Can You Still Eat Out if You’re Tracking Calories and Macros?
One of the biggest causes of stress for some people who track their macros or calories, is eating out.
You’re not going to know how many calories and macros are in restaurant or fast food.
As long as it’s just a one off and you’re not doing this all the time, you need to relax and let it go. It’s just one meal. It isn’t going to make any real difference in the grand scheme of things.
And if you need to regularly grab food out, I’ve got several strategies to keep you on track, which we’ll look at in this post.
Beware Restaurant Nutritional Information
If you’re eating out every day, or several times a week, this WILL affect your results.
The restaurant may supply the calorie and macronutrient information. You can use these as a guideline. Compared to making your own food and using digital scales to measure out all the ingredients, they’re not really accurate.
You have to remember that the people making the food aren’t too bothered about whether a sandwich had 10 or 15 grams of fat in it.
Are they weighing out the grated cheese in subway? Did the person who made all the sandwiches in Pret ensure they all got the same amount of salmon? Are the guys in Dominos putting exactly the same amount of cheese and pepperoni on all of the pizzas? Of course they’re not.
Maybe the nutritional information would average out roughly correct over a large number of meals. However, I would say it varies greatly from meal to meal.
For a one-off meal, you won’t be that far off where you need to be if you use their nutritional information. However, if you’re doing it 5 times a week, every week, those inaccuracies begin to add up.
What to do when you’re eating out and you’re trying to lose fat
If your goal is fat loss, eating out is fairly straightforward.
You’re going to have to try to tick these three boxes (in order of importance):
- Calories are low enough that you’ll be able to stay within your calorie deficit for the day
- Meal is filling
- Meal is high in protein
If this is just a one-off, you can even just eat at maintenance. All it means is ONE DAY where you weren’t in a deficit. That’s not going to make you gain back any fat. It’s just going to be one day where you didn’t lose any fat, amongst a week where you did on the other 6 days.
If you’re just grabbing something for lunch on the go, pick somewhere where the calories and macronutrients are readily available (just remember the inaccuracies I spoke about).
For quick lunches on the go, try:
When I’m in a fat loss phase, the lunches I make and bring with me can easily have 80 grams of protein and only 450 calories. I’m never going to manage to find something like this while I’m out. I’ll probably struggle to hit my protein targets without having to supplement with whey protein later. For this reason, I choose something with as few calories as possible. Usually a salad.
Boots is another good option as their meal deal allows you to include a protein bar and a protein shake. However, the calories in those make Boots a better option when you’re trying to gain muscle.
What about proper, sit down meals?
This is where it gets a bit more difficult, and you’re going to have to use what you’ve learned from tracking food to guide you.
If you’re going to a proper restaurant, and you want to stay on track, then you need to look at the menu and pick the thing that’s likely to have lower calories and higher protein.
Fat is 9 calories per gram, so you have to try to avoid things that are higher in it.
That means avoiding chicken wings or thighs, fattier cuts of meat like ribeye, ribs, fatty fish like salmon and anything deep fried or battered.
Try to pick a meal based around lean protein.
I there’s chicken or turkey breast on the menu, that’s a great option, provided it’s not battered or covered in a creamy sauce. Sirloin steak is the best steak to go for. White fish is another great option – like cod (without batter), tuna or prawns – just watch out for high calorie sauces.
Ask for dressings and sauces on the side if possible. Avoid things with lots of bread, rice or pasta, or simply try to estimate the calories in these and decide if you can afford to have them. Also avoid things that come with avocado, nuts or olive oil. These high fat foods will rack up calories quickly.
My favourite strategy is to order a steak, because it usually tells you on the menu what weight it is. 10 ounce sirloin? That can be put straight into myfitnesspal. With some green vegetables on the side you can account for another 100 or so calories (over-estimating). This is a great way to get a nice meal out, fairly error free!
What about when gaining muscle?
When you’re trying to gain muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus. This makes eating out much less stressful.
You still need to get enough protein, but you don’t have to worry about the calorie count as much.
I still try to have a fairly good idea of the amount of calories because I like to be just as strict about my calorie surplus as I am about my deficit. Too large a surplus doesn’t lead to any extra muscle gain, it just speeds up the rate of fat gain.
If you’re just eating out as a one off, then I would say don’t worry about having too many calories. However, if it’s a regular occurrence you definitely shouldn’t see it as an excuse to not track your calories and end up eating way more than you really should.
This is what would regularly happen to me:
I’d start the day tracking. I’d record my foods as usual, and have every intention of sticking to my pre-determined number of calories (just a small surplus) and my protein/carbs/fat ratio.
Then I’d eat out (as I was in a job that involved a lot of team, vendor and client lunches). I’d be tempted by everything on the menu.
I’d therefore consume a lot of calories, but I wouldn’t know how many I had consumed. I would then second guess myself and end up eating some more highly palatable calories “just to be sure” I was definitely in a surplus for the day. This meant going to the shop and buying a couple of 500 calorie “grab bags” of chocolate.
What was probably happening was I was consuming far too many calories and not knowing where I should stop. It’s not that easy to estimate restaurant food because of all the things they add to it to make it taste delicious!
What I do now if I eat too many calories in a muscle building phase is this:
I try to estimate how many calories I ate. If I have no idea, then I assume it was on the high side (because it usually is when you eat out), and I try to get back on track with the next meal. The next meal will then be lower in calories so I can come in around, or closer to, my daily calorie surplus.
I would now rather have a one-off day where I ended up NOT being in a calorie surplus, than have one-off days where I’ve gone way past my calorie limit. That’s because all of those extra calories beyond what was necessary to build muscle will just end up being extra fat you have to lose later.
It could also be the next day that is lower in calories. If I ate out for dinner and ate a lot of calories, I might get some of those calories back from the next day’s dinner, or by skipping the next day’s breakfast.