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- How To Count Calories (or Estimate) and Stay on Track When Eating Out at Restaurants - July 25, 2023
We’ve All been there.
You’ve just started a new diet and you’re brimming with enthusiasm
You’ve got your new workout gear, you’ve worked out your calorie targets, and you’ve downloaded MyFitnessPal.
You’re raring to go.
The first couple of days are a breeze – this is going to be easy
Then you go to a restaurant.
You order the steak with garlic butter and a bunch of sauces, sides and you know you’re getting a dessert later.
You stare at the pile of food in front of you and wonder how the hell you’re gonna track the calories.
Then you think ‘screw it’ I’ll just eat the whole thing and not bother; calories don’t count when you’re out the house!
If you eat out on a regular basis, this is going to undermine ALL your efforts.
So you need to find a way
You Don’t Need to Be 100% Accurate
The thing that puts a lot of people off-tracking at restaurants is the incorrect assumption that they need to be 100% accurate or it’s not worth it.
Imperfect action will ALWAYS trump striving for perfection, not being able to achieve it, and doing nothing.
What I mean by this is, you are far better off estimating your calories to within 10-20% accuracy every time you eat out, rather than decdiong not to track at all.
Let’s take a look at an example.
This person has allegedly been tracking their calories daily, everything seems legit
Eating Out Calories
But wait, they went out to eat on Wednesday and Friday, they didn’t track their calories, but this how many they ate ON TOP OF what they tracked
|EATING OUT CALORIES
So adding in the calories they didn’t track, this how many calories they actually ate
So what’s actually happened here, is that this person has underreported their calorie intake for the week by a whole 2,500 calories
That might make you feel nice, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
In their tracked calories, their 7-day average is 1,771, so they may well THINK they’re eating that many calories and wondering why they’re not dropping weight.
This leads to confusion, frustration, and unnecessarily dropping your calorie targets when all you really needed to do was stick to your original target.
Even If You Don’t Track Calories, Calories Still Count
Regardless of whether or not you track calories, the calories you eat still count
This might sound glaringly obvious, but I’ve spoken to people in who thought that, just by tracking their calories they’d lose weight.
They got one part right, which was the tracking itself, but you also need to eat a specific amount based on your goals and your current weight and activity levels.
So yes, you CAN lose weight without tracking calories, but it’s a bit like trying to save money without ever checking your bank balance.
It’s FAR more efficient to track,
Tracking Calories At Different Types of Restaurants
So now you know that tracking calories is definitely the right path, how can you track calories at different types of restaurants
🍔 Chain Restaurants
When you’re eating at a chain restaurant, tracking calories is EASY
Well because by law (in the UK anyway), they HAVE to list the calories on their menus. Even if they don’t list them on the menu, you can always find them online.
Finally, because chain restaurants are so ubiquitous and popular, 9 out of 10 times it’ll be easy to find the calories if you just search on My Fitness Pal.
Failing that, all of the major chain restaurants have their calories listed online in a PDF
5 Guys Menu In-Store
Here’s the 5 Guts menu with calories clearly labeled next to each item.
1,300+ calories for large fries… Ouch.
5 Guys Online Calorie List
Here’s a link to the 5 Guys online menu.
If you forget to count your calories in store, you can always just look online… If you remember what you ate.
5 Guys on My Fitness Pal
The easiest way however is just to search for the items in MyFitness Pal.
Every item should be in there and if you want to be as accurate as possible, you can always cross-reference with the online listings above.
🍱 Independent Restaurants
So while chain restaurants might be easy from a calorie-counting point of view, smaller, independent restaurants present a different challenge.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to attempt to count calories.
Inaccurate information is infinitely better than no information at all. So, what can you do to track calories as accurately as possible in smaller restaurants?
7 Failsafe Tips for Staying on Track When Eating Out
- Pick Simple Dishes
A dish like Lasagne is always going to be tricky to estimate from a calorie point of view because it has so many ingredients, and their all mushed together in a big, delicious mass.
Who the hell knows how much oil and cheese has been used?
I’m not saying NEVER order something like this in a restaurant, what I am saying is that if you are dieting, it does make more sense to go for simpler dishes with more distinct components.
For example, if you were to order a steak with fries and vegetables, you
- (Over) Estimate
I get it, the temptation is always going to be to underestimate your calories.
“Fried Mc N Cheese Doused in Garlic Butter, Oh sure probably like 200 calories”
This is a typical thought process.
But for a dish like that you’re like talking at least 600 calories,depending on size.
If you tell yourself it’s 200 calories, you’ll feel like you have more calories to play with and end up going over your target even more.
My general rule of thumb is to add on 25%
Think a dish is 500 calories? Track it as 750.
If you overestimate, you’re setting yourself up for failure, if you UNDERestimate, who cares, you’lll eat a few less calories than you’d planned!
- Add On Oil
If you suspect your meal has been cooked in oil or butter(it probably has), add on another 250 calories.
Sounds extreme but oil and butter are almost pure fat and therefore contain a LOT of calories
4. Borrow from chain restaurants
If you order something like fries from an independent restaurant, you may not know the exact calories, but you can make a good guess by borrowing calorie figures from similar dishes from chain restaurants.
For example, if you order fries, you know that fries from McDonalds and Nandos come in at around 450 calories.
So you can bet the fries in the independent restaurant won’t be too far off that.
If they’re coated in cheese or truffle oil, add on another 100-200 calories to account for that.
5. If In Doubt, Guess
If you genuinely have idea how many calories a meal is, just guess.
Guess 500 for a start, 1,000 for a main, and 500 for a dessert.
Guess 150 for a glass of wine and 250 for a beer.
So, if you have 3 courses and 2 beers, that’s 2,500 calories.
Might sound like a lot but it probably won’t be far off. It may not be 100% accurate but I’d much rather that than not tracking anything at all.
5. Use Your Weight Loss Coach
If you have a weight loss coach, snap a picture of your food and send it to them.
If you don’t think you can estimate the calories in what you’re eating, they’ll be able to do it for you.
6. Stop When You’re Full
I know, you’re out a restaurant, you wnat to enjoy yourself, but that doesn’t necessarily mean stuffing yourself to the point of puking.
It’s not a criminal offence to leave some food on the plate.
By doing so, you’ll feel better going to bed, you won’t give yourself extreme bowel issues the next day AND you’ll be saving on calories.
7. Choose Your Sides Wisely
Most restaurants these days separate mains and sides.
That’s good for you becaus eit means you have a bit more control over how many calories land up on your plate.
So what would you pick out of the following side options;
- Mac N Cheese
- Bone Marrow
- Creamed Spinach
- Garlic Mushrooms
- Thenderstem Broccoli
I already know you want the Mac N Cheese and Fries, but hey, you’re out at restaurant eating good food and having some drinks, there has to be a compromise SOMEWHERE.
It always pays to load up your plate with veggies, you’ll be getting in some good vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, PLUS you’ll be filling yourself for next to no calories.
Popular Chain Restaurant Menus
To make it even easier for you, I’ve added the PDF menus listing ALL the calories for some of the most popular chain restaurants below;
Where I can I’ve tried to use the UK version, but because these are chain restaurants, the items should be identical regardless of where in the world you buy them.
DON’T try to be perfect when tracking your calories at a restaurant, you don’t need to be, you just need to make educated guesses.
Go for simple meals that have a protein, carb and veggie component and you can’t go too far wrong.
How rigid you should be with tracking a restaurant really depends on how often you go.
If you’re eating at restaurants a few nights a week then you’ll really need to tight things up, but if it’s just once a while you can be more relaxed.
And remember; even if you don’t count calories, calories still count