An Athlete’s Guide to Dining Out

By Candace H. Chemtob, MS, RD, LD, CSSD

Americans love dining out. It has become part of our lifestyle. One quarter of meals are now eaten outside the home (National Restaurant Association, 2014). And this year, for the first time Americans spent more money eating out than on groceries. But unfortunately, most restaurants focus on the taste and appeal of their food, not its nutritional quality. Dining out frequently has been shown to be a “risk factor for overweight, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases” (Am J. Public Health. 2014 April). For the health-conscious athlete, dining out can be a challenge. This article will review some simple dining out tips that can go a long way to making your menu selections healthier.

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1. Be informed. By law “chain” restaurants, defined as twenty or more, are required to post their nutritional information and it is easy to find this information online. You may be surprised to find some seemingly “healthy” menu options are laden with fat and calories. For example, the caesar salad with chicken at the Cheesecake Factory has a whopping 1520 calories and the Bistro Shrimp Pasta tops 2290 calories. Or take the Five Cheese Ziti al Forno at Olive Garden that has 1220 calories with more than half of its calories from fat. If informed, you could make a healthy choice such as the Garlic Rosemary Chicken containing 540 calories (

2. Know menu jargon. Steer clear of foods that are described as crispy, sautéed, au gratin, breaded, rich, creamy, or smothered. These are “code words” for high calorie, high fat foods. Instead choose grilled, baked, roasted, or steamed foods.

3. Be demanding. Don’t hesitate to ask for menu substitutions. Substitute salad for fries or chips. Use vinegar (no oil) or lemon juice instead of salad dressing. Put a hold on gravies, sauces, and mayonnaise. Request that your food is prepared without added oil, butter, margarine, or cheese.

4. Don’t “supersize”. Most of us realize that restaurant portions are “supersized”. For example, a typical grocery store bagel, such as Lender’s brand, contains 210 calories whereas Panera cinnamon crunch bagel has twice the calories (and with cream cheese has more calories than McDonald’s quarter pounder with bacon and cheese). To avoid large
portions, plan to split a meal, bring half home, or try an appetizer “size” as an entree.

5. Never go out for dinner starving. Making healthy food choices is easier when your hunger is under control. Try having a small snack one to two hours in advance of dining out, such as a piece of fruit.

6. For the athlete, the pre-competition meal is critical. Unfortunately, for many athletes, this meal is likely to be eaten out, at school, or “on the road”. The pre-competition should be high in carbohydrates and quickly digested and absorbed.

  1. Carbohydrates are the source of energy that fuels maximum performance. High carbohydrate foods are: pasta, sandwiches, subs, salads, soups, crackers, rice, fruits, waffles, vegetables, pancakes, bagels, yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, juice, potatoes, burritos, milk, and energy bars.
  2. The pre competition meal should be low in fat. Overall athletes should consume a moderate fat diet with approximately 20 to 30% of their total calories as fat. However, because fat slows down digestion and absorption, limiting fat intake is recommended for the meal preceding competition (follow tips above aforementioned). Additionally, while fiber is an essential part of a healthy diet, it too slows down absorption, so that foods such as whole wheat grains, bread, cereals, should eaten at every other meal except the pre-competition meal.