You can be fit, healthy, and enjoy meals out—as long you follow these guidelines. They’ll help you understand how restaurants trick you into choosing high-calorie, high-profit junk—and then help you order smarter.
Keep reading to find out how to navigate the drive-thru, sit-down restaurant, and buffet, and beat burger bloat forever.
OUTSMART THE DRIVE-THROUGH
You spend just four minutes or so in the drive-thru queue, on average—and most of that time you’re waiting for your order, according to a 2015 report in QSR magazine.
This isn’t because fast-food chains are concerned about your time: They do this intentionally to fatten their bottom line (and as a result, your waistline).
“When people are rushed, they tend to focus on taste first and health considerations later,” says Ian Krajbich, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and economics at Ohio State University.
You guessed it: Some of the best-tasting fast food is cheap to make, quick to prepare and serve, and nutritionally empty.
IGNORE THE PHOTOS
Restaurants deploy images to tout their lucrative items. “Highly processed foods spoil more slowly, so the profit margin is higher,” says Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant.
CORNER THE MARKET
People tend to read menus from left to right and top to bottom, so you’ll probably find healthier (i.e., less profitable) options on the bottom left of the display board, says Allen.
SIDESTEP THE SIDE
The right-hand column offers easy upsells and cheap side orders like small fries. Ask yourself this: In five minutes when you’re full, will another fistful of fries be worth that extra buck?
SURVIVE THE SIT-DOWN RESTAURANT
Sit-down restaurants aren’t always healthier than fast-food joints.
In fact, when Toronto researchers calculated the total calories for meal options at sit-down spots, they found that the average breakfast contained 1,126 calories, lunch came to 1,025 calories, and dinner had 1,153 calories.
Keep in mind that a moderately active man should consume 2,600 calories a day, according to the USDA. So just one breakfast could account for 43 percent of your daily calorie count.
But there is some good news: “Restaurants have been introducing many healthier options over the past few years,” says Men’s Health Nutrition expert Mike Roussell, Ph.D. “You just have to wise up and speak up.”
SNUB THE SCREEN
The closer your table is to a television, the more likely you are to order fried foods, say researchers at Cornell. The boob tube may distract you from more-sensible menu options.
PASS THE BAR
Patrons who sit within two tables of the bar drink an average of three more alcoholic drinks than people who sit three tables from the bar, Cornell research suggests.
SIT BY THE ENTRANCE
Restaurant patrons who sit farthest from the front door are 73 percent more likely than those sitting closest to order dessert, says Brian Wansink, Slim by Design author. Blame feeling “hidden.”
Men save themselves about 255 calories when they dine with a woman instead of a group, an Australian study found. Why? They may consume more in a group to assert their masculinity.
SEEK THE LIGHT
Diners who sit under good lighting often order healthier food than those in dimly lit sections, say scientists at Cornell. The darker the room, the more concealed you feel.
When etiquette permits, order first. People tend to select from the same menu section as others at the table, a Food Quality and Preference study found. Pick fish, and others may follow.
Related: Baked Salmon Trout Recipe
DOUBT THE SALMON
A study found that 67 percent of salmon on menus is mislabeled. The most common offender: “wild” salmon that’s really the farmed kind, which may contain antibiotics. Ask the chef.
Plan for leftovers. People who were given a to-go container with their food ate 26 percent fewer calories than those who were not, a 2015 study in Eating Behaviors found.
PREVENT A PIG-OUT AT THE BUFFET
No restaurant scenario serves up more potential pitfalls than the modern mess hall, a.k.a. the buffet.
Refined-carbohydrate booby traps abound. Fruits and vegetables, your usual allies, are outnumbered by your worst nutritional enemies.
Research shows a direct correlation: The more often men dine out, the fatter they grow. And it’s not just the gut that takes the punches. Frequent diners have lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and fewer key nutrients (notably vitamins C and E) coursing through their bloodstream, according to a 2015 study in International Journal of Obesity.
So you need to take precautions: If you find yourself at a buffet, follow these orders.
REWORK THE LINE
More than 75 percent of buffet patrons select the first food they see, according to a PLOS One study. And the first three foods they pick make up two-thirds of their total meal.
So flip your order. Start with the fruit portion of the breakfast buffet, or sneak around to the salad bar if you’re grabbing lunch or dinner.
DELAY THE BREAD
In one small study, overweight people with diabetes who ate vegetables and protein before eating carbohydrates had 37 percent lower blood sugar an hour later than if they’d started with carbs.
CHEAT YOURSELF FULL
Men eat about 90 percent of the food they serve to themselves, according to a 2015 study in International Journal of Obesity.
So if you stack a plate with 1,000 calories’ worth of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese, you’ll consume about 900 of those calories.
But you’ll do the same if you select colorful fruits and vegetables, so load up.
AVOID PIZZA GLUT
People rate each piece of pizza at the buffet as less satisfying and tasty than the slice they ate before it, a 2014 study in the Journal of Sensory Studies found. So beforehand, make it a rule to stop at two.
DO A GUT CHECK
If you find yourself hitting the buffet trough regularly, you might be addicted. Yes, addicted. When scientists scanned the brains of overweight people who ate buffet-style food, they observed pleasure responses that were similar to those associated with addiction.