Q: Can you dine out if you follow a low carb or ketogenic diet?
A: Yes, of course you can.
I’m not sure why some people find this difficult, but since the question of how to do this comes up frequently on social media, it’s time for me to provide a little tutorial.
I’m always a little puzzled when people are traveling somewhere new and they ask locals on Facebook or Twitter for recommendations for keto or low carb-friendly restaurants. Every restaurant is friendly to these ways of eating, provided you know how to customize your order. (Okay, if it’s a restaurant that serves literally nothing but funnel cakes, cotton candy, and deep fried cheesecake, you’d be out of luck, but to my knowledge, such an establishment does not exist outside of state fairs in the U.S.)
Before I get into things, here are some caveats:
My advice for dining out on low carb or ketogenic diets is for people eating this way primarily for weight management and/or overall health. If you are following a strict Paleo or autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet, or you have severe intolerances to gluten, soy, dairy, or some other element, then obviously you will have to be more careful and some of my suggestions here won’t apply to you. If you absolutely must avoid these things, I would recommend getting familiar with a select few restaurants in your local area that you trust to prevent cross-contamination and whose staff is well-versed in taking special measures to ensure your food is prepared to your specifications. Stop by these establishments at an off time, when the manager and chef(s) might be available for a chat. (During a busy dinner service is not the time to give these folks your entire medical history.) If you are polite and diplomatic in explaining your needs, I don’t think they will be “bothered” by your special requests or think of you as “that guy” or “that girl.” It might even help to explain that if they are able to accommodate your unique and perhaps somewhat difficult needs, you will be quite happy to patronize their establishment frequently, and recommend that others do, too. Restaurants, nutritionists, mechanics—nothing helps us like word of mouth from satisfied customers.
Things might be a little different if you’re strict Paleo for environmental or ethical reasons, or prefer to completely avoid certain ingredients on principle (e.g., canola, soybean, or corn oil, grain-fed meats, conventional pork and poultry, farmed fish, etc.). If you prefer to consume exclusively organic produce, grass-fed and pastured meats, poultry, and eggs (especially if they come from local farms), there might be restaurants in your area that can accommodate this, or at least come close. (If your needs or preferences are extremely restrictive, you might be better off just eating at home. I assure you, though, barring a severe allergy, an occasional bit of soybean oil or corn-fed beef ain’t gonna kill you.)
As for ketogenic diets, if you are following a strict KD wherein you really “need” to have a higher than typical amount of fat in each meal, simply request some extra olive oil or butter on the side. You can even bring your own. Keep olive oil in a small, leakproof glass bottle in your purse or the glove box of your car, and you’ll have it with you more often than not. (This is a good idea if you don’t trust a restaurant to give you “real” olive oil.) This might not be a great idea in the dead of summer, when you wouldn’t want a bottle of olive oil hanging out 24/7 in your overheated car, nor in the dead of winter when the oil might solidify a bit (like it does in the fridge), but it’s no problem when the temperature isn’t at either extreme. (And if it does solidify, it will liquefy again after just a few minutes at room temperature, sped along if you hold the bottle in your warm hands for a bit.) You can do the same thing with coconut oil—take some with you if you need extra fat and you trust yourself more than you trust the wait staff.
Okay. Now that all that preliminary stuff is out of the way, here’s how to actually do this.
It’s much easier than you might think. Here’s what I tell clients: eating low carb or ketogenic—including dining out—isn’t difficult; it’s just different. Dining out while low carbing isn’t hard at all. In fact, in some ways, it’s easier. This is especially true for people like me, who are overwhelmed by restaurant menus that are 10 pages long. If 70% of the menu is automatically off limits (pasta, risotto, sandwiches, pancakes, noodles), it’s that much simpler to decide on something.
Provided you are careful about what you order, you can absolutely enjoy dining out while reducing carbohydrates. Don’t be shy about customizing your order and asking for substitutions when necessary. As people become more health-conscious and food allergies are becoming more common, wait staff are not put off or surprised by special requests. They are quite familiar with the modifications you will ask for, and servers will not look at you funny if you ask them not to bring the bread basket.
