Diabetes nutrition: Eating out when you have diabetes

Diabetes nutrition — Make restaurant meals a healthy part of your diabetes management.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Eating out is fun and convenient, but if you have diabetes, sticking to your nutrition plan while eating out can be a challenge. Fortunately, many restaurants now offer healthy choices. Plus, menus and nutrition information are often available online, allowing you to plan what you want before you even get to the restaurant.

Following are some suggestions to help keep restaurant meals from derailing your diabetes management plan.

Plan ahead

Check the restaurant's website to see if the menu and nutrition information are available online. These are good tools to prepare what you'll order. If this information isn't online, try calling the restaurant to ask if foods can be made with less salt, fat or sugar.

Food can often be prepared using healthier methods. Instead of having something breaded and fried, ask if your food can be:

  • Broiled
  • Roasted
  • Grilled
  • Steamed

Other substitutions you might want to ask if the chef can use include:

  • Whole-grain bread or pasta instead of white varieties
  • Brown rice instead of white rice
  • Skinless chicken
  • Less oil, butter or cheese
  • Veggies on a thin crust pizza

You don't need to feel self-conscious about requesting healthier options or substitutions. You're doing what it takes to stay committed to your treatment goals. And, most restaurants want to make customers happy.

Keep portion sizes in check

Restaurants tend to serve large portions, possibly double what you normally eat or more. Try to eat the same size portions you would if you were eating at home by:

  • Choosing the smallest meal size if the restaurant offers options: for example, a lunch-sized entree
  • Sharing meals with a dining partner or two
  • Requesting a take-home container
  • Making a meal out of a salad or soup and an appetizer
  • Eating slowly so that you'll feel full before you've eaten too much

If you're at an "all you can eat" buffet, it can be difficult to resist overeating. Even a small amount of many foods can add up to lots of calories. When you're at a buffet, the "plate" method can help. Fill up half your plate with nonstarchy vegetables, a quarter with a protein and the final quarter with a starch.

Make substitutions

Don't settle for what comes with your sandwich or meal.

  • Instead of french fries, choose a diabetes-friendly side salad or a double order of a vegetable.
  • Use fat-free or low-fat salad dressing, rather than the regular variety, or try a squeeze of lemon juice, flavored vinegar or salsa on your salad.
  • Ask for salsa or pico de gallo — an uncooked salsa — with your burrito instead of shredded cheese and sour cream.
  • On a sandwich, trade house dressings or creamy sauces for ketchup, mustard, horseradish or fresh tomato slices.

Extras add up

Bacon bits, croutons, cheeses and other add-ons can sabotage diabetes nutrition goals by quickly increasing a meal's calories and carbohydrates.

If you're eating somewhere that offers free bread or tortilla chips on the table and they just don't fit into your meal plan, ask the waiter not to bring them.

Drinks matter, too

Sugar-sweetened soda, juice or milkshakes can add lots of calories to your meal, especially if the restaurant offers free refills. Instead of high-calorie drinks, good drink options include:

  • Water
  • Unsweetened iced tea
  • Unsweetened tea or coffee
  • Sparkling water
  • Mineral water
  • Diet soda

It's a good idea to drink a glass of water before you eat to make you feel full sooner.

Alcohol and diabetes

If your diabetes is well managed and your doctor agrees, an occasional alcoholic drink with a meal is usually fine. But keep in mind that alcohol adds empty calories.

If you use insulin or other medications that lower blood sugar, alcohol can cause a potentially dangerous low blood sugar level. If you use these medications and drink alcohol, be sure to eat something while drinking.

If you drink alcohol, choose options with fewer calories and carbohydrates, such as:

  • Light beer
  • Dry wines
  • Mixed drinks made with sugar-free mixers, such as diet soda, diet tonic, club soda or seltzer

Limit your alcohol to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.

Staying on schedule

Eating at the same time every day can help you maintain steady blood sugar levels — especially if you take diabetes pills or insulin shots. If you're eating out with others, follow these tips:

  • Ask to schedule the gathering at your usual mealtime.
  • To avoid waiting for a table, make a reservation or try to avoid times when the restaurant is busiest.
  • If you can't avoid eating later than usual, be sure to have a snack on hand in case you develop symptoms of low blood sugar.

Save room for dessert

Dessert isn't necessarily off-limits because you have diabetes. Fruit can be a good choice, but if you'd like a sweet other than fruit, make it part of your meal plan and compensate by reducing the amount of other carbohydrates — such as bread, tortillas, rice, milk or potatoes — in your meal. Or consider sharing a dessert with someone.

Don't forget nutrition ground rules

Whether you're eating at home or eating out, follow the nutrition guidelines established by your doctor or registered dietitian, such as:

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods, such as vegetables and fruits and high-fiber foods
  • Limit the amount of unhealthy fat in your diet, especially trans fats
  • Limit the amount of salt you eat
  • Keep sweets, such as baked goods, candy and ice cream, to a minimum

Movement helps, too

Don't search for the parking spot closest to the restaurant. Get a little extra activity by parking farther away. Better yet, leave the car at home and walk to the restaurant and home again. All that extra activity can help you avoid an after-meal blood sugar spike.

