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5 Tips for Avoiding the Restaurant Portion-Control Trap

A fast food burger piled high with toppings sits beside a large pile of french fries.
(Image credit: <a href=''>Fast food meal photo</a> via Shutterstock)

I'm on the road a lot for work, so I eat at restaurants more often than I'd like to admit. I used to think that the most challenging part of relying on restaurant food was finding healthy options. These days, that doesn't seem to be a major problem —if there's nothing healthy on the menu, I I can always ask for something to be prepared differently (e.g., steamed instead of fried).

But one thing I still struggle with, though, is portion control. Have you ever noticed that restaurants almost always give you more food than you should really eat at any given meal?          

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, a main entrée should contain no more than 667 calories, with less than 35 percent of those calories from fat, and fewer than 767 milligrams of sodium. But, a study published in May in the journal Public Health Nutrition study found that a startling 96 percent of main dishes sold at the top chain restaurants in the U.S. exceed those limits – especially in sodium content.

The portions are large and the plates are larger, so it's hard to tell when you should really stop eating. You want to stick to your diet, but you feel like you've been trapped. What do you do?

Here are some tips for controlling portions when you dine out at a restaurant:

  1. Avoid appetizers at all costs.  Not only does the additional dish make it harder to keep track of how much you're eating, but appetizers often have more calories, fat and sodium than entrées.
  2. Keep a careful watch at family-oriented restaurants. According to the Public Health Nutrition study, these fared worse than the budget-conscious, fast food restaurants. This doesn't mean you should eat more fast food, though. Just find healthy options at the family eateries, and keep a close eye on how much you're eating.
  3. Ask for a smaller second plate. Before you eat anything, separate out a portion that you estimate to be a healthy size. Immediately ask for the rest to be wrapped up; this will get it off the table while you eat your meal.
  4. As you're building your healthy portions, follow these simple guidelines:
  5. Protein = the size of your open palm
  6. Veggies = 1 ½ cupped hands
  7. Grains = the size of your cupped hand
  8. Fight the urge to eat dessert, or opt for a fruit cup instead. Just remember that portions are still important. Compare your fruit cup to the size of your closed fist. If it's larger, you'll need to add some of it to your doggie bag, so you can eat it at your next meal.

Healthy Bites appears on MyHealthNewsDaily on Wednesdays. Deborah Herlax Enos is a certified nutritionist and a health coach and weight loss expert in the Seattle area with more than 20 years of experience. Read more tips on her blog, Health in a Hurry!

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Deborah Enos
Deborah Enos, CN, also known as "The One-Minute Wellness Coach," is The Health Coach for busy, working people. She pares her good-health messages down to simple and fast bullet points that can impact lives in 60 seconds or less. Deborah serves as a board member of the American Heart Association.  In addition to writing the Healthy Bites column for Live Science, Deborah is a regular on FOX Business News, NBC and ABC, and is a frequent contributor to The Costco Connection, Parade Magazine, Self Magazine, Good Housekeeping and USA Today. Deborah is also The One Minute Wellness Coach for The Doctors TV Show.