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How to Count Carbs at Restaurants

Having diabetes doesn't mean the end of dining out but a little advanced planning can help you keep your blood sugars stable.

Dining out with family and friends can be one of the most enjoyable ways to share a meal. Having type 2 diabetes doesn't have to put an end to eating out but  restaurants can be tricky as you have little control over the portion sizes and the ingredients in a dish. Using online tools to access nutrition information and speaking to your server about how foods are prepared—baked, broiled, steamed or fried—can help you plan your meal. 

Today's restaurants are accustomed to accommodating people with diabetes and other health issues. Don't hestitate to ask questions. It's in the restaurant's best interest to go the extra mile to ensure you have a good experience so you will recommend the establishment to others and visit again in the future.

Dining Out with Diabetes

Plan Your Carbs in Advance

Working with a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and other members of your health care team can help you determine the number of carbs you can have at each meal. This of course depends on how active you are and whether you take insulin or other diabetes medications. Your diabetes team can also help you figure out how to incorporate restaurant meals into your meal plan.The American Diabetes Association (ADA).1 suggests limiting the number of times you dine out to twice per week. 

For more information on carb couting, click here. Keep in mind, many restaurants serve meals large enough to satisfy two or three people, so consider splitting the meal with someone at the table, or have your server split the entree in half and package it up to take home before the food is brought to the table.

Useful Online Tools 

Many restaurants feature nutrition information on their websites. If yours does, spend some time at home looking over the menu and figuring out the carbs before you even leave the house. 

Here, a few other resources: 

  • CalorieKing is a website that lists nutrition information for thousands of options—from appetizers to desserts—at many popular restaurants.
  • Apps such as MyFitness Pal; Go Meals and Lose It! have calorie charts.
  • The ADA also has carb counting resources

Ordering Tips

To help you with your meal planning when dining out there are essentially two important things to pay attention to—the number of carbs in the food you’re eating and what a healthy serving size looks like.Carb counting gives you the freedom to order what you like as long as your choice fits into your range.

If you weren't able to access nutrition information ahead of time, ask your server to suggest healthy options. And don't be shy about asking for substitions. For example, if that broccoli and penne pasta dish sounds good to you, see if the kitchen will prepare it with whole grain pasta or give you more veggies and less pasta.

Understanding what healthy portions sizes look like is one of the best ways to eat healthy at a restaurant. Experts say measuring food at home with measuring cups and spoons is very helpful.

If you're really ambitious, you could also use a food scale. "Food scales are terrific for knowing what a 6 oz. banana looks like or how many M & Ms are in an ounce," explains DiabeticLifestyle Editorial Board Advisor Amy Hess-Fischl, MS, RD, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE. "It can be easier to weigh food than count out 15 potato chips, for instance."

Everyday items can be great visuals, too. "Knowing that a deck of cards is the equivalent to 3 oz. of poultry or meat can be a huge help to someone with diabetes who is trying to practice portion control."

Work with your dietitian and diabetes educator to find out what other techniques or products might work best for you. 

Watch What You Drink

Talk to your healthcare provider to see of alcohol is safe for you to consume. Alcohol has extra calories, so it is important to factor that into the entire meal—cutting back on the side dishes can help to balance the calories.

"Remember alcohol can affect blood sugars too. If it is a mixed drink, the mixer can lead to a rise in blood sugars," warns Hess-Fischl explaining how alcohol is metabolized in the body. 

"Alcohol isn't processed the same way food is. Carbs, protein and fats are digested in the stomach and travel to the intestines where they are broken down and used as fuel," she says. "Alcohol, on the other hand, goes to the liver. While the liver is busy processing it, the organ does nothing else."

Our liver is our storage unit for sugar so while the alcohol is being processed, no sugar is delivered to the blood stream. While one drink may not have a tremendous impact on blood sugars, large quantities can shut the liver off for hours, leading to lower blood glucose levels or even hypoglycemia, Hess-Fischl explains.

The general recommendations are no more than:

  • 1 drink for women
  • 2 drinks men

Can I Order Dessert?
Yes, you can have dessert! As long as you take it into consideration when planning how to spend your carbs for the meal.

If you'd like to eat a dessert, order a low-carb entree such as a piece of broiled fish and steamed veggies. To really save on carbs, Hess-Fischl recommends skipping the before-dinner bread sticks. "Opt for a clear soup or small garden salad instead. And avoid creamy pasta or rice dishes and breaded entrees."

Another way to enjoy dessert is to share it with others (ask for extra spoons!) or have a few bites at the restaurant and take the rest home for the kids. 

Healthy eating when you have diabetes is no differenty than for the general population. Dessert should be an occasional treat—not a daily indulgence.

If you decide to enjoy dessert, be sure to take into consideration the healthfulness of the rest of the day. When it comes to sweets, think outside the box to incorporate healthier choices—fruits, lower calorie options of pudding, sugar-free jello—are great choices if you'd prefer a sweet treat more often. 

Going out to eat is something we all like to do, and you can definitely do it when you have diabetes and you’re carb counting. All you need is a little planning and some practice to make carb counting at restaurants super easy.

Updated on: August 15, 2017
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