Eat at your favourite restaurants without sacrificing your diet

We all love going out to eat, but often the food is high in fat and calories. We share our tips on how to keep to your nutrition plan when you're not in the kitchen.

Selection of Indian curries and accompaniments
Indian food
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Dining in a restaurant should be a pleasure, but when you're also trying to eat healthily, the experience can be fraught with worry about overindulging. This is particularly true in the UAE, where going out for lunch or dinner is a frequent, perhaps even daily, occurrence, meaning that deciding to splurge and make up for it the next day isn't really an option.

Sarah Queen is the consultant director of Nutrition Matters Arabia, an Abu Dhabi-based company offering private consultations and corporate healthy-eating workshops. She says that one of the causes of overeating when dining out is not eating properly during the day, in anticipation of the meal. "This leads to people being too hungry by the time it comes to eat, so they often choose large portions, extra side dishes and more courses," she said.

Queen says that even when you're planning to go out for dinner, you should still eat sensibly beforehand. If the meal isn't until quite late, she advises snacking on a mixture of fruit and low fat yogurt or a small handful of unsalted nuts a couple of hours prior, to prevent hunger pangs that can influence menu choices.

Carole Holditch, a nutritionist and the founder of Good Habits, which provides Dubai-based slimming club/lifestyle guidance, also stresses that portion control is important: "The simplest tip, but not always the easiest to follow, is to remember that you don't need to clear your plate. Try to eat slowly and stop when you're full."

Menus filled with synonyms, hyperbole and embellishments certainly don't help the would-be healthy eater on their way, and the lack of transparency can serve as another hurdle, says Queen.

"Eating out is a concern when people are attempting to eat well because a food may sound healthy on the menu, but when it is delivered it can be laden with fat from butter, oils and creamy sauces," she says.

This makes sense. Most of us are aware that fried foods, rich sauces and sugary desserts aren't good for us; it's the salad that is served covered in a mayonnaise-based dressing, or the vegetables warmed through in a buttery emulsion, that cause problems.

So what can be done? Not being afraid to ask for your meals to be given a personal twist is one tactic. It is not unreasonable to inquire exactly how a dish is cooked, request that sauces and dressings be served on the side, opt for a starter as a main course or swap fries or mashed options for a side order of vegetables.

Being aware of menu lingo also helps. As a general rule, anything that is described as "crispy" is likely to be well acquainted with a deep-fat fryer, as will many battered, breaded and tempura items. Spinach might be considered a superfood, but once it has been creamed, it will also be high in saturated fat and calories.The same goes for asparagus served under a blanket of hollandaise sauce and vegetables smothered with cheese. Confit, meanwhile, means cooked and cooled in its own fat.

It is also worth noting that restaurant meals tend to come with an assortment of other, usually empty, calories that diners fail to account for: the bowl of crisps or nuts presented at the start, the bread basket you nibble away at while perusing the menu and the petit fours served at the end all add up.

Of course, each cuisine has its own dishes that should be avoided entirely or on the other hand, devoured without guilt. A primer:

Chinese restaurant

Chopsticks are your friend. Unless you're particularly well-practised, using them will force you to eat more slowly, thus giving the brain time to register when it is full. Holditch advises forgoing fried starters (prawn crackers, spring rolls, wontons) and beginning the meal with a soup or broth instead. She also suggests choosing steamed or plain rice over egg-fried versions. It's worth remembering that at many Chinese restaurants, dishes served in sauces - be it sesame, lemon or sweet and sour - are likely to contain high levels of sugar and corn syrup and offer little nutritional value. Opt for vegetable-based dishes and those described as being steamed, poached or grilled instead.

Indian restaurant

The same rules apply here, which means that pakoras, samosas, bhajis and the like should be treated with caution and viewed as a sure-fire way of adding unwanted calories and saturated fat. Naan breads are also best avoided, particularly when they've been stuffed with paneer or minced meat. Pulses are a good source of protein and fibre and are naturally low in fat, so opt for lentil or chickpea-based dishes such as dal or channa masala instead.

