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01/14/2015 11:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

6 Secrets To Eating Healthier At Restaurants

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One of our favorite consumer behavior experts gives us the skinny on eating well when dining out.

Chew on this: Roughly 58 percent of Americans dine out at least once a week -- at restaurants where portions can often be double, even triple, suggested serving sizes. But megameals aren't the only challenge facing people who want to eat healthy: The trouble really begins with the menu, whose design can undermine even the best intentions, says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of the new book Slim By Design. We asked Wansink what to be mindful of when ordering.

Sight Line

Because people typically read menus in a Z pattern, the items along this line are often the ones restaurants think you want. That means the burgers get better, bigger placement than the salads. "Healthier fare will almost always be unboxed, unhighlighted and uncolored and tends to be in the middle right-hand side of the menu," says Wansink. Exactly where you're least likely to look.

Words Have Calories

After analyzing thousands of menu descriptions and the calories in those dishes, Wansink's team found that items labeled "crispy" have, on average, 130 more calories than those lacking the adjective. Dishes described as "marinated" tended to have 60 fewer calories than their unmarinated counterparts.

Gut Check

If you're waffling between a bacon burger and, say, a salad, try this: Think of someone you consider a pillar of health. Then, just before you order, ask yourself, What would [insert name] choose? In research that Wansink has not yet published, he found that this practice can help adults and kids make better choices.

Temptation Too Great?

If you know that just one look at the menu is going to send you over the edge, put it down altogether, says Wansink. "One of the best things a person can do if she wants to eat healthy is ask the waiter, 'What are two or three of the chef's favorite lighter items for someone who's not that hungry?' What you don't want to say is, 'What are your healthier choices?' The minute you say 'healthier,' the waiter will point you to basic salads. But if you phrase the question the right way, you're more likely to get a creative answer. They may suggest a delicious pork chop that sounds heavy but is actually low-cal. You'll eat better and still be satisfied."

Beat The Bread Bowl

Planning to have a slice or two of bread while waiting to order? You may be better off spreading a little butter than dipping your bread in a dish of olive oil, says Wansink. In a study he performed at Italian restaurants, diners given olive oil consumed 19 percent more calories of fat per piece of bread than those given butter.

Ask And You May Receive

If you want that fish broiled instead of fried, don't be afraid to put in a special request. "Unless you're eating at a fast food place, you have a surprising amount of latitude to order what you really want," says Wansink. "We found that even casual dining chains are willing to modify many of their meals. It's amazing how much power we have as consumers that we never use."

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