May 05, 2021 See more In-depth

See also

  1. Medication-free hypertension control
  2. A1C test
  3. After a flood, are food and medicines safe to use?
  4. Air pollution and exercise
  5. Alcohol: Does it affect blood pressure?
  6. Alpha blockers
  7. Amputation and diabetes
  8. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  9. Angiotensin II receptor blockers
  10. Anxiety: A cause of high blood pressure?
  11. Artificial sweeteners: Any effect on blood sugar?
  12. Bariatric surgery
  13. Beta blockers
  14. Beta blockers: Do they cause weight gain?
  15. Beta blockers: How do they affect exercise?
  16. Blood glucose meters
  17. Blood glucose monitors
  18. Blood pressure: Can it be higher in one arm?
  19. Blood pressure chart
  20. Blood pressure cuff: Does size matter?
  21. Blood pressure: Does it have a daily pattern?
  22. Blood pressure: Is it affected by cold weather?
  23. Blood pressure medication: Still necessary if I lose weight?
  24. Blood pressure medications: Can they raise my triglycerides?
  25. Blood pressure readings: Why higher at home?
  26. Blood pressure tip: Get more potassium
  27. Blood pressure tip: Get off the couch
  28. Blood pressure tip: Know alcohol limits
  29. Blood pressure tip: Stress out no more
  30. Blood pressure tip: Watch the caffeine
  31. Blood pressure tip: Watch your weight
  32. Blood sugar levels can fluctuate for many reasons
  33. Blood sugar testing: Why, when and how
  34. Bone and joint problems associated with diabetes
  35. Pancreas transplant animation
  36. Build resilience to better handle diabetes
  37. Caffeine and hypertension
  38. Calcium channel blockers
  39. Calcium supplements: Do they interfere with blood pressure drugs?
  40. Can whole-grain foods lower blood pressure?
  41. Caring for a loved one with diabetes
  42. Central-acting agents
  43. Choosing blood pressure medications
  44. COVID-19: Who's at higher risk of serious symptoms?
  45. Diabetes
  46. Diabetes and dental care
  47. Diabetes and depression: Coping with the two conditions
  48. Diabetes and exercise: When to monitor your blood sugar
  49. Diabetes and fasting: Can I fast during Ramadan?
  50. Diabetes and foot care
  51. Diabetes and Heat
  52. Diabetes and menopause
  53. Diabetes and summer: How to beat the heat
  54. Diabetes and travel: Planning is key
  55. Diabetes and electric blankets
  56. 10 ways to avoid diabetes complications
  57. Diabetes diet: Should I avoid sweet fruits?
  58. Diabetes diet: Create your healthy-eating plan
  59. Diabetes foods: Can I substitute honey for sugar?
  60. Diabetes and liver
  61. Diabetes management: Does aspirin therapy prevent heart problems?
  62. Diabetes management: How lifestyle, daily routine affect blood sugar
  63. Diabetes nutrition: Sweets
  64. Diabetes symptoms
  65. Diabetes treatment: Can cinnamon lower blood sugar?
  66. Using insulin
  67. Diabetic Gastroparesis
  68. Diuretics
  69. Diuretics: A cause of low potassium?
  70. Do you know your blood pressure?
  71. Erectile dysfunction and diabetes
  72. High blood pressure and exercise
  73. Exercise and chronic disease
  74. Fatigue
  75. Free blood pressure machines: Are they accurate?
  76. Frequent urination
  77. Home blood pressure monitoring
  78. Glucose tolerance test
  79. Glycemic index: A helpful tool for diabetes?
  80. Healthy heart for life: Avoiding heart disease
  81. Hemochromatosis
  82. High blood pressure (hypertension)
  83. High blood pressure and cold remedies: Which are safe?
  84. High blood pressure and sex
  85. High blood pressure: Can you prevent it?
  86. High blood pressure dangers
  87. How does COVID-19 affect people with diabetes?
  88. Hypertensive crisis: What are the symptoms?
  89. Insulin and weight gain
  90. Insulin therapy options
  91. Intensive insulin therapy
  92. Isolated systolic hypertension: A health concern?
  93. L-arginine: Does it lower blood pressure?
  94. Late-night eating: OK if you have diabetes?
  95. Low-phosphorus diet: Helpful for kidney disease?
  96. Diabetes and carbs
  97. Medications and supplements that can raise your blood pressure
  98. Menopause and high blood pressure: What's the connection?
  99. Infographic: Pancreas Kidney Transplant
  100. Pancreas transplant
  101. Pulse pressure: An indicator of heart health?
  102. Reactive hypoglycemia: What can I do?
  103. Reading food labels
  104. Resperate: Can it help reduce blood pressure?
  105. Service dogs assist with diabetes care
  106. Sleep deprivation: A cause of high blood pressure?
  107. Blood sugar testing
  108. Sodium nitrate in meat: Heart disease risk factor?
  109. Stress and high blood pressure
  110. The dawn phenomenon: What can you do?
  111. Tips for cutting costs of blood glucose test strips
  112. Unexplained weight loss
  113. Vasodilators
  114. Vegetarian diet: Can it help me control my diabetes?
  115. How diabetes affects your blood sugar
  116. How to measure blood pressure using a manual monitor
  117. How to measure blood pressure using an automatic monitor
  118. What is blood pressure?
  119. Can having vitamin D deficiency cause high blood pressure?
  120. Weight Loss Surgery Options
  121. Weightlifting: Bad for your blood pressure?
  122. What's your high blood pressure risk?
  123. White coat hypertension
  124. Why does diet matter after bariatric surgery?
  125. Wrist blood pressure monitors: Are they accurate?