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Dining Out: 12 Ways To Make Smart And Healthy Restaurant Choices

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Many of us are accustomed to trying to eat healthily when cooking at home. But when we dine out, we're often duped into consuming far too many calories. Why is this?

First of all, portions are often quite a bit larger than what we typically serve our family at the dining room table. And these meals often contain far more fat, sodium (salt), and sugar than home-cooked food.

For instance, various popular entrees in some of North America's best-known chain restaurants can each contain as many as 2,000 calories (or more), according to research. This equals the approximate total number of calories that the average-sized man requires for a whole day.

In fact, many dishes also contain well over 100 grams of fat (3-4 ounces, or more). And some are also loaded with huge amounts of sodium (up to three times a person's government-recommended daily dietary needs).

Not only do over-sized quantities of sodium promote over-eating, but they can even be harmful if you're trying to keep your blood pressure down, research shows. As if that isn't bad enough, many savory dishes include added sugar -- a hidden ingredient that's designed to make you to eat more.

Even some popular salads can contain more fat, sugar, and sodium than a Big Mac burger, research reveals. Additionally, the secret ingredient that all-too-many restaurants use to give their food such a rich flavor is butter -- lots of it. This amounts to plenty of hidden saturated fat in your meals.

So if you want to be nutrition-conscious when dining out, you'd do well to consider some or all of the following advice that's provided by Canada's Ministry of Health:

• Plan ahead. Think about where and what you will eat. It will be much easier to make healthy choices if you have already decided what you will order

• Be picky. Choose restaurants where the food is made to order, instead of choosing fast food or buffet-style restaurants

• Look for nutritional information on restaurant websites and in the restaurants. Use the information to choose items that are lower in fat, salt, and calories

• Be smart. If you know you'll be eating out, make wise choices for the day. But don't skip meals as it's harder to make healthy choices when you're extremely hungry

• Ask questions. Before you order, find out how the food is prepared. Foods that are grilled, baked, or steamed tend to be lower in fat than fried foods. Limit foods that are breaded or come with cream sauce or gravy

• Consider portion size. Restaurants often serve portions big enough to feed two people. To help avoid over-eating, order smaller portions, share a meal, or save part of your meal for later

• Make substitutions. Order extra vegetables on pizzas and sandwiches. Substitute vegetables, salad, or a baked potato for French fries

• Take control. Ask to have butter, sour cream, gravy, and sauces served on the side. Choose reduced-fat salad dressings or oil-and-vinegar, instead of creamy dressings. Order hamburgers and sandwiches without high-fat extras, such as cheese and bacon

• Ask for brown rice, instead of white rice and pasta. Pick whole grain bread

• Go vegetarian. Ethnic restaurants, such as Indian, Thai, or Japanese, often have a wide variety of vegetarian choices

• Opt for water instead of sugar-sweetened soft drinks. If you don't like water, try other sugar-free or low-calorie beverages

• Remember a large cocktail, such as a margarita, can have as many calories as your main course

All told, if you consider these easy-to-follow tips each time you dine out, you shouldn't have to stress about stepping on the bathroom scales the following morning. And your overall health will benefit from the good judgement and self control that you showed while enjoying a guilt-free restaurant-cooked meal.