Here is a guide to selecting appropriate foods that will allow you to continue getting the benefits of your unique diet.
Choose simply prepared dishes – grilled, baked, steamed, or roasted meats, poultry, seafood, non-starchy vegetables, or salads. Fried foods are not unhealthful because they’re fried; the problem is the type of oil most restaurants use for cooking. They typically use mixtures of vegetable oils, which are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and should not be used for cooking. (Fried foods are also usually breaded in flour, breadcrumbs, or batter, which make them best avoided for low carbers regardless of the oil used.)
Avoid all pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, corn, beans, soda, and desserts. (Duh.)
At restaurants where free bread or rolls are provided before the food is served, request that the wait staff not bring those to the table. Ask for something else if it is the type of restaurant that is likely to have something available: sometimes olives or pickles can be served instead of starches and grains. (Or just have nothing before your meal. Restaurant portions in the U.S. are typically very large anyway; chances are you don’t need to eat food while you’re waiting for the food you’re going to eat. [See what I did there?])
And the #1 most useful tip: Ask for a double portion of non-starchy vegetables in lieu of a starchy side dish. (For example, a double serving of broccoli instead of a potato, or roasted vegetables instead of pasta or rice.) This isn’t rocket science, folks. Most entrees will come with a choice of one or two side dishes, and there’s usually a selection of starchy items and non-starchy vegetables. Double up on the lower carb stuff. Or if the menu specifically pairs your dish with pasta, rice, noodles, or potatoes (for example, a pork chop served with mashed potatoes), simply ask to substitute a non-starchy vegetable. NBD!
Tips for specific cuisines:
Mexican: Hello? Fajitas are perfect for low carbing! Grilled meat, peppers and onions. Doesn’t get much better than that. Just ask the server not to bring the tortillas, and ask for extra vegetables instead of rice and beans. Fajitas are just grilled meat and vegetables, and you can enjoy sour cream, cheese, guacamole, and salsa as condiments. (Make sure the salsa is mostly tomatoes, onions, and chilies, and isn’t one of those corn, mango, and black bean versions that packs a bigger carb punch.) At some fast-food chains, you can get meat, lettuce, cheese, and vegetables in a lettuce bowl instead of a flour wrap.
Middle Eastern/Greek: Choose kebabs or other grilled meat dishes. Ask for extra vegetables or meat instead of rice or pita bread. Avoid hummus, stuffed grape leaves (usually contain rice), and anything else with beans or high starch. These cuisines are famous for grilled meat specialties; take advantage of that, as well as marinated feta cheese, olives, seared halloumi cheese, and tzatziki or other yogurt sauces.
Indian/Afghan/Pakistani: These are somewhat similar to the Middle Eastern cuisines discussed above. Avoid rice and pita/naan. Favor curries and dishes of grilled or roasted meat and vegetables; avoid chickpeas and potatoes. (If you are meeting friends or family at an Indian restaurant, just make sure it’s not a strictly vegetarian establishment, as it will be more difficult to avoid rice and beans in that situation.)
Chinese/Japanese/Thai: No General Tso’s? No problem! Ask for your dishes to be prepared steamed or with no sauce. (Sauces typically contain sugar and corn starch. Use soy sauce, wasabi, or hot mustard as condiments.) Great choices for Chinese takeout are steamed chicken or shrimp with mixed vegetables. Some restaurants also offer grilled chicken/beef on skewers. Avoid rice, noodles, wontons, dumplings, deep-fried foods, and tempura (due to the breading). Sashimi is wonderful; just avoid sushi rice. For Thai restaurants, avoid noodle and rice dishes. Choose curries that contain meat/seafood and vegetables, spices, and coconut milk. Ask your server if the curries are thickened with flour or corn starch; they may be able to leave them out. (But the total amount of carbs from a small amount of corn starch used to thicken would probably still be low, so I honestly wouldn't worry about it that much.)
