ninety-two percent of meals exceeded typical energy requirements for a single eating occasion" in non-chain restaurants.

It's easy to ignore the calories when you're gathered with friends for a night out. It's even more difficult to make healthier decisions because most small restaurants don't include information on the calorie content of their dishes.

You can still enjoy a nice meal out, and there are many ways to reduce the calories. But these five actions can make a real difference.

Pay attention to the calories you eat BEFORE you go out. Everything you eat during the day adds up. When you start with a big breakfast and add a large lunch on top, a calorie-dense dinner will only compound the problem. If you choose lower-calorie options before you go, you'll be able to take in a little extra without having a problem.

Don't skip meals and arrive hungry. It may seem like a good idea to save calories by just cutting a meal, but that rarely works out. If you get to the restaurant hungry, you're less likely to make good decisions. You'll probably grab bread from the basket they put out, order an appetizer and focus on the larger meal options. You might even reward yourself with a 600 calorie dessert if you skipped a 400 calorie lunch.

Eat at your regular times. If you're starting to get hungry before you go out, grab a snack. Try a piece of fruit or a lower calorie and lower sugar protein bar to tamp down a grumbling stomach. Remember to have a big glass of water too. Sometimes it's tough to tell the difference between hunger and thirst.

Quit drinking your calories. Full sugar drinks, juices, regular sodas, shakes or floats all tend to pack a lot of calories from sugar. A glass of juice may sound healthy, but a 16-ounce glass often has more sugar in it than you're supposed to consume over an entire day. Shakes and floats can pack between 600 and 1,400 calories on top of whatever you're ordering for dinner.

Alcohol can push things to another level. Not only is it packed with calories, but drinking a lot can lead to poor decision-making.

Try unsweetened tea or ask what their diet soda options are. Consider ordering still or sparkling water with lemon or lime squeezed in it. You can even bring your own flavor packets like Crystal L+ight, Crush, Propel, Skittles, Starburst, Welch's or Wyler's.

You should probably avoid meals that are bigger than your head.
You should probably avoid meals that are bigger than your head.

Cut your meal in half before you take the first bite. Ask your server to bring a to-go container WITH the meal. Then take half off the plate. Since most meals are so high in calories, you're not depriving yourself. With half put away, you're less likely to keep plowing through until you're uncomfortably full and it's all gone.

In the unlikely event, you're still hungry after eating half, set a timer for 10 minutes. It takes a while for your brain to register you're full. If you're still hungry when the timer goes off, go ahead and dig into the leftovers.

Stop drowning everything in butter, jelly, creams and sauces. A single tablespoon of ranch dressing has 73 calories and almost 8 grams of fat. When I asked five people to pour out their "typical serving" of ranch, the smallest pour had nearly 300 calories, and that was from just four tablespoons.

Ketchup and barbecue sauce are loaded with sugar and salt. Gravy's and creams can pack hundreds of calories on top of what might be healthier meals.

Start by ordering sauces and toppings on the side, so you can control how much is added. Consider lower-calorie vinegar-based dressings. You can also try dipping your fork in the dressing before spearing the salad. Each bite has just enough on the fork to hit your taste buds without drenching the food.

Follow these five tips and you'll not only cut down on the calories you eat, but end up with a leftover meal as well.

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beginning any diet or exercise program.