A little menu knowledge will also help: chicken tikka is a relatively dry, marinated meat dish, which is baked in the tandoor and therefore is not a bad choice (the same applies to tandoori fish or prawns). Order chicken tikka masala, though, and the pieces of meat will be served swimming in a rich, cream-based sauce, thus dramatically increasing the calorie count of your dinner.

Italian restaurant

If you can't visit an Italian restaurant without ordering a pizza, then forgo thick-crust, deep-pan versions in favour of a thin, crispy base. Ask that the chef goes easy on the cheese (a small amount of good-quality mozzarella goes a long way) and avoid high-fat toppings such as minced beef and cured meats.

Queen says that when it comes to pasta, wholegrain is best, as are tomato-based sauces (although she notes that they can still contain a lot of hidden oil). Holditch, meanwhile, advises restraint: "If you're having a starter or a dessert then you could go for a smaller main meal, such as a small pasta dish, with a side salad - Italian restaurants often serve two sizes of pasta dishes anyway." She also suggests swapping butter-drenched garlic bread for fresh ciabatta.


Be aware that classic steakhouse salads such as Caesar or the iceberg wedge are often deceptively calorific, thanks to mayonnaise-heavy dressings and the addition of cheese and croutons. Ask for the sauce to be served on the side, or opt for a green salad with separate vinaigrette instead.

Filet mignon will probably be the leanest piece of meat on the menu, meaning that it will contain the least fat and calories. By contrast, thanks to its marbling (fat running through the meat), a juicy rib-eye steak is likely to have the highest levels of fat and cholesterol. Note that if a cut of meat is labelled as USDA Prime grade it will be heavily marbled.

Mexican restaurant

At a Mexican restaurant, cheese and sour cream are likely to be the worst offenders, adding saturated fat, cholesterol and calories to many dishes. It's worth remembering that nachos are merely crisps by another name and that despite the title, a taco salad - with its crispy-fried shell, beef mince, shredded cheese, taco sauce and cream - is probably not the wisest choice for anyone watching their weight. A bowl of sopa de tortilla (chicken broth and vegetables) ticks far more nutritional boxes. Black beans, meanwhile, present a bit of a conundrum. They are an excellent source of both protein and fibre, contain a number of vitamins and minerals and are thought to have a number of cardiovascular benefits. If, however, they have been refried, then this often means that lard (pure fat) has been added, so it's well worth inquiring as to the cooking technique.

Middle Eastern restaurant

With Middle Eastern-style food, Queen advises moderation: "Hummus is a very healthy dish as it contains chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, garlic and lemon. However, it is quite energy-dense - three tablespoons is almost equivalent to eating two medium bananas." She adds that both tabbouleh and fatoush are good choices, but that people should be wary of particularly oily versions and of the added fat that fried bread croutons bring. Ful madames is a nutritionally sound option, she says, while plain rice, couscous and Arabic bread (just the one portion) are good sources of carbohydrate. If you fancy a shawarma or some shish tawak, she advises choosing chicken over beef or lamb because it is lower in fat. Fried samosas, falafel, kibda and kibbeh are the foods to limit here.

Healthy eating tips for any restaurant

Try not to fill up on bread or other nibbles before your meal arrives.

Why not share a starter or dessert with a friend?

When you're ordering a variety of dishes, for example in a tapas bar or restaurant, it is easy to end up with too much food – ask the waiter or waitress how many dishes they would recommend.

If your meal doesn't come with vegetables, order some as a side dish or have a salad as a starter.

To help achieve your five-a-day, have a glass of fruit juice with your meal.

If there is a dessert on the menu that you really fancy, then compromise by not having a starter, or opt for two starters in place of a main course.

Try waiting until you've eaten your main course before you order a dessert. You never know, you might already be full.

For a healthy dessert, choose fresh fruit or sorbet.

From Carole Holditch, nutritionist and founder of Good Habits, a Dubai based slimming club/lifestyle guide.