Your Personal Meal Planning Assistant
June 26, 2017 / Amy Height

No Sugar Restaurant Meals: Hack the Menu

Zucchini noodles with avocado pesto

A low-sugar diet can be one of the trickiest to navigate when dining out. After all, sugar lurks in most processed foods, and most restaurants that use pre-made condiments or even some traditional cooking methods might have all kinds of sugars hiding in their dishes.

But it’s not impossible to find no sugar restaurant meals if you know what to look for before you order. Once you can identify the types of sugar you’re avoiding – and you can navigate a menu to find the most likely good-for-you options – you’ll be able to sail through any dining experience with minimal sugar issues and maximum satiety (yes, it can be done without sugar).

Types of cuisine that will be easiest to navigate

American, Mediterranean, Japanese, Mexican, Paleo and Vegan Restaurants

Know your processed sugars (so you can avoid them)

Once you’ve committed to decreasing your sugar intake, there are a few key categories to look out for when dining out.

The most obvious are processed sugars, which can appear in everything from cookies on the dessert menu to cracker crumb coating on chicken to tomato sauce on your veal parmesan. Know that the form in which these sugars can appear varies across cuisines.

Be aware of anything derived from sugar cane, which can appear as white sugar, cane juice, confectioners sugar, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, yellow sugar, and yes, even organic sugar is sugar. Sweeteners derived from corn – corn syrup, corn syrup solids, golden syrup, corn sweetener, dextrose, dextran – are high in fructose and definitely a no-go if you’re undertaking a sugar-free lifestyle. If it’s mentioned on the menu, it’s probably a key feature of the dish. If it’s not mentioned, it still might be included. Ask to see product labels if you’re unsure.

Agave, maple syrup, honey and date sugar, while unprocessed, may also be poor fits for your lifestyle. (Some people find these don’t affect them as adversely and can help mitigate sugar cravings. Experiment for yourself and see.)

Focus on whole foods

The great thing about simply prepared proteins, veggies and grains is that they’re pretty much going to give you what you’re looking at. Ask how fish, poultry and meats are prepared, and whether veggies and grains are marinated or cooked with ingredients that contain sugar or sweeteners (depending on what you're avoiding - many restaurants won't consider maple or honey to be "sugar," but you might).

International cuisines that focus on whole foods can make great dining out options. Mediterranean food is simple in its preparation and delicious in its spicing, often using little to no sugar at all. Japanese food is also a great way to go: simple fish, cooked and raw veggies, tofu… just skip the sauce and make sure to ask for plain rice (sushi rice contains sugar).

Fast food can even be a do-able option if you skip the sauces and bread (sorry – many chains’ buns are inexplicably loaded with sugar). Build-your-own bowl fast-casual chains, especially those of a Mexican influence, can be awesome on-the-go choices, thanks to their simple ingredients: lettuce, beans, rice, cheese, veggies and guacamole are all sugar-free compliant.

Pass on the fruit

High glycemic fruit like grapes, bananas, kiwi, pineapple, cantaloupe and watermelon have fructose levels much higher than many other fruits. Especially while you’re in the introductory phase of a low-sugar diet, it can be smart to keep these to a minimum. (They can intensity sugar cravings and cause blood sugar spiking.)

Dried fruit like raisins, figs, dates, currants and sweetened dried cranberries can also contain high amounts of sugar. If you’re exploring the menu and come across a salad dressed with cranberries or a veggie side with raisins, ask for these to be omitted (and for something like nuts, seeds or avocado to be swapped in instead).

If fruit is offered as a side, say at breakfast, ask if the kitchen would be willing to make a small salad or grill some tomatoes instead.

Citrus, green apples and berries are your best bets if having fruit is unavoidable.

Stick to simple sauces (or no sauce at all)

Unfortunately, many dressings contain sugar, either in a syrup or dried form, particularly fruity, barbecue, tomato or peanut sauces. Having a salad? Ask for dressing on the side if you’re unsure about what’s in the house’s mix, or inquire about a simple vinaigrette. Oil, vinegar and lemon juice can go a long way!

If proteins are offered with a marinade or sauce, you may be best to skip it and ask for a simply grilled, sauce-free version. (Good news: butter is a-okay on a low-sugar plan, so you can still have your steak butter-finished. Who needs sauce then?)

If the menu features pizza but every tomato sauce has sugar, ask if they’d make you a naked pizza with cheese and other toppings only, or if they might swap in another pasta sauce that was crafted sans sugar.

Focus on fats

When your body is receiving ample fat, it’s less likely to crave sugar. Opt for avocado, ghee, coconut, tahini or other healthy fats to keep your satisfaction high (and your sugar low).

Skip dessert

This might seem obvious and a little sad, but don’t stress: Skipping dessert won’t leave you sitting forlornly while your dining mates indulge. Instead, go back to the appetizer section of the menu and find something savory to cap off the meal. A cheese plate? Calamari? Raw spring rolls? You can get creative (and probably intrigue your server).

Get creative if you don’t see something you love

… or if the options listed on the menu are too tricky to modify. If a food appears on the menu, it probably exists somewhere in the building. Ask if the restaurant would be willing to craft you a little tapas platter with some plain roasted veggies, rice, beans or pulled chicken.

Amy Height
Holistic Nutritionist @ From the Ground Up Wellness

Amy Height is the founder of From the Ground Up Wellness, a holistic nutrition practice where she specializes in plant-based nutrition and helping her clients combat food addiction. She completed her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where she received her certification in the Health Coach Training Program. She is a triathlete and CrossFitter with a passion for all things outdoors. By night, Amy stage manages Broadway musicals and she frequently travels North America seeking out the best vegan restaurants and the best run courses. Follow her on Instagram or check out her blog for recipe and wellness ideas.

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