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Eating Out With Diabetes: 8 Menu Words to Avoid

Following a diabetes diet? Here’s how to decode a restaurant menu to avoid ordering unhealthy dishes.

iStock/Leonardo Patrizi

Be a savvy diner

Living with diabetes doesn’t mean you need to swear off eating out with friends and family. Just like anyone else, you can maintain a balanced diet at a restaurant, as long as you know the right foods to avoid. It’s not always easy: Often, menus are coded with mouthwatering language that actually translates to “fatty,” “high in sugar,” or “loaded with calories.” Not everybody with diabetes has the same meal plan, and it’s important to consult your doctor about the best strategy for you. For some people, it’s most important to limit calories, while others should focus on cutting saturated and trans fat. Once you’ve identified your own goals, keep an eye out for these sneaky menu words—they may mean what you’re about to order is a risky choice for your meal plan.


Au gratin

If an entrée is labeled “au gratin,” that means it’s been covered in breadcrumbs—and sometimes butter and cheese—and browned. A popular dish is potatoes au gratin, which can be extremely high in carbohydrates thanks to the starchy potatoes and bread coating. To cut down on carbs, ask for an entrée without the breadcrumbs or peel off the layer of crumbs (though this may be difficult with some dishes).



A “Farm Breakfast” generally refers to a plate of hometown classics that are loaded with carbohydrates and calories. A typical dish may include pancakes, hash browns, eggs, and sausage—adding up to more than 2,050 calories and 275 grams of carbohydrates. (The suggested carbohydrate limit per meal for people with diabetes is 45 to 60 grams—so that’s enough carbohydrates for five meals!). Opt for a “New American” breakfast instead, which is usually a quick, low-carb meal. A light dish of fiber-rich oatmeal and blueberries, along with protein-packed scrambled eggs, has just 294 calories and 40 grams of carbohydrates.



Even healthy food like fish is bad news once it’s battered. A typical plate of two battered fillets with sides such as fries and coleslaw has more than 1,300 calories, 110 grams of carbohydrates, 80 grams of fat, and 3,000 milligrams of sodium. The recommended daily sodium limit for people with diabetes is 1,500 milligrams. Fried foods are also linked to an increased risk of heart disease, and people with diabetes have a higher risk of heart problems than those with healthy blood sugar.



As part of a heart-healthy diet, it’s important to stay away from creamy, fatty sauces. A typical plate of restaurant shrimp pasta Alfredo can have more than 70 grams of saturated fat. The American Diabetes Association suggests eating less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat per day. For many adults, this equates to about 20 grams. Talk to your doctor about your own limit; many adults (inactive people, for example) may need to eat even less. If you’re craving pasta, ask for a half portion of whole wheat pasta (about 2/3 cup is usually a good portion, but follow the guidelines you’ve established with your doctor), chose a lean meat or protein to pair with it, and check the ingredients in the sauce. Even some tomato-based sauces can be high in sugar, so you may want to ask your server to bring the sauce on the side.



If a menu item is described as “sticky,” ask for a rundown of ingredients in its sauce. Sticky sauces are often loaded with sugar and can silently skyrocket your meal’s carbohydrate levels. Ask for the item without the sauce or request it on the side so you can determine how much you eat.



Like “sticky” menu items, barbecue sauces can be surprisingly carbohydrate-rich. Two tablespoons of barbecue sauce have 15 grams of sugar and 70 calories, and a quarter cup has more sugar than a regular size Snickers bar.



Translation: Comfort food that’s thick and rich. Food that’s described as “velvety” often gets its smooth texture from ingredients high in fat and calories. Similar words that raise a red flag: creamy, smothered, melted, and gooey. Healthier descriptors to look for in a flavorful dish? Rubbed, seared, spiced, seasoned, and roasted.



The alcohol rules are the same for people with diabetes as they are for everyone else: One drink per day for women and two for men. However, it’s important to know how a drink affects your blood sugar. Drinks loaded with sugar can spike it too high, while drinking on an empty stomach can make blood sugar swing too low. If you want a beer with dinner, opt for one that’s labeled “light” or “low carb” (it will have about 3 to 6 grams of carbohydrates, compared to the 15 grams in a normal 12-ounce beer) and avoid “craft” beer, which typically has twice the alcohol and calories as regular beer. A standard 5-ounce serving of red or white wine is also a good choice (stay away from sugary cocktails and sangria).

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Kelsey Kloss
Kelsey Kloss is a writer and editor based in New York City, who writes about health, food, home, and lifestyle. Her writing has appeared in Prevention, Redbook, and Reader's Digest, among others. Visit her website: Kelsey Kloss.