Italian: Pasta is obviously off limits, but most Italian restaurants have plenty of other options that are suitable for low carb diets. Choose salads, steaks, chicken, pork chops, or seafood with vegetables. Avoid bread & breadsticks, and ask for no croutons on your salad. Ask for extra non-starchy vegetables instead of pasta, potatoes, or polenta as side dishes.
Pub / Diner / Bistro: These restaurants usually have a very diverse menu and finding suitable options is easy. Just use the same logic as for anywhere else: no grains or other starchy carbohydrates, and no sweets for dessert. Fantastic choices are cobb, chef, or Caesar salads (no croutons – if you’re gonna splurge on carbs, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t waste it on croutons!). Perfectly fine choices are bunless hamburgers or sandwiches. As always, ask for non-starchy vegetables instead of fries or other potato sides. You can often substitute a simple house salad for a starchy side dish. Other good selections include any type of roasted meat, chicken, or fish, or a platter of egg, tuna, or chicken salad on beds of lettuce.
Breakfast: Stick with eggs, bacon, ham, and sausage. Avoid pancakes, waffles, potatoes,
toast, bagels, muffins, fruit, juice, jam/jelly, etc. Western omelets are a great option (eggs, ham, onion, peppers), as are any type of omelets that contain eggs, meat, cheese, and/or low-starch veggies (peppers, spinach, mushrooms, onions, zucchini, greens). Any other eggs are great, too: poached, scrambled, over-easy, hard-boiled—however you prefer them. Avoid bottled ketchup, which contains high-fructose corn syrup. Use mustard, mayonnaise, or hot sauce as condiments. (Or if you're like me and you truly cannot imagine a greasy spoon-type breakfast without good ol' Heinz ketchup--HFCS and all--then just have it, but don't use, like, a half cup of it.) ;-)
Entrée Salads: Customize your salad as necessary: no dried cranberries, fruit, crunchy
noodles, etc. Stick with lettuce, spinach, and other greens. Suitable additions are chopped hard-boiled egg, bacon, cheese, avocado, ham, turkey, chicken, steak, salmon, olives, cucumbers, sliced peppers, radishes, and other non-starchy vegetables. Use oil & vinegar or a high-fat dressing, such as ranch or blue cheese. Avoid thousand island, French, honey mustard, raspberry vinaigrette, and other sweetened dressings. Many dressings contain large amounts of sugar or corn syrup. Call me crazy, but if I’m gonna splurge on carbs, they’re gonna come in the form of decadent chocolate cake or cheesecake, not salad dressing.
Beware of hidden pitfalls
Don’t be shy about asking your server for details on how foods are prepared. For example:
Some restaurants add flour or pancake batter to their eggs to make omelets fluffier. Ask if this is the case and if so, request that they prepare your eggs without that. (One way around this is to stick with your eggs hard boiled, poached, or over-easy/sunny-side up.)
If there’s a sauce with ingredients you’re not sure of, ask the server to tell you what’s in it. Many sauces contain sugar, corn syrup, corn starch, and/or flour. It’s best to stay with
simply prepared dishes to avoid this. (Grilled, broiled, or steamed meats or seafood with no sauce.)
Be careful with condiments. As mentioned above, ketchup is loaded with HFCS, and many salad dressings are high in sugar and corn syrup. Your best bets for condiments (if you need them at all) are: mustard (any kind except honey mustard), mayonnaise, hot sauce, melted butter, olive oil, macadamia oil, and vinegar (red wine, apple cider, balsamic…they’re all fine). Full-fat, low carbohydrate salad dressings are permitted—look at labels in supermarkets to get an idea of which types are best. The carb count per 2 tablespoon serving should be 2g or less. (If anyone’s interested, I can post a guide to condiments.)
Prepare ahead of time! Many restaurants have their menus posted online. Look in advance to see what will be suitable for you so you’ll have an easier time ordering. (Or so you can suggest a change of location if necessary.)
If you follow these tips, you will find that dining out while sticking to low carb or keto is not difficult at all, and you’ll wonder why you ever worried about it. You will never find yourself at a restaurant and think there is truly nothing suitable for you.
Disclaimer: Amy Berger, MS, CNS, NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician. Links in this post and all others may direct you to amazon.com, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.