Eliminating Sugar from Diet: Hack the Menu
A low-sugar diet can be one of the trickiest to navigate when dining out. As disciplined as you may be with healthy meal planning at home, eating out is a different story. 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. This can make eliminating sugar from your diet seem like an impossible feat.
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
- Vegan Restaurants
Want to get the full scoop on clean eating? Read our ultimate clean eating guide for more information on how to eat clean.
Know Your Processed Sugars (so you can avoid them)
Once you’ve committed to cutting out sugar, or at least 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 eliminating sugar from your diet. 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, thus great options if you are cutting out sugar.
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 in tying together salad ingredients while eliminating sugar from your diet.
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 while cutting out sugar.
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 when you're trying to eliminate sugar from your diet. 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.
Eliminating sugar from your diet doesn’t mean you need to stop eating out! If you’re following clean eating meal plans at home but struggle to stick to the same concepts when dining out, we hope these hacks will become second nature.