Dining Out with Diabetes

Dining Out with Diabetes

Dining Out With Diabetes: 6 Menu Words to Avoid

Here’s how to decode a restaurant menu to avoid dishes that might cause sugar spikes.By Aly Walansky October 26, 2021

Senior couple tourist discussing menu while sitting at restaurant in city


Going out to dinner is about more than having someone else cook your meal. Dining out often involves making social connections, staying in touch with friends and family, and, of course, enjoying a relaxing environment where you don’t have to worry about cleaning up before or after the meal.

But if eating at a restaurant presents issues for your diet, or you’re nervous to stray far from foods you trust because of health issues, dining out can do a number on the relaxation you’re supposed to feel. While at a restaurant and examining a menu, a lot goes into deciding what you’ll order. A lot more must be considered if you’re a person with diabetes.ADVERTISING

“For people with certain health conditions, such as diabetes, this choice can feel even more complex,” says Alexa Essenfeld, MS, RDN of Princeton Longevity Center.  “Understanding menu descriptors and what they really mean can help individuals with diabetes navigate through high-carb and high-fat items and select dishes that are more diabetic friendly.” 

Certain words on a menu can mean something else, and you may know a few of these. For example, if you see “golden” or “crispy” and are looking for fried chicken, you know that’s what you are getting. If you want something sweet and tangy, you may get excited seeing words like “honey glazed.”

But if you have health considerations, such as diabetes, then it’s important to pay attention to certain these descriptions and more and proceed with caution. While this is by no means a list of forbidden foods, it is a list of foods you should consider having sparingly and in small amounts. 

Glazed, BBQ, Sticky, Honey, Teriyaki, Sweetened

You likely see these descriptors in relation to foods like ribs or wings. “These terms generally mean that there are hidden/added sweeteners in the meal,” says Meghan Dillon, RD at HelloFresh. “Be wary when meals have these terms in their title, as consuming too much sugar can spike blood sugar levels, which can cause you to feel sick. For example, there is almost 20 grams of sugar in just one tablespoon of honey!”

Tip: Ask for these sauces served on the side to control how much you use. That way you get a taste but don’t accidentally go overboard.

Fried, Deep-Fried, Golden, Crispy, Crunchy

Oh, fried chicken, fried shrimp, and French fries. These foods are all delicious, but they come with a warning label. People with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing heart disease and obesity.

“Minimizing the amount of fried food consumed can reduce the risk of a person with diabetes developing other comorbidities,” Dillon says.

Additionally, Dillon says, some research has found that frying some foods, like potatoes, can increase the starch content which can cause a spike in blood sugars. This doesn’t mean you can’t have these items at all, but go light on them and perhaps pair with a leafy green vegetable.

Breaded, Crusted

What’s a night out without an order of chicken tenders or crispy fried mozzarella sticks? But don’t order those so quickly. Foods that are breaded, crusted, or coated often have more carbohydrates than their non-breaded or crusted counterparts. It’s just math.

“This can increase the total carbohydrates in a meal and cause people to consume more carbohydrates than intended,” Dillon says.

Tip: Ask if it is possible to substitute breaded or crusted foods with their baked, broiled, or grilled counterparts. They can be rather delicious, too.

Creamy, Smothered, Stuffed, Loaded

Creamy Alfredo, gravy and biscuits, smothered pork chops. Who doesn’t love foods topped in creamy sauces? But before you order, you have to understand what those phrases means.

Meals labeled with these words tend to be higher in fat, specifically saturated fat.

“People with diabetes should be mindful of the amount of saturated fat they are consuming as having this disease increases one’s risk of developing heart disease,” Dillion says.

Creamy menu items also usually contain a thick full-fat dairy-based sauce.

“Menu items high in saturated fats may worsen insulin resistance even if they do not contain a lot of carbohydrates,” Essenfeld says. In addition, most items with a creamy sauce are accompanied by a carbohydrate such as pasta or potatoes.

Tip: “Instead of creamy potato soup, try quinoa and vegetable soup,” Essenfeld says. You cut back on the saturated fat, and you’re getting a serving of vegetables and whole grains.


We tend to look at wraps as a healthier alternative to a sandwich or hero. And they can be, but not always. Although wraps may look like they don’t have as many carbs as bread, looks can be deceiving.

“A large tortilla usually contains about 35 grams of carbohydrates. This would be the equivalent of having a large Kaiser roll or just under three slices of bread,” Essenfeld says. One idea is to look for a higher fiber whole-wheat or multigrain bread. Other indicators that something will be less bready include phrases such as “open-faced” or “lettuce wrap.” 

Double Carbs

In addition to tricky menu terms, there are other things to be aware of when you’re placing an order at a restaurant. Avoid having “double carbs” during a meal. For example, a burrito with rice.

“Skip the tortilla and have rice be your main source of carbs in a burrito bowl. This also means limiting the tortilla chips as well,” Essenfeld says. 

Another example would be bread and pasta. “If the bread on the table is too hard to resist then choose a salad as your main entrée with lean protein,” Essenfeld says. 

One of Essenfeld’s favorite examples of double carbs is a sandwich with potato chips: “Swap out the potato chips for a small package of mixed nuts or a piece of fruit.” Although fruit contains sugar, the fiber and other nutrients in it make fruit an important part of everyone’s diets, people with diabetes included.

How to Navigate the Menu Without Feeling Deprived

It’s OK to take pleasure in the foods you enjoy. But it’s important people with diabetes be aware, mindful, and make the best decisions as often as you can. Here’s some things to keep in mind when ordering food at a restaurant:

1. Order and divide. Restaurant portions tend to be larger than an appropriate portion size. “Consider eating half the meal and taking the rest home for leftovers the next day,” Dillion says.

2. Sauces on the side. Sauces and dressings can have hidden sugars that can spike blood sugars. “Get these items on the side to control how much of these decadent ingredients are being added,” Dillion says.

3. Look at the menu beforehand. “Many restaurants post their nutrition information online, which can help you make informed decisions about what to eat,” Dillon says. If you are craving a hamburger but it looks like that meal is high in carbs, consider eating half of the burger, subbing the sides, or taking the top of the bun off.

4. Ask the server to switch the side. “If the meal comes with French fries or chips, request substituting for a side of broccoli or steamed veggies,” Dillon says.

5. Browse the appetizers. “If you are craving something off the appetizer’s sections, consider having that as your meal or pairing with a salad with chicken or fish,” Dillon says.

6. Consider eating a snack before going to the restaurant. “When we are not starving, we tend to think more rationally and make smarter food decisions,” Dillon